Update: Digital Film Historiography – A Bibliography

Since 2014 I have been putting together a bibliography of scholarly literature which in one way or another addresses aspects of using and analyzing digitised archival film or film-related sources in research. In particular I have been interested in how scholars currently recast old traditions of film historical research or imagine new ones with digital techniques and tools of analysis. As the bibliography kept growing bigger I began to feel it was necessary to turn it into a thematic bibliography which in a clearer way shows which publications belong to different research traditions. To achieve this, I have recently grouped the publications into a few categories – eight in total. The categories are:

  1. Audiovisal Essays, Found Footage and Remix Culture
  2. CD-Roms, Historical-Critical DVD Editions and Annotation
  3. Stylometry and Cinemetrics
  4. New Cinema History, Databases and GIS
  5. Online Collections, Presentation and Curation
  6. Digital Film Restoration and Historiography
  7. Scientific Visualization, Visual Studies and Epistemology
  8. Digital Exhibition Design and Museology

While I find these categories fairly accurate and productive they are of course debatable, but this is how I felt the publications should be grouped together at this point. I think most of them speak for themselves but my choices of which publications to include in which sections do perhaps require some explanation. On the most basic level, it is a condition for me that a publication offers – in some way – a reflection on film historiography by discussing either a theory, model, method or representational practice which is computer-based or which uses digitised sources or digital means of analytical intervention. As a consequence many publications which discuss these categories/themes but which do not address digitisation or computerised methods have been left out. For instance for section one on “Audiovisual Essays, Found Footage and Remix Culture” there are many essays and monographs which in the past decades have dealt with the interrelation between filmic appropriation practices and film historiography but which fall out of my bibliography’s scope because they do not discuss for instance digital video editing techniques or the use of digitised film collections. The same goes for a section such as “Stylometry and Cinemetrics” which does leave out some of the fundamental reference literature for statistical style analysis from BC (Before Computers) in favour of more recent publications. Of course, it goes without saying that the bibliography is not comprehensive (suggestions and comments are more than welcome on c.g.olesen_at_uva.nl !).

When reorganising the bibliography I also updated all the links associated with the publications, when applicable, so they should – at least for the moment – be working fine and forward you to additional, useful information. In addition, this update provided an opportunity for me to add more publications which have recently come to my attention. One title which I am particularly excited about is the recent monograph by film scholar and archivist Adelheid Heftberger (Austrian Filmmuseum), Kollision der Kader – Dziga Vertovs Filme, die Visualisierung ihrer Strukturen und die Digital Humanities, on the computer-based visualization of structures within Dziga Vertov’s films. This is the outcome of Heftberger’s fascinating doctoral research and the Digital Formalism project in which she meticulously annotated the shots in a group of Vertov films using the open source software Anvil. By doing this it became possible to visualize structures in Vertov’s work using different kinds of scientific, visual analytics (such as MatLab and ImageJ). In her book she discusses the broader implications of these methods both for Vertov research and for the digital humanities. The book is published in a new series on Film Heritage (Filmerbe) directed by Professor in Audiovisual Heritage Chris Wahl at the Filmuniversität Babelsberg Konrad Wolf in Potsdam. Somewhat related – but fundamentally different in its approach and scope – I have also added and recently acquired film scholar André Habib’s book La Main gauche de Jean-Pierre Léaud (Les Éditions du Boréal, 2015). Habib’s book aspires to combine a more anarchic, cinephile tradition of film appreciation with contemporary, representational practices opening with a reflection on the evocative potential of the beautiful visualizations of among other films Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (USA, 1960) created by San Francisco-based artist Jim Campbell. Made with ImageJ techniques (or, at least entirely reminiscent of scientific visualizations created with ImageJ techniques) Habib, I think, may with his book possibly be opening a path for film scholars who draw on cinephile theory to historicize films and who wish to define and appropriate such visualizations to their own ends within this tradition. It undoubtedly promises an exciting read in the near future!

kollisionderkader

Ken Jacobs and Early Cinema Studies

Tuesday next week I have the great honor of presenting a film program titled ‘Ken Jacobs and Early Cinema Studies’ around Ken Jacobs avant-garde classic Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (USA, 1969-71)in the EYE Filmmuseum’s E-Cinema Academy screening series. Apart from Jacobs’ film the program will feature works by Noël Burch and Peter Tscherkassky. Below you can read my description of the program and background essay which were posted on E-Cinema Academy’s blog.

jacobs_tompipers

EYE on Art

Program Description

Tom, Tom

This evening presents a program dedicated to Ken Jacobs avant-garde classic Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969-1971). The films in the program highlights its contribution to the revision of early cinema’s history, which occurred throughout the 1970s, and its repercussions in contemporary experimental filmmaking.

Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son appropriates cameraman Billy Bitzer’s homonymous film from 1905. When Jacobs rented an archival print of it for teaching purposes in the late 1960s, he was astonished by its composition which, not containing the conventional analytical editing of later mainstream cinema, made it difficult to discern the central action and characters. To explore and understand its form and modes of address, Jacobs began performing with the film on an analytical projector with a variable-speed function in reverse and forward projection mode, and to focus on details in the image by filming it from behind a translucent screen. The…

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SCMS 2014

I am currently attending the annual conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. The 55th of its kind which is taking place in Seattle this year. Yesterday I gave a talk to a small but dedicated crowd on video essays as a (possible) research practice in film historical scholarship and was overall quite happy with how it went. You can read the abstract for my presentation below.

So, now it is time to enjoy a wealth of great talks and projections until Sunday. I am especially looking forward to Saturday’s screening of Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic (1957/1962) together with a program of classic experimental films by among others Jud Yalkut. The remaining days will also be a time for meeting people with whom I share research interests and who I do not get a chance to see often, and of course to drink coffee; Seattle is full of great cafés!

scms seattle

From Film Historiography to Videography: Film Historical Video Essays as Scolarly Research Practice 

Recently established online academic journals and video communities such as Frames Cinema Journal and Audiovisualcy testify to an increased tendency to research film history in the form of video essays. While films on film history have existed in the forms of compilation films since the 1920s as a means of discerning aesthetically significant films, and in filmic appropriation art and documentaries since the late 1960s at a nexus with academic film history, the proliferation of scholarly video essays indicates that audiovisual film history is gaining momentum as a conventional scholarly practice. With attention to this development, this paper adresses the need for developing standards for assessing scholarly video essays and critically evaluate the perspectives they establish on film history. The aim of raising such a discussion the paper stresses, is to facilitate the further integration of the scholarly video essay into academia as a research practice. To answer how this could be done, the paper proposes a conceptual avenue which combines meta-historical perspectives from scholarship on filmic appropration art and current debates in digital humanities on the evaluation of digital scholarship.

To bridge these two perspectives the paper takes its cue from the recent introduction to digital scholarship, Digital_Humanities (MIT Press, 2012), co-authored by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp which invokes the subjective filmmaking of Chris Marker and Errol Morris as a conceptual model for evaluating time-based digital scholarship1. Departing from their proposition, the paper reflects upon the intersection between scholarly film historiography and independent filmmaking, thinking along the lines of film scholar Bart Testa’s conception of filmic appropriations as ”pedagogical interventions” applicable for teaching in film studies curricula (Testa, 1992) and the meta-historical perspective developed by film scholar Christa Blümlinger on the appropration works of Jean-Luc Godard, Ken Jacobs and Alexander Kluge (Blümlinger, 2009). Mobilizing key concepts from these scholars’ works such as moment, materiality and re-enactment in relation to examples of video essays from Frames and Audiovisualcy, the paper expounds on these concepts’ applicability as scholarly standards for evaluating film historical video essays, to conclusively propose a new direction for their further integration into scholarly practice.

Perforated by accident – When a digital film transfer accidentally becomes structural filmmaking

Back in 2012 I bought a handful of Soviet silent classics by Vsevolod Pudovkin, Boris Barnet, Yakov Protazanov and Aleksandr Dovzhenko from the French DVD publisher Bach films. Overall, the digital transfers of the films which can be found on these DVDs are of a very varying quality: sometimes they are pretty decent, while other times the image is fuzzy leaving no doubt that the transfer has been made from a VHS source of very dubious quality.

In spite of this, the DVDs are quite interesting and come highly recommended. They always contain interesting extras; rare shorts of the mentioned directors, television documentaries on the directors and actors (especially the release of Protazanov’s Father Sergius (1917) which contains the excellent documentary on actor Ivan Mozzhukhin’s life and career in Paris, Ivan Mosjoukine ou l’enfant du carnaval (Galina Domatovskaia, 1999)). In addition, the DVDs – at least when found in shops and not online – are usually in the price range of three euros which makes the personal economic casualty of buying a DVD with a bad transfer of a hard-to-find film quite bearable.

But there are also more unforeseeable effects to be experienced when looking at these films in these particular editions – looking is meant here in the sense intended by many film preservationists who tend to ignore content or story, while paying attention to a film’s material properties. Poor digital transfers is of course the result of carelessly supervised transferring and this leaves room for some artifacts within the image of several of these films which the most neatly restored versions of film classics from other DVD companies such as for example the Criterion Collection and Masters of CInema would probably never leave in there. Often I have witnessed artifacts which were printed- in, in the film copy to then remain in the digital transfer of a film: of course cue dots from 35mm prints which is quite common to encounter but also more interestingly, on the Bach films editions, sprocket holes appearing in the midst of the frame running over the screen.

The effect created by the latter type of artifacts was particularly striking and peculiar when I watched the edition of The New Babylon (Grigori Kosintsev and Leonid Trauberg, 1929), an effect which I cannot recall ever experiencing in my career as a DVD aficionado. It could be said to add a material reflexive dimension to this classic silent film, which depicts the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871, centering on a troubled love story between two individuals on each their side of the conflict between the commune and republican France; a doubting soldier and a militant woman. The transfer had quite evidently been made from a VHS, but nonetheless it was clear that these printed-in artifacts had remained in the frame, very far from where they should be in this type of film. Curiously, I registered that the presence of these artifacts reached its highest intensity in the film’s climactic scenes when the Paris Commune falls. All of a sudden, sprocket holes appear in the midst of battle scenes, while the troubled lovers stare at them running over the screen. This made the film appear as anything but a silent classic, but rather a materialist film in the vein of 1960s and 1970s structural filmmaking such as George Landow’s classic Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (1966), or more recent found footage works such as Peter Tscherkassky’s Cinemascope Trilogy (1997-2001), especially actress Barbara Hershey’s heroic fight with sprocket holes and optical soundtracks in Outer Space‘s (Peter Tscherkassky, 2000) flickering climax.

This accidental analogy made me think that, while slickness and clean images usually are the first things many would associate with digital imagery – and especially digital transfers – the reality of digitisation is much more complex, and sometimes as in the case of Bach films transfers can induce involuntary reflection on the materialities of film in the digital domain. While one could ponder at length about the deontology and ethics involved – or rather lacking – in such transferring practices, I prefer to think of them in this case – and with a touch of irony – of an accidental material reflexivity which can invite further interrogation and reflection on what the transition from analog to digital implies for our experience of film classics and archival films.

I have made a couple of screen captures – a feature of the digital viewing experience which enables me to indulge in this phenomenon – which I include here below. The characters in these shots are thoughtfully looking toward the perforations, to the right in the first example, almost in an angelic manner in the second, slightly confused in the third and (perhaps) perplexed in the fourth.

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Perf Babylon

NECSUS Interview on EYE Film Institute Netherlands’ Bits & Pieces

The latest issue of NECSUS – European Journal of Media Studies, #4 with the theme ‘Waste’, has been published today. For this issue I interviewed silent film collection specialist Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi and senior curator Mark-Paul Meyer at the EYE Film Institute Netherlands on their work with the unique Bits & Pieces compilations of film fragments. I have included my introduction to the interview below, the entire interview can be read here.

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bp417-2

Frame grab from Bits & Pieces fragment no. 417.

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“Since the late 1980s, EYE Film Institute Netherlands (formerly the Nederlands Filmmuseum) has been collecting and preserving unidentified film fragments from its collection to create an ongoing series of compilations titled Bits & Pieces. The compilations consist of fragments which the majority of film archives would tend to disregard in favour of restoring complete films, but which EYE considers to contain a certain kind of cinematic beauty which deserves to be preserved and shown. Currently, the series counts 623 fragments, each of which has been assigned a number, and spread out on 56 reels of 300 meters.

The initiative to create Bits & Pieces was taken at a time when film archives increasingly developed different institutional deontologies of preservation and when film historians went into film archives in a revisionist spirit to rediscover neglected directors, actors, exhibition practices, and technologies. The Nederlands Filmmuseum – then headed by deputy director Eric de Kuyper and assisted by staff members Peter Delpeut and Mark-Paul Meyer – gained a significant reputation at this time by propagating the view that film historians continued to neglect the fact that film archives contained a substantial amount of film fragments which could not be attributed to an author or fit into an aesthetic school. Pointing to a discrepancy between the theory of film history and film archival practice, the Filmmuseum’s staff began to plea for new forms of presenting and valorising the fragments they found, which ultimately materialised in the Bits & Pieces project.[1]

Since then, Bits & Pieces compilations have been in high demand. They are continuously programmed in festivals and have provided source material in numerous filmic appropriation works – uses that have received widespread attention in literature on found footage and recycled cinema. However, it remains relatively unknown how the curators work with the collection on a daily basis and how their selection has developed since its launch. In this interview the current curators of Bits & Pieces – silent film collection specialist Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, involved in Bits & Pieces since 2000, and senior curator Mark-Paul Meyer – met for a conversation about the appraisal of fragments at EYE and the initiative’s imperative in a past and present perspective. The interview took place in the nitrate identification facilities of EYE located on the outskirts of Amsterdam.”