Du cinéma autrement – 50 Years of La Cinémathèque de Toulouse

During the Christmas break I went to Toulouse in the South of France. I have family there so I go two-three times a year. Excitingly, this year my vacation coincided with the 50th-anniversary of the Cinémathèque de Toulouse which was marked by the exhibition ”Du cinéma autrement – 50 ans de cinémathèque à Toulouse”. As the Cinémathèque’s building in Rue du Taur does not have an exhibition space large enough for hosting an exhibition of this scale, it had been installed at the Médiathèque José Cabanis, close to the Gare Matabiau, on three floors.

The exhibition provided an insight into several of the core aspects of preservation and presentation in a cinémathèque with an emphasis on the collection building of one of its founding figures: Raymond Borde. Divided into ten sections the exhibition covered topics and collections as diverse as late-nineteenth century optical devices, the relationships between a cinémathèque, amateur collectors, directors and foreign institutions and their role in collection building, posters in different languages and the contribution of a regional cinémathèque in the creation of a local film culture.

Below are some notes, impressions and photos.

Raymond Borde and La Cinémathèque de Toulouse

The Cinémathèque de Toulouse was founded in 1964 and is today the second largest cinemathèque in France. Apart from La Cinémathèque française it is the only French film heritage institution with the status of a national cinémathèque (yet, there are plenty of other smaller cinémathèques in France in Nice, Perpignan, Marseille, Brest and Lyon for example…). As most cinémathèques it branched out from a ciné-club or film society – in this case the Ciné-club de Toulouse – and its foundation is mostly associated with its leading film critic and historian Raymond Borde (1920-2002). Borde was in particular an authority on Soviet cinema and on film noir, subjects on which his studies remain groundbreaking still today. Especially the monograph Panorama du film noir américain. 1941-1953 (translated into English as A Panorama of American Film Noir. 1941-1953) which he co-wrote with film critic Etienne Chaumeton is a defining film noir genre study.

RaymondBorde

Borde was also a fervent surrealist belonging to the circle of André Breton and a communist who wrote sulphurous critiques against practically any kind of bourgeois institutions and conventions. In this respect, Borde’s pamphlet from 1964 – L’extricable – had wide repercussions both in surrealist circles and in French mainstream culture. It was enthiusiastically acclaimed by Breton and Luis Buñuel and provided great inspiration for Georges Brassens whose enthusiasm for the pamphlet made him buy around fifty copies which he would hand out to good friends with dedications. Written in a deliberately cruel, aggressive and anarchist tone L’extricable contains ridiculing of anything from family structures, academic culture and consumerism.

The scholarly part of Borde’s literary output is more low-key and rigorous compared to his surrealist writings. Yet, there remains a distinct directness to his style which reflects his ideological and political concerns. In general, Borde was not a person to filter his opinions. Ironically, this would cause a backlash when as a consequence of 1968’s ‘Langlois affair’ he was excluded from surrealist circles because he went against Henri Langlois, La Cinémathèque française’s director, when the French ministry of culture, then headed by André Malraux, wished film critic Pierre Barbin to replace Langlois.

For the field of film preservation, Borde’s importance as a writer and historiographer has also been immense. His monograph Les Cinémathèques (L’age d’homme, 1984) arguably remains the most thoroughly researched and comprehensive historical account of the film preservation movement’s emergence from 1920s cinephile culture, its institional antecedents in scientific film archiving and the transformation of cinémathèques into state-subsidized institutions (in Europe at least) which created stronger ties to for example UNESCO to promote their mission of preservation.

Du Cinéma autrement – The Exhibition

With such a status and rich legacy the Cinémathèque de Toulouse certainly has something to celebrate with its 50 years anniversary and a good reason for creating an exhibition to mark the event. Not surprisingly, the role of Borde in the institution’s history was highlighted by showing how the different facets of his interests and activities have shaped the collection building of La Cinémathèque de Toulouse to this very day. The cinémathèque for instance has an exceptional collection of Soviet cinema, arguably the most important outside of Russia. As the current director Natacha Laurent – herself a great authority on Soviet cinema, author of a monograph on film censorship under Stalin L’oeil du Kremlin. Cinéma et censure en URSS sous Staline (Privat, 2000) – explains in the accompanying booklet which accompanies the exhibition, Borde and the Cinémathèque de Toulouse developed exceptionally strong ties to the Gosfilmofond and the Cinemateca de Cuba which its film and poster collections benefited immensely from. It was also via its connection to the Gosfilmofond that the Cinémathèque de Toulouse managed to repratriate the camera negative of Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion (France, 1937), which, according to legend, the Russians had taken with them from Germany immediately after the second world war.

As the photos below testify to the cinémathèque’s collection is however far from limited to its rich collection of Soviet cinema.

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Poster for Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion (France, 1937). The blurb to the left of the poster explains that the Gosfilmofond decided to give back the film’s original negative in the mid-1970s some 30 years after the Red Army – at least that is how the story goes – had brought the elements with them from Berlin as a war trophy. In the display case are exhibited cans from the Gosfilmofond as well as correspondences with Raymond Borde. It can be read in these letters that Borde would for example give copies of the film journal Positif, which he was involved in for many years, in exchange of elements from the Gosfilmofond.

la grande illusion

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As a surrealist collector who did not distinguish between high and low culture – an approach which is arguably in the very DNA of cinephilia – it is perhaps not surprising that Raymond Borde showed a great interest in the work of Jean Rollin, prominent French director of vampire sleaze (very often referred to simply – and somewhat unjustly – as the ‘French Jess Franco’). Next to the section on La grande illusion and the Gosfilmofond a display case with props and film related material from Rollin’s La vampire nue (France, 1970) had been installed.

Jean Rollin

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The section ‘Aux origines du cinéma’ displayed objects from different periods of silent cinema and optical devices dating from the period prior to cinema’s emergence. Below a manual for film tinting and toning (I believe from the mid-1920s and probably a Pathé manual but I did not write it down).

colour manual

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One of the most urgent tasks facing film heritage institutions in an era of transition toward digitisation is to convey the materiality of analogue film. The exhibition had gone for a very simple, pedagogical but also effective solution. Snippets of film in different formats from 8mm to 70mm had been mounted on a lightboard and could be touched and examined with magnifying glasses hanging next to it.

film formats

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A special, limited edition copy of the surrealist film journal L’âge du cinéma published under the direction of film critic and director Ado Kyrou. Six issues appeared in 1951-1952 focusing on avant-garde and experimental cinema. The signatures on the right page include among others Man Ray, André Breton, Jean-Louis Bédouin and Jindrich Heisler who contributed to the issue.

lageducinema

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Letter from Robert Aldrich to Raymond Borde from 1956 in response to Borde’s questions on Aldrich’s television works from 1952-1954.

bordealdrich

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The exhibition also included a section on the relationship between amateur collectors and the cinémathèque. For the Cinémathèque de Toulouse the extensive stills and poster collection would not have been quite the same without the indefatigable work of collectors such as Max Montané and Thomas Hill. Max Montané for instance build up a considerable collection of Hollywood still photographs of which he received a large part from Robert Florey. Often the relationships between cinémathèques and collectors are not widely discussed or transparent and yet cinémathèques have traditionally relied heavily on the idiosyncratic collection building of passionate individuals to enrich their own collections.

Lescollectioneurs

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This is what the facade of La Cinémathèque de Toulouse’s building in Rue du Taur 69 looks like. Once the home of Ciné Espoir which had close ties to the Spanish socialist movement that gained a strong foothold in Toulouse after the Spanish civil war, the Cinémathèque’s cinemas and research library are now located in this building. In the summer months the court yard is used for the annual open air screening series ‘Cinéma en plein air’.

ruedutaur

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Below is an image of the new film and DVD shop of the bookstore Ombres blanches (not a part of the Cinémathèque, but I had to post it here). Ombres blanches is a legendary bookstore in Toulouse founded in 1975. It has always been renowned for its extremely wide assortment and specialized staff who know exactly what they are talking about when they give advice. In the past five-six years Ombres blanches has kept growing and especially its cinema section has become more and more developed. Going to Toulouse at a 4-5 months interval I have been able to follow this first-hand and see how the book and DVD sections only expanded and got more specialized. This development has now culminated in the opening of an entire bookstore devoted only to cinema at a separate location (just in front of the old shop in Rue Gambetta) named Ombres & Lumières: shadows and lights. Below a frieze containing a list of classic auteurs one enters a haven of film books both classic and new. This is quite incredible in a time when specialized bookstores are often regarded as belonging to a bygone era. A must for the cinephile visitor!

ombresblanches

Travelogue June and July: Zürich, Luxembourg, Bologna, Lausanne

It has been quiet on my research blog since April. In May I was busy wrapping up the spring semester’s teaching, supervision and research activities and in June and July I went to conferences and workshops in Switzerland and Luxembourg that each related to my research in different ways. Finally I also returned to the archival film festival Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. To mark the start of the new academic year, I provide a little travelogue containing some impressions from those events below.

Zürich, Filmpodium, June 5: Tagung Film im Digitalen Zeitalter

June 5, I attended the conference of the Diastor research team in Zürich – Tagung Film in Digitalen Zeitalter – which took place at the Filmpodium cinema centrally located in the beautiful Nüschelerstrasse. The conference had been organized to mark the mid-point of the Diastor research project of the University of Zürich – a project also mentioned in my previous post – on the restauration and presentation of historical film colours led by Professor Barbara Flückiger. Of a short one-day conference it provided an exceptionally rich and strong program consisting of a wide array of both international and national speakers, combining the kind of state-of-the-art research film preservation talks which one is most likely to see at the annual conferences for the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) in the US, with highly interesting contributions from Swiss film and media archivists.

While there were many fascinating talks I was particularly struck by two. Deputy Director at the Finnish Film Archive Mikko Kuutti’s presentation Scanning and Preserving Film Heritage – From Ideas to Daily Routine was a thorough technical and scientific reflection on the scanning work which is being done on a daily basis at the Finnish film archive, as well as the possible perception of this work in a cinema setting. First, Kuutti gave a walkthrough of the advantages and shortcomings of the scanning work done at the Finnish Film Archive, focusing – as presentations of archival digitization work mostly – on issues of resolution or contrast as parameters for assessing digitization work. Yet, what was particularly interesting in Kuutti’s presentation – I found – was that the question was also flipped around from focusing uniquely on how much we should be able to see to how much we actually can see when we are sitting in the cinema, watching the cinema screen from different angles and viewing positions. Guiding the attendants through mathematical layouts of possible audience experiences and perceptions of resolution in a cinema, Kuutti explained how we might reconsider and reframe the discussion of resolution standards in digital projection from this different perspective.

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Kuutti

Diagram from Mikko Kuutti’s presentation explaining his calculations of visions of the cinema screen from different distances in a cinema.

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From the Swiss archival world it was also an eye-opener to see the talk given by David Landoff, Director of the small predominantly volunteer-driven cinémathèque Lichtspiel Kino in Bern, which was founded in 2000 on the basis of the extensive collection of Bernese film technician Walther A. Ritschard. Lichtspiel Kino is a small film heritage institution with a broad scope of preservation of films, technology and film-related material, which stresses the importance of letting visitors interact with objects held in the institution’s collections, with – it appears – an almost invisible line between exhibition space and collection vault. To demonstrate how this interaction takes place on a daily basis, Landoff’s presentation was mostly made up of photos from screenings – with only very few comments, a feature of Landoff’s presentation which I think worked very effectively – and behind-the-scenes preservation work to display remarkable depictions of objects, workshops and screenings at the institution. The photo below which was a part of the presentation depicts the cinema of the Lichtspiel Kino which shows how closely these two spheres of the institution are connected.

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Lichtspiel Kino

A screening at the Lichtspiel kino in Bern. More photos from David Landoff’s presentation can be found here.

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To explain the advantages of this setting, Landoff played a pun on filmmaker and co-founder of the Austrian Filmmmuseum Peter Kubelka’s idea of an Unsichtbare Kino – also more widely known in English as ‘Invisible Cinema’ – the cinema design which Kubelka made for the Anthology Film Archives in New York and the Austrian Filmmuseum in Vienna where one is completely immersed in a black box cinema and where the cinema seat is an actual booth which separates the spectator from the person sitting in the adjoining chair to create a complete immersion. What the Lichtspiel Kino instead proposes to an educational end is a Sichtbare Kino, a ‘Visible Cinema’, where he cinema apparatus and collection is visible to the audience simultaneously with the screening.

Altogether it was a great day in Zürich which the Diastor team – including Claudy op den Kamp, David Pfluger and Franciska Heller under the direction of Barbara Flückiger – had put together. The program and presentations can be found here.

Luxembourg Ville, Université du Luxembourg, June 20-21: Dispositif workshop

Two weeks later on June 20 in the early morning I took a train from Amsterdam down to Luxembourg to discuss different variations of dispositif theory in philosophy and film theory at the Université de Luxembourg with a small group of dedicated researchers in architecture, philosophy and media studies coming from the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany. The workshop was hosted by newly appointed Professor of Digital History Andreas Fickers at the Université du Luxembourg and was partly organized by the team of the collaborative research project of the Universities of Groningen and Maastricht on amateur film titled Changing platforms of ritualized memory practices: The cultural dynamics of home movies. The workshop provided a welcome forum for me to discuss many of the overlaps which the dispositif concept shares with related theoretical approaches such as Actor-Network Theory, Media Archaeology or just plain media theory for understanding techno-cultural networks and the agency of the elements which constitute them, which for me was one of the deeper concerns in the first year of my PhD-trajectory where I had to articulate a theoretical framework for my research. While it would go too far to depict the discussions in great detail here, my contribution discussed how the theory of history of French historian and anthropologist Michel de Certeau, which I find particularly interesting because of its emphasis on the agency of the tools and technologies with which sholars produce historical knowledge, could be combined with more recent rethinkings of the dispositif concept by film theorists and historians such as François Albera and Maria Tortajada as a way of understanding how digital formats such as DVDs, geomapping or videoessays in different ways sustain different discourses on film history.

A short report on the workshop written by one of the organizers, PhD Candidate at Maastricht University Tim van der Heijden, can be read here.

Bologna, La Cineteca di Bologna, 28 June-5 July: Il Cinema Ritrovato 2014

I also attended this year’s edition of the film history festival Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, the twentyeighth of its kind. It was my fifth time at Il Cinema Ritrovato since 2006 when I first attended and it was perhaps the edition I enjoyed the most. Things had changed – it appeared to me – since I last attended in 2012. First of all the evening programming had been expanded. Where the evening programs used to only offer one screening at around 22.00 in Bologna’s main square Piazza Maggiore one can now choose between several programs, for example in the little court yard in front of the Cineteca di Bologna – the Piazetta Pasolini – as well as in the Cineteca Lumère’s two cinemas: Mastroianni and Scorsese. As if it was not hard enough to choose between the different screenings throughout the daytime already this expansion of the program made it even more difficult, while also encouraging one to follow a small number of series consistently instead of trying to get a sense of everything.

This year I mainly followed the series Polish New Wave and Cinemascope in the Arlecchino Cinemascope theatre which was an opportunity to see a string of masterpieces by directors such as Andrzej Wajda or Andrzej Munk for the first time. I also followed the series Germaine Dulac, a Cinema of Sensations curated by American film scholar Tami Williams which aimed at revealing a largely unknown side of the vast production of French director Germaine Dulac beyond her widely lauded abstract and experimental films from the 1920s: her documentary production and her now lesser known mainstream dramas which were quite successful in the time in which they were released. I also attended especially the second half of the series dedicated to American director William Wellman – William Wellman, Between Silent and Sound.

In these programs Wajda’s Popioly (Ashes, 1965) was certainly a personal highlight at this year’s edition; a four hour visually spellbinding war epic showing the havoc of the Napoleon wars in Poland which constantly takes narrative twists and turns to follow different characters and slowly build them up. A truly stunning film. While more playful and absurd in its storyline Wojchiech Has’ The Zaragoza Manuscript (Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie, 1965) provided a similar experience with its gothic style and constant narrative twists which in a  mise-en-abyme fashion jumps from anecdote to anecdote to add a new layer to the story over three and a half hours to a point where one almost looses track of the narrative thread while remaining curious throughout. The programme was also an opportunity for me to Andrzej Munk’s classic The Passenger (Pasazerka, 1963) and Wajda’s Samson (1961) which both deal with the Holocaust in striking ways.

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Germaine Dulac’s La cigarette (1919)

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The Germaine Dulac programme was perhaps the one I had been looking forward to the most. Curated by film scholar Tami Williams as a follow-up to the Dulac programme she had put together for Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2006, it aimed at screening the many films – dramas, documentaries and newsreels – in Dulac’s production which are virtually unknown today. I remember following the Dulac programme in 2006 where I saw La Coquille et le Clergyman (1928) in the version restored by the Nederlands Filmmuseum for the first time – a film and version which has since ranked among my absolute favourite films – so my expectations were very high. Perhaps too high, for apart from a few exceptions I generally found the part of Dulac’s production which was screened in this series somewhat a deception. At several times I just did not connect to the dramas on many levels, with storylines and cinematography which appeared surprisingly conservative, tedious and stylistically unimaginative to me, having only seen her more canonized abstract films. The gypsy drama La folie des vaillants (1925) was perhaps the only of the fiction films in the program which I found truly gripping with its high-strung story of impossible love between a beautiful young woman and a violin virtuoso ending in an unexpected act of revenge. Among the newsreels which Dulac produced it was very interesting to get a sense of her synchronous sound experiments around 1930 in films such as Celles qui s’en font and Ceux qui s’en font (both 1930) which tried to connect contemporary tunes to gramophone records being played on-screen.

Yet, while I was generally not blown away by what I saw and heard at the Dulac screenings it also left me with a wish to explore her films in greater depth. The last film in the program – Dulac’s earliest surviving drama La cigarette (1919) – was unpacked so well by Tami Williams after the screening, that I felt I should have invested even more effort in preparing for this program as the films appeared much richer than what I had experienced during the screenings after hearing Williams explain the films’ symbolism, references and political implications. Williams has very recently published a monograph on Dulac Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations (University of Illinois Press, 2014) which promises to be a true page-turner, and presents itself as an ideal opportunity to familiarize myself more with this side of Dulac’s production.

Outside of the programs which I followed consistently some single films and events stood out as particularly great experiences. One was the Italian diva film Fior di male (Carmine Gallone, Cines, 1915) starring Lyda Borelli. A film from EYE Film Institute Netherland’s Jean Desmet collection which is closely associated with a rediscovery of colour in early cinema, following its screening in Pordenone in 1987 (something which film historian Ivo Blom writes about in his excellent monograph Jean Desmet and the Early Dutch Film Trade (Amsterdam University Press, 2002)). Being a great fan of Italian horror cinema it was also a great event for me to finally get to see Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1958) which has been on my list of films to watch for several years. A film which has currently not been restored due to a copyright issue it was screened in a magnificently scratched 35mm print from a private collection at Il Cinema Ritrovato. A choice which only contributed to the sense of a truly special event. I Vampiri was even better than I had expected it to be as a piece of gothic ‘mad-scientist-hiding-in-a-cave-and-needy-of-young-beautiful-women-for-experiments’ horror film. Set in Paris and outskirts, it inscribes itself perfectly in the fantastic strand of filmmaking of Louis Feuillade or the contemporary films of Georges Franju and Henri-Georges Clouzot.

Perhaps the absolute highlight of this year’s festival for me, was the screening of Austrian filmmaker and preservationist Peter Kubelka’s swan song Monument Film (2012), which I had not yet had the chance to see but which I had been following somewhat closely until now. In 2012, during the Sonic Acts Festival in Amsterdam, I participated in a master class with Peter Kubelka which comprised a screening of his entire oeuvre, except from Dichtung und Warheit (1996/2003), where Kubelka among other things explained his ideas for Monument Film and the effect that he wished to obtain with it. Monument Film is a project which departs from Kubelka’s metric film Arnulf Rainer (1960) which is a serialist film composition of a duration of approximately six minutes made up of the most elementary cinematic building blocks: light, darkness, silence and noise. Monument Film is in the following order a subsequent, simultaneous and combined projection of Arnulf Rainer and the exact counterpart its serial composition Antiphon, which Kubelka created in 2012. First one sees Arnulf Rainer which alternates between silence and white noise and black and white images. Then one sees Antiphon which does the same but being the exact opposite of Arnulf Rainer has sound in the places where Arnulf Rainer has not and vice versa, which is also the case for the images. After the subsequent screening, the films are screened next to each other in a double screen projection.

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Peter Kubelka in front of the screen while the double projection of Arnulf Rainer (1960) and Antiphon (2012) is being prepared.

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Then finally the films are rewound and the two prints are placed on top of each other and screened as such on a single screen. Contrary to what one may first assume this creates a film which consists only of white light and which has white noise on all of the soundtrack throughout. A truly stunning effect which creates a bombardment of the senses and serves as Kubelka’s passionate and ingenious manifesto against digital cinema suggesting that the light of analogue cinema may be eternal if we know how to appreciate and work with its most basic elements. In this manner Monument Film is something truly remarkable and conceptually extremely strong as a modernist piece of film art, and one could not wish for a more appropriate setting for the screening. The execution was flawless; the prints were perfect as was the projection and I am certain that this is the closest I will ever get to see Kubelka’s vision in its purest form. It is easy to get carried away by bombastic descriptors in trying to convey what it feels like to watch Monument Film, but sitting amidst the two projectors’ outpouring of white light and noise at the end of Monument Film having gone through the formal build-up, felt like being transported back to the future of an age where the potentiality of analogue film seemed endless and cinema a means for inducing trance and ecstasy. Today, Kubelka’s vision incites us to take this potential further and reminds us why the preservation of analogue film is crucial.

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Two projectors, a screen, and one of the world’s best cinémathèques, such is the appareil de base of Peter Kubelka’s Monument Film (2012).

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An equally monumental recent release is the three volume book set which the Austrian Filmmmuseum published this year on the occasion of their 50-year anniversary Fünfzig Jahre Österreichisches Filmmmuseum. 1964-2014. and which I managed to get hold of at Il Cinema Ritrovato’s book fair. A feast of articles and photo documentation from the institution’s history it should keep me busy on those long winter nights which are waiting around the corner.

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 My purchases this year at Il Cinema Ritrovato’s book fair.

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Lausanne, Université de Lausanne/École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, July 8-10: DH2014

July 8-10, I participated in the annual conference of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations in Lausanne, Switzerland. Here, I presented a paper together with Jasmijn van Gorp, Assistant Professor of media studies at the University of Utrecht, which was co-written with my supervisor Professor Julia Noordegraaf and Giovanna Fossati, Professor of Film Heritage and Digital Film Culture at the University of Amsterdam and Chief Curator at EYE Film Institute Netherlands. Our paper was part of a pre-conference workshop called Sound and (moving) images in focus, which hosted a discussion on the use of digitised audiovisual collections in e-humanities research, departing from the observation that the current wave of digital scholarship mainly has affected disciplines such as history, archaeology and literature in a manner which neglects the large-scale digitisation of audiovisual collections and their potential for researchers.

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Bruno Latour giving the keynote opening lecture at DH2014 in Lausanne.

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In the framework of this workshop we presented the outline of an incipient research project on EYE Film Institute Netherlands’ Jean Desmet collection; a collection which, inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register since 2011, has been vital internationally for scholars researching early silent cinema cultures and technologies. The project is titled ‘Data-Driven Film History: developing a demonstrator of EYE’s Jean Desmet collection’ and started this month – September 2014 – and I will be the Project Manager in it during the coming eight months. Hopefully it will produce a new way to look at EYE Film Institute Netherlands’ Jean Desmet collection with digital tools of analysis, currently however it is too early to tell exactly how as it is still ‘in the making’, but we plan to focus among other things on chromatic experience in silent cinema, thinking of a way to visualize how programs varied in their colour compositions in early cinema programming.

The conference also offered a highly entertaining keynote opening lecture by French sociologist Bruno Latour who presented some reflections on his latest book project In Inquiry into Modes of Existence from 2013.

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.

A note on 1920s film historiography in Paris and Marcel L’Herbier’s ‘L’Homme du large’ (1920)

Since last summer I have been increasingly interested in exploring the works of the French 1920s avant-garde directors – Jean Epstein, Germaine Dulac, Abel Gance, Louis Delluc and Marcel L’Herbier – beyond the most well known films from this period, which were programmed in the first year of my film and media studies program in Copenhagen in 2005/2006: films such as Jean Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1928) or Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Ménilmontant (1926). While those films were absolutely eye-opening to me back then and left me with a completely different view on what film could be I never made the effort to dig as deep into that period as I would have liked. Film-viewing-wise, I remember I was mostly busy watching Italian classics and exploitation cinema back then.

However, all that changed when I began reading up on early film history writing and the recognition of film as an art form last year as a part of my research. In particular I became interested in the gradual discursive change toward film and the perception of film as an art form and its institutionalization in French film criticism, theory and ciné-club culture in the late 1910s and throughout the 1920s. In this respect, one of the critics and key figures of this moment whose early film histories have interested me in particular is Léon Moussinac. Moussinac belonged to the inner circle of film critics and theorists in Paris and was a militant supporter of film as an art form, playing a central role in recognizing for example Soviet cinema as such – in particular Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein – through his central engagement in the communist ciné-club Les amis de Spartacus, which was launched in the summer of 1927. Probably the best introduction to this period and its milieu has been written by the American film historian Richard Abel in his book French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915-1929 (Princeton University Press, 1987), which in retrospect regards this particular period with its cinephile cinema-going habits and critic-filmmaker figures as a ‘first wave’ preceding the later French Nouvelle Vague and its mixture of popular cultural and neo-avantgardist attitudes. A little introduction to Moussinac written by Abel can be found here. In French, perhaps the sociological analysis proposed by film conservator and historian of the French National Library Christophe Gauthier in his La Passion du cinéma: ciné-clubs, cinéphiles et salles spécialisées à Paris de 1920 à 1929 (AFRHC/EDC, 1999) remains one of the most engaging studies of the period which I have come across, partly because it investigates the links between collection building in the 1920s ciné-clubs and film preservation extensively.

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moussinac

Léon Moussinac’s Naissance du cinéma (J. Povolovzky & Cie, Éditeurs, 1925)

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Léon Moussinac wrote several film histories throughout the 1920s, both general ones and film histories focused on national cinemas, on for example Soviet cinema (Le Cinéma Soviétique, Librairie Gallimard, 1928). Arguably, his most influential film histories are the early Naissance du Cinéma (J. Povolovzky & Cie, Éditeurs, 1925) and Panoramique du Cinéma (Au sans pareil, 1929), because of their discernment of a set frame of reference for films which in the eyes of the 1920s cinephiles had contributed to the establishment of film as an art form (these books can still be found at quite reasonable prices online!). What I find particularly fascinating in reading these books today is the detailed insight they give into the canon formation and appreciation of silent films which are still with us and which continue to be taught as key films in the history of cinema, while at the same time, they may give an impression of some of the films which tend perhaps to be forgotten today and enjoyed only within specialized circles. Furthermore, it is intriguing to  go through them because they nourish an understanding of how contemporary film theory in its conceptualization of film as an art form laid the foundation for film history writing. The structure and content of Moussinac’s Naissance du cinéma is for example particularly interesting in this aspect, with an opening statement which serves to legitimize film as art, by proposing a list of films that are particularly artistic and a theoretical conception with which to discern then.

The book opens with the kind of statement which is for the most part abandoned in film history writing today (and for a good reason I would say, but arguably a quite necessary form of history at its time) because of its teleological conception of history. As Moussinac writes on page 7:

We are living in admirable and profoundly touching times. In the great turmoil of the modern an art is born, develops, discovering one after one its proper laws, marches slowly towards perfection, an art which will be the very expression, bold, powerful, original, the ideal of the new times. And it is a long hard stage, towards the beauty, in which too few yet believe because they have not fully understood its astounding truth. (Own translation).

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Nous vivons des heures admirables et profondément émouvantes. Dans le grand trouble moderne, un art naît, se développe, découvre une à une ses propres lois, marche lentement vers sa perfection, un art qui sera l’expression même, hardie, puissante, originale, de l’idéal des temps nouveaux. Et c’est une longue et dure étape, à la beauté de laquelle trop peu croient encore parce qu’ils n’en ont pas compris pleinement la formidable vérité. (Original quote).

This is followed by a little list which indicates the most important stages (étapes) in this development toward the birth of an art form consisting mostly of European (French, German, Swedish) and North American fiction films, with a strong emphasis on the French avant-garde represented by the films of Louis Delluc, Marcel L’Herbier, Abel Gance and Jean Epstein. That the films of the latter were recognized as particularly artistic pertained to a view which became increasingly common on French film criticism, theory and distribution at the time that conceptualized as of French films as particularly artistic. This is visible in Moussinac’s Naissance du Cinéma in its extensive use of the notion of photogénie as the foundation for its theoretical conception (‘conception théorique’). This term, while used with subtle and important differences in nuance in the writings of Jean Epstein, Louis Delluc and Moussinac, sought to capture or formulate the subjective experience of a particularly beautiful cinematic moment, usually of a very short duration: a gesture, an expression or for example a detail in cinematography and mise-en-scène which appears striking because of a particularly aesthetic quality. The identification of these moments of cinematic beauty what was led the French cinephiles to make their lists of the most artistic films, in contemporary film reviews which would then serve as support for a historicisation of film art’s development.

It may seem somewhat dubious that the French tended to acknowledge their own cinema as a particularly artistic one in this period (and it may very well be the case to some extent, given that this historical view excluded so many other films) but I think it is quite important to keep in mind that the dynamic of this conception of cinema which is visible in for example Moussinac’s writings cinema may be regarded – in line with the argument in Abel’s history of the period – as very much similar to that of the later “second wave” – the Nouvelle Vague. Here seemed quite simply to be a group of individuals – more or less like-minded – who missed something more daring from their own cinema production, being – in the case of some – fascinated by developments in American, Soviet and Scandinavian cinema, thus promoting at the same time film art through film criticism/theory and filmmaking. It is exactly because of these qualities that I have begun seeking out the 1920s French avant-garde films to a greater extent, to gain insight into how a common conception of film history as it continues to be taught today emerged. Of course, it is also to watch some truly remarkable films!

Thus, yesterday evening I had the immense pleasure of watching Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Homme du large for the first time (1920). This is in some respects a breakthrough film for L’Herbier being a great success with contemporary film critics and with a general audience. It is a powerful drama about a little family living by the seaside, in which the father – Nolff – badly wishes to get a son, in addition to his daughter, with whom he can share and teach his passion for the sea. However, when finally the son – Michel – is born, he is drawn instead to the city from which the family had moved to live itself by the sea. Developing a more and more intense antipathy towards his father who remains blindly faithful and loving of his son almost regardless of his conduct, Michel eventually ends being tangled up in the seedy city life and its violence, ignoring at the same time – to the agony of his sister – his mother’s increasingly grave illness. The film is told in a complex flash-back structure where the father is first seen living as an hermit, because of the break with his son, to then look back at the development of their relationship and their eventual break-up. It contains many emotionally strong scenes, and is visually stunning, with an incredible use of colors (according to L’Herbier’s notes) to depict the sea, complex editing between locations, inter-title design – sometimes in split-screen, super-impositions and framing, of which I have included some examples of screen caps below.

As Moussinac noted in Naissance du cinéma, what gave the film its great quality was its depiction of the sea and role in the story (p. 119):

Thus, what often gives L’Homme du large, its emotion, is this constant presence of the sea which shakes the drama, penetrates it, invades it, dominates it even, gives it its terrifying bursts, its endlessness. The sea’s voice is real, one is subjected to its grave tremendous tone, a sort of pedal (pédale) which upholds the chant of beginning at the end of the film. (Own translation).

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Ainsi ce qui procure à L’Homme du large, souvent, son émotion, c’est cette présence constante de la mer qui secoue le drame, le pénètre, l’envahit, le domine même, lui prête ses sursauts terribles, son infini. La voix de la mer est réelle, on subit sa note grave prodigieuse, sorte de pédale qui soutient le chant du commencement à la fin du film. (Original quote).

The film is released in a highly elegant double-DVD set from French Gaumont together with L’Herbier’s El Dorado (1921). Each film is accompanied by a detailed booklet, containing reproductions of the original poster art, elaborate notes on the restorations – particularly interesting with regard to L’Homme du large‘s colors – and historical articles, for example Henri Langlois’ praise of L’Homme… Highly recommended!

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L'homme du large 4

When Nolff learns that his wife has given birth to a boy, he proposes a clear division of their education between them: his wife can take care of their daughter, while Nolff himself will educate their son to become “- a free man, a sailor!”. Here, an inter-title appears simultaneously with the action in split-screen.

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L'homme du large 2

The terrified look of Michel’s sister Djenna set to the background of the sea, as she gathers courage to go into town and bring back her drunk brother to their mother’s sickbed.

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L'homme du large 1

One of the film’s stunning visual features is its use of masks in different shapes and super-impositions; in one of the most dramatic scenes for example, a cross suddenly appears super-imposed over the sea.