BEYOND TAXIDERMY

Teddy Roosevelt, Library of Congress, 1909.  This photograph was taken during Roosevelt’s first post-presidency safari to Africa.  A film of the expedition, Roosevelt in Africa, was made and released in 1910.

In her reading of Nanook of the North (1922), Fatimah Tobing Rony describes the work of Robert Flaherty as “taxidermy.”[1]  The taxidermic image, like the taxidermied body, “seeks to make that which is dead look as if it were living,” (101).  The taxidermist—often euphemistically referred to as a “naturalist”—must kill his/her subject, so that it can be brought back to life, a stilled representation of its former self.  This rich conceptual paradigm—moving image as taxidermic preservation—not only suggests that the image of the Inuit family oscillates between movement and stillness, life and death, but also aligns the very process of filmmaking with an act of violence and mutilation.  The camera captures, kills, and stills.  The understanding of ethnography-as-taxidermy likewise challenges the indexicality of the film image.  Continue reading

EARLY FILM REMIX CONT’D

 Silent (CB McWilliams, 2009)

Silent combines frames from five silent films: Nosferatu, Metropolis, Faust, Holy Mountain, and the Dragon Painter; the frames are (re)set to the sounds of Charles Ives’ Hallowe’en From the artist’s description:

The frames are chosen by custom software that compares data from each of the film’s soundtracks with the data from Ives’ music.  The software analyzes each film and records the audio (FFT) data and timecode for each frame. The final video is generated by processing an input soundtrack, in this case Hallowe’en, and finding the frames of film whose audio best fits that of the soundtrack.

Silent films were chosen as the source material because of their tight connection between narrative, visuals, and musical score. By using the soundtrack as the central driver of visual imagery, Silent inverts these relationships. This reversal allows forms typically associated with music-repetition, rhythm, movement-to express themselves visually.

This is a fascinating remix of film history and theory.  McWilliams presents a sharp comparison between silent cinema and new media/music.  In his description, silent cinema operates as a kind of handicraft, made by/for humans, narratively coherent and visually whole.  McWilliams takes new media as the vibrating attraction, the automated response, the work of film art in the age of digital reproduction. Chandler didn’t have a choice or make a decision: the software decided what was best for the sound.

I wonder if there is actually an inversion or reversal at work here.  It seems (more) likely that McWilliams’ film offers a return to silent film, to its visual/sound experiments.  Here, the “original” and its remix seem to exist in necessary, complementary relation.

EARLY FILM REMIX

Un monsieur qui a mangé du taureau (Romeo Bosetti, 1909)

The original Un monsieur qui a mangé du taureau belongs to an early French colonial/comic genre, wherein characters eat exotic meals/meats and transform into the animals on their plates.  Here, a dinner of bull meat makes a man into a raging beast.  The toreros of Spain are called and come to the rescue.  In a variation on this theme: a man eats kangaroo meat and must eat French snails to be restored.

In 1935, Eugene Deslaw, the abstract filmmaker (examples herehere, and here) added an introduction and a voiceover by comic sound artist and musician Bétov.  Deslaw recasts the original as a Bétov “retrospective” and reclaims the film for the genealogy of the avant-garde.  The film was restored by the inimitable Lobster Films.

THE LUMIÈRE(S)

Le Village de Namo: Panorama pris d’une chaise à porteurs (Indochina, 1899)

This film was shot by Gabriel Veyre, one of the most widely travelled Lumière operators. An online exhibition of his autochromes and films can be found here.

The film poses a number of interesting problems to auteurist celebrations of/engagements with Lumière, including the recent collaboration between Dr. Richard Koeck and the Museum of Liverpool.  Koeck reconstructs Alexandre Promio’s 1897 city stroll with four cinématographes from the Lumière archives. Koeck has sewn these scraps together for a touristic encounter that closely resembles turn-of-the-century Hale’s tours/phantom rides.   For Koeck, these four minutes map both the city of Liverpool and the living, breathing body of a visionary (early) filmmaker.

Although the industrial aspects of the Lumière operation alone would seem to trouble the specificity of Promio and the impulse to create wholes out of its archival fragments, Le Village de Namo presents an altogether different set of visual, bodily challenges to Koeck’s entertaining empiricism.

Whose and how many bodies can we map in this fifty-second sliver?  Must we limit ourselves to the venerable Veyre holding the camera?  Or can we also include the porters who bear his weight?  Koeck invites us to experience four minutes of one day in Liverpool; in “Village de Namo” we can experience fifty seconds of colonial force and human servitude. This film encourages viewers to pivot their perspectives between the porters and the ported, between the body who sees and the bodies who work.

LA CROISIÈRE NOIRE

Ciné-Zoologie.  Auto-ethnographie.  Colonialisme-commercial.  In 1924, Citroën sponsored an auto-chenille expedition across/through/over Africa.  The trip was lead by Georges-Marie Haardt and directed by Léon Poirier.  Two citroën-croisière films followed: Jaune (Asia) and Blanche (North America).  Remixes and celebratory returns here and here.  Neither comes close to the disjunctive insanity of the originals. Peter bloom reads the intersection between colonial fantasies and automobile industries here.

THE PLEASURE OF ATTRACTIONS

Early film historian Tom Gunning’s now-canonical concept of “the cinema of attractions” at once locates an historical moment and a mode of address.  The cinema of attractions inherits its rhythms from 19th-century amusements that rush toward their viewers, that grab and shake and make them feel.

Any and all early film thrills seemingly unite beneath the expansive reach of Gunning’s term.  Against the “temporality of surprise, shock, and trauma,” Gunning opposes the reassuring rhythms of classical narrative film.[i]  He compares the spectator of narrative to Little Hans, a figure who masters the traumatic departure of his mother through the predictable outcomes of his Fort/Da game.  Early cinema, by contrast, is a spool out of control: “If the classical spectator enjoys apparent mastery of the narrative thread of film […] the viewers of the cinema of attractions plays a very different game of presence/absence, one strongly lacking predictability or a sense of mastery,” (5).  Trauma, shock, surprise, the thrills of Coney Island, a single-shot vue, or one of Méliès’ carefully orchestrated screen shows: all equally “smack of the instant.”  The cinema of attractions is a grab bag of visual (and bodily) stimulations as Gunning resists distinguishing between these radically different kinds of early film experiences. Continue reading

ON IMPACT AND HIGHER EDUCATION

In 2010, the Higher Education Funding Council conducted a pilot exercise which aimed to test the feasibility of both assessing the social and economic impact of academic research and using this assessment to evaluate researchers and research institutions across the UK.  The key points from the executive summary of the exercise are as follows:

In the REF there will be an explicit element to assess the ‘impact’ arising from excellent research, alongside the ‘outputs’ and ‘environment’ elements.

The assessment of impact will be based on expert review of case studies submitted by higher education institutions. Case studies may include any social, economic or cultural impact or benefit beyond academia that has taken place during the assessment period, and was underpinned by excellent research produced by the submitting institution within a given timeframe. Submissions will also include information about how the unit has supported and enabled impact during the assessment period.

A weighting of 25 per cent for impact would give due recognition to the economic and social benefits of excellent research. However, given that the impact assessment in the 2014 REF will still be developmental, the weighting of impact in the first exercise will be reduced to 20 per cent, with the intention of increasing this in subsequent exercises.

The assessment of research outputs will account for 65 per cent, and environment will account for 15 per cent, of the overall assessment outcomes in the 2014 REF. These weightings will apply to all units of assessment.

Put simply: The category of “impact” will play a new role in assessing research quality and assigning resources to universities in the UK.  Researchers have been asked to think creatively about impact, to create impacts, to show impacts, to make impact and make it visible.

But: what is impact?  And what does this word mean for the Humanities, where impacts might be invisible or economically unsound? Continue reading

EARLY BODIES

Kodachrome Film Test (USA, 1922)

I came across this restoration from the George Eastman House a few months ago. Kodak and its first color processes are as much a part of the spectacle as the female face/body, the colored garments, the (not-so-subtle) signs of domestic life/leisure.

The Kodak blog offers a short description, emphasizing the role that major studios and cinema had to play:

“In these newly preserved tests, made in 1922 at the Paragon Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, actress Mae Murray appears almost translucent, her flesh a pale white that is reminiscent of perfectly sculpted marble, enhanced with touches of color to her lips, eyes, and hair. She is joined by actress Hope Hampton modeling costumes from The Light in the Dark (1922), which contained the first commercial use of Two-Color Kodachrome in a feature film. Ziegfeld Follies actress Mary Eaton and an unidentified woman and child also appear.”

What interests me here are the ways in which the visual codes of 1920s commercial display recall those that shape early ethnographic cinema, esp. French colonial films from the 1910s.  I will try to dig up a few examples in the next couple of days, but one often finds short ethnographic films (perhaps cobbled together from longer expedition films) that organize the disorder of the unfamiliar through collections: female bodies, hair styles, expressions, etc.  Here, the attraction of new technologies and industries joins the power of the State.

The Kodak film echoes the grammar of early ethnographic cinema.  In so doing, it articulates a complex circuit or site of exchange between national industries, commodity culture, visual technology, and colonialism, one that exceeds the uptake of interest in “primitive” objects and styles.  Indeed, early ethnography shapes how we see the first female body in moving color.