TEACHING MY HOME MOVIES

I just finished a week of amateur films and home movies for a new course I am co-teaching entitled “Cinema and Revolution.”  We screened/discussed key films from the post-war American avant-garde (including Brakhage, Mekas, Levine, Menkin) alongside a set of home movies.  I wanted students to think about the differences between these two amateur modes, their different expressions of contingency and history, and (perhaps most interesting) their very different conceptions of “home.”

The lectures were nevertheless overshadowed by an unexpected encounter with my own family history.  About two weeks ago, a collection called “The Amateur as Auteur” arrived (ordered way back in January).  I took a quick look and decided to add the “Stewart Family Home Movies” to the screening list for the week.  The films were made between 1936 and 1939, by a film enthusiast named Archie Stewart.  I knew the Stewarts were from upstate New York, but did not know anything else about the family or their provenance.  As I prepared for lecture, I caught two names that I had missed during my first screening session: Newburgh and Orange Lake.

(Stewart Family Home Movies, 1936-1939)

It seems that I inadvertently assigned my own home movies.  My mother was born and raised in Newburgh, New York.  Her childhood home is on the shores of Orange Lake.  I spent my summers swimming in that very lake and looking out towards Pine Point, the peninsula just behind the unhappy little girls (who must now be in their eighties).

The discovery forced a slight adjustment to the lecture plan.  I spent a good deal of time discussing (via Susan Sontag) the affective “surplus” of home movies and those strange, personal histories inscribed, lost, refound upon their surface.  The home movie, like the twilight, elegiac art of photography “testifies to time’s relentless melt.”

FILM FLAMES

Adventures on the Upper Nile (American Museum of Natural History, 1927)

This short clip is excerpted from Adventures on the Upper Nile, “a pictorial record of the O’Donnell-Clark African Expedition into the Southern Sudan…for the purpose of securing specimens of the rare giant eland.”  The film exemplifies the rhythms of ethnographic cinema: stretches of empty, unproductive duration (waiting, watching, etc.) punctuated by spectacular, but equally unproductive events.  In Adventures, these events include animal death/dismemberment, ritual dance, and environmental contingencies.  In this particular scene, the boat encounters a series of fires along the shore.  But, here, too, the event extends, repeats, stretches out.  It is an almost lyrical, meditative encounter, one which brings film material as such to the fore.  Here, we are told, birds dive towards the flames for insects.  We strain to see this interspecies interaction, but the birds and insects mingle with the deteriorated image, with its burns, scratches, and holes.

AIR IN SPACE

A little late to the moon party…

Lobster Films completed its restoration of a hand-colored Voyage dans la lune (Georges Méliès, 1902) in 2011.  The work took twenty years.  It is the most expensive restoration in the history of cinema.  The print premiered at Cannes with a new soundtrack by Air.  It will screen elsewhere this month (and can be found embedded in Scorsese’s 3D homage to Méliès, Hugo).  Here, one can see an interview with Serge Bromberg, the Director of Lobster Films, on the acquisition of the print (from Spain).  In the interview, Bromberg interestingly claims that the aim of the project was “to promote…and to revive the experience of ‘Trip to the Moon’.”  It would be interesting to put some pressure on the ellipses, to hear more about the promotional ends of this particular restoration and the experience promoters hoped to revive.  More interesting perhaps, is the way in which the hyper-national restoration, promotion and re-release of the film (from Lobster to Air to Cannes) conceals the transnational circuits that the film travelled before finding its way back to origin stories and national mythologies.

ENTHUSIASM

Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska have gathered the remnants of socialist Poland’s amateur film clubs and made this material available under a creative commons license.  From their site:

These licenses grant you the right to use, copy, sometimes modify and redistribute any film, text or image that you find of interest here. The most important operational clause within the license is that these rights -to copy, modify and redistribute- must be extended to others. The source material, and all derivative works will become in perpetuity, a legally protected creative resource. Artists and others will be able to use and re-use the material for future creative exchange, enriching rather than depleting the public domain. 

It is rare for a virtual archive to be so open, accessible, and self-reflexive (an extension, perhaps, of the counter-forces that made these amateur films possible amid “the breathless flow” of State-sponsored media).  The site is available in Polish, English, Spanish, and Basque.  Films are streamable, downloadable, remixable.  The archive includes extensive notes on the history of the project and Poland’s film clubs.  Interviews with the amateur filmmakers and film club members available here, along with a handful of essays on the cultural, political, and art/film-historical questions that these images pose.

REBIRTH OF THE AUTHOR

A follow-up to my last post on virtual conferences:

Over the last two to three years, the term “digital humanities” has displaced “interdisciplinarity” as a kind of new bureaucratic buzzword, a rallying cry for administrators under pressure to attract students, make an impact, and embrace the future, whatever that might be.

Anxieties are high among many of those who actually research and teach in the humanities.  What will the digital do to us?  And what can the digital actually do for the humanities?  Does the “digital” have any substance?  For film scholars, the digital poses a number of questions about the boundaries of our discipline, the future of our archives, and the ontology of our beloved objects.

In his most recent piece in the NYTimes, Stanley Fish takes up the term and offers his own skeptical position.  He begins:

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THE ETHICS OF THE VIRTUAL

Michael Clayton, Vascular bundle of a fern rhizome (2010)

I have decided not to attend the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in March.  My reasons are largely financial.  My institution has a limited budget for research expenses and I did not receive any funding for the trip.  This particular year, I can’t afford to pay entirely out of pocket.  The conference has become a major expense since I moved to Scotland in 2009: $200 for the conference, $800 for the plane ticket, $500 for several nights in a hotel in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Boston, Chicago, etc.

I will miss the SCMS conference.  It offers a valuable snapshot of the discipline.  I learn what people are working on and what subfields are developing.  I meet new colleagues and potential collaborators.  And: I catch up with old friends, colleagues, and mentors.  It has become a kind of lifeline to an academic and social world outside of Northeast Scotland.

There are other conferences, of course.  And some outstanding ones in Film and Media Studies across the UK and continental Europe.

But my decision not to attend the SCMS conference this year has me thinking about academic conferences (esp. the large, multi-day, many-paneled, state-of-the-discipline events) and the more inclusive, accessible, and environmentally sustainable alternatives that (I hope) are on the way.

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THE FUTURE

Looking grim and sounding panicked.  From Ubu’s front page:

UbuWeb Will Join Reddit’s January 18th Blackout to Protest SOPA If SOPA passes, you can kiss UbuWeb goodbye. Remember, the web won’t be this way forever. Don’t bookmark. Download. Download. Download. Everything on Ubu is downloadable. Hard drives are cheap. Grab what you need. Don’t trust the cloud. Stop SOPA

More info on the anti-piracy act here. 

REMOVING THE JAW

Our first evening of “Shadow Play” concluded with R.W. Paul’s final work: an industrial film promoting a new commercial whaling route between Norway and Ireland.  For me, the film recalls the generic and temporal instabilities of many ethnographic hunt films.  The interminable progress of the hunt (and the factory) is disrupted by death and the gruesome transformation of animal into object.  The encounter between the film’s intertitles (Landing the Whale, Removing the Jaw, etc.) and its visual excesses is also strikingly disjunctive.  The image overwhelms, undermines, undoes the certainty of its plain text.

But this film ends with an amazing set of final scenes.  Irish and Norwegian workers “at play”: dancing together, sack racing, wrestling like animals on the ground.  Not only do the boundaries between industrial, educational, and ethnographic modes collapse here, but boundaries between nations, genders, and species likewise seem to be very much in flux.

Many thanks to Ross Whyte for providing an improvised electroacoustic soundtrack that matched the complexity of the evening’s images.  The glitches and stutters of the soundbox drew our attention, I think, not only to the content of these images (and the deep space that returned compositionally over and again), but to the surface of the celluloid, to its rips, gaps, tears, and imperfections.  My attention was pulled in two directions: into the depth of past/historical time and across the surface of internal/archival histories.

Next Thursday: The Dying Swan, Menilmontant, and Orphans / 7-9 PM / Auris Lecture

EXPANDED SILENCE

Man With Mirror (Guy Sherwin, 1976/2006)

Teaching begins next week.  I am excited to be giving silent cinema a try.  Introduction to Film will be an experiment in paper-less, screening-less pedagogy. Students will be streaming all assigned films from their desktops, laptops, ipads, cell phones.  We’ll see what happens to the first-year film community…

I will also be teaching an Intro to Visual Culture course for graduate students.  I spent the afternoon sifting through objects/images, trying to settle on one (or two) for the first day of class.  I think Sherwin might be the winner.  I love this piece/recording, not only for the conversation that unfolds between the 1976 and 2006 Sherwin selves, but for the audible gasps you can hear in the gallery.