Thursday 8 October 2009

Archives and auteurs: Filmmakers and their archives

As part of our AHRC funded research project on The Cinema Authorship of Lindsay Anderson we hosted a conference, 'Archives and Auteurs: filmmakers and their archives' here at the University of Stirling from 2nd - 4th September 2009. The conference went really well, I know I may be slightly biased, but from speaking to people that attended I know that was the general opinion as well. Attending the conference were archivists, academics, curators and researchers all coming together to discuss the ways in which the study of the archives of filmmakers and the film industry can provide new perspectives and insights into the history of cinema.

There was so much packed into the opening evening and two full days of the conference that I've delayed writing about it as I didn't know where to start. I'm not going to give a full run down as the full conference programme and abstracts are available here. We are also collating the papers here and these are continually being added to.

Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard and me (Kathryn Mackenzie) at the welcome desk on the first night of the conference

The conference started on the Wednesday evening with presentations from me , Isabelle Gourdin-Sangouard, John Izod and Karl Magee, about 'The Cinema Authorship of Lindsay Anderson' AHRC project which we are all working on. The final paper in this panel was by Charles Barr, an Emeritus Professor of Film and Television who is currently teaching at University College Dublin. He gave a very interesting paper about the John Ford Archive, which discussed the variety of material in the archive, including some letters from Lindsay Anderson. It is always wonderful to hear about the material in other archives, and as usual, it always makes me want to visit them!

My first panel on the Thursday morning was 'Collaboration and authorship'. This comprised of three papers; The Schlesinger papers and Sunday Bloody Sunday: compromise, collaboration and authorship - Sian Barber, University of Portsmouth; Ken Russell, Dante's Inferno and the BBC Archives - Brian Hoyle, University of Dundee; Lolita: a journey with Nabakov and Kubrick from the page to the screen - Karyn Stuckey, University of the Arts, London. Some of the many issues raised and discussed included; ideas on ways in which archival material can help us to rethink ideas of cinematic authorship; how archival research can deepen and enrich our understanding of a film; and how archival materials can be used to follow the evolution of a script and examine the changes made to adaptations from script to screenplay.The discussion that followed the presentations was to be typical of all the discussions - lively, engaged and interesting. There was discussion about the moral and ethical issues, and possible legal implications, of making available material that is critical of individuals. I know I tend to overuse the word interesting, but as an Archivist cataloguing an archive, and someone involved in research of that archive, it is interesting to hear of the experiences of others in similar areas of work and research with different filmmakers archives. It is also a very healthy way of not becoming too insular or obsessed with the Lindsay Anderson Archive.

Conference delegates entering the MacRobert filmhouse on the first evening, and enjoying extracts from Is That All There Is

After a tea break the panel I chose to attend was 'Beyond the Director - the production system'. It was always a hard choice to make as to which panel to attend, for instance in this occasion the panel I didn't go to was 'Archives- current projects' which included papers about the Basil Dearden and Michael Relph Archive, Joseph Losey, Sally Potter and the Adelphi Archives - oh to be able to be in two places at once! The panel I chose to attend was really useful to me as it really deepened my understanding of the production system. Papers by: Brian Neve, University of Bath, 'Inside and Outside: Elia Kazan, Newtown Productions and notions of 'independence' in 1950s American filmmaking; Philip Drake, University of Stirling, 'Talent and reputation in Hollywood: the case of Hal Ashby'; Aaron Hunter, Queen's University Belfast, 'Down to the Last Detail: Archival reconstruction of Hal Ashby's Place in Hollywood Cinema'; and Andrew Spicer, University of the West of England, 'The Creative Producer: the Michael Klinger Papers'.

In the afternoon I chaired a panel 'Archive - creating and collecting' which contained: 'Private History, Public Persona and Preserving the Cinematic Past: Martin Scorsese and the Discourse of Film Preservation', by Nicholas Nguyen (NATO Archives); Scottish and Irish Experimental film, classification and archiving in national contexts, Sarah Neely, University of Stirling; 'Private Collections and Collective Authorship, case studies of amateur film practice, Ryan Shand, University of Liverpool; 'Watching Thought', revisiting Grierson and McLaren, Kirsteen Macdonald, Stirling Council.
Nicholas's Nguyen's paper contained discussion of the cultural prestige which Scorsese has got from his work as a film archivist/preserver, and explained how Scorsese's authority comes from his role as a champion of film preservation as much as from his role as a film director. This correlates to another theme which was discussed over the course of the conference and is something which I was discussing in a research seminar the other day - how 'the Archive' can be a source of power/authority, if a filmmaker creates their own archive what are the implications of this on their status as an 'auteur'. I think the example of Scorsese shows that the act of preserving can imbue an individual with a certain authority, which is not in anyway to undermine the work of Scorsese or The World Cinema Foundation (WCF), which Nguyen discussed in some depth. I've talked about the WCF before on this blog, in relation to their restoration of 'The Housemaid' and it was great to hear more about their work and about the history of Scorsese and his collecting/preserving of films.
Sarah Neely's paper discussed the distinction between amateur and experimental films and really broadened my understanding of the two, and the history of the distinctions between them. She explained how there is very little work done on Margaret Tait in this country, her home country, in contrast she is more well known and respected internationally. Once reason for this being that Avant-garde filmmakers are often marginalised because they don't say anything about nationality. An examination of the processes of classification of experimental film was also raised as something needing more research and something which she was looking into. This raised questions in my mind over the role of the archivist in this, and re-iterated for me the many areas of research which archivists are required to get involved in to give the materials we catalogue and describe the full respect they deserve - and reminded me, as if I needed it, of what an exciting and varied profession it is!
Ryan Shand's case studies of Amateur film practice discussed how debates on authorship can be useful in the study of amateur film practice. He focused on a case study of a film club in Bebington which has been running for over 50 years. Through interviews with them he examined ideas of individual and collective authorship that i think would be useful on debates in authorship in non-amateur films as well.
Kirsteen Macdonald looked at the questions which arise around the use of archival material in exhibitions. She discussed the development of an exhibition about Lindsay Anderson in 2007 which used material from the Lindsay Anderson Archive chosen as a result of conversations
between archivist Karl Magee, curator Kirsteen Macdonald and artist Stephen Sutcliffe. Then went on to discuss more recent collaborations between Stirling University Archives and the Changing Room with the work of Katy Dove and Luke Fowler with, respectively, the Norman McLaren and John Grierson Archives. The artist Luke Fowler was also in attendance and there was lots of lively and thought-provoking discussion after these presentations. The idea of artists taking the work out of context was discussed and Kirsten pointed out that in some instances the artists felt uncomfortable with the personal letters and photographs and found that removing them from their context, and only using selected elements from them, made this easier, and I would imagine, gives the artist a sense of control or ownership over the material in a creative sense.

Then followed an interesting presentation by Ruth Washbrook (Education and Outreach Officer, Scottish Screen Archive) which demonstrated the range of resources held at Scottish Screen Archive.

To top it all off, the day finished with a very rare screening of Red, White and Zero, the ill-fated trilogy of films by Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and Peter Brook. I think these films have only ever been screened together once before so this was a pretty special event. I've talked about The White Bus before in an interview with the Big Picture magazine so I won't go over it again. It was intended to be a trilogy of films based on short stories by Shelagh Delaney but it was only Anderson who stuck to the original concept and producer a wonderful film in The White Bus. This screening was the first time for me, and for anyone else at the conference, to see the other two films - pretty exciting, and a bit nerve wracking for us, what if they were really awful and n one wanted to see them! However this wasn't the case, well, the Tony Richardson film still received mixed reviews but I liked it. Tony Richardson's film was called Red and Blue and featured his wife Vanessa Redgrave playing a singer, following hr through various love interests and cities, singing as she goes along. I would say the reception to this film was generally negative although some people, like myself, did enjoy it. It was bright and garish, a bit cheesy, very OTT, but lots of fun. Isabelle pointed out to me that maybe the reason I liked it was the influence of the work of Jacques Demy, a filmmaker whose work I love. The other film in the trilogy was Peter Brook's Ride of the Valkeries, also known as Zero, in tribute to the star of the film Zero Mostel. Anderson described this film as 'amateurish and confused' in his diaries of the time but it seemed to go down well at the conference. It was funny in a Buster Keaton type way and although the plot was a bit confused I think overall it came out as a funny, yet gently film that it would be nice to see released again.

The Friday started, for me, with 'British Cinema (and television), a panel containing papers by: Nathalie Morris, BFI, on 'The problem of the non-film, archives and unrealised projects'; Philip Wickham, Bill Douglas Centre, university of Exeter, 'You don't need talent to get work these days, you need a miracle - the British film industry in the 1970s and 1980s through filmmakers archives'; and Dave Rolinson, University of Stirling 'Archival research into the television work of Alan Plater'. Nathalie Morris made some very important points abut the study of unrealised films, explaining that until recently these weren't often discussed in terms of a director's work, it was only with a return to the archive for film researchers that attention is beginning to be paid to the important of unfinished film projects in a director's career. She highlighted a book 'Sights Unseen', by Dan North (which contains a chapter by Karl Magee, Stirling University Archives, 'Hooray for Hollywood? the unmade films of Lindsay Anderson') which I will really need to read as it sounds fascinating. Philip Wickham discussed the problems filmmakers faced in 1970s and 1980s and he also highlighted some of the differences in holding the archives of living filmmakers. Dave Rolinson looked at the methodological implications of the way researchers used television archives and discussed differences between research into television and research into films and the implications of this on which archival resources get used for research i.e. TV research tends to focus on the writer therefore research carried out in archives with this agenda already in place, as opposed to films where it is focussed on the director, and therefore archival research is carried out with this agenda already in place. The important of archives as living and breathing resources which need to be used, re-examined, re-used in different ways was emphasised in this session.

After another tea break there followed a preview of the documentary film The American Who Electrified Russia. Produced and directed by the independent filmmaker and academic Michael Chanan, it featured material from public archives and private records that enabled him to portray an extraordinary character, Solomon Trone, who had left powerful memories with his relatives - Chanan's own family.

The plenary speakers who closed the conference illustrated the ways in which academic researchers and professional archivists benefit from co-operation between the two sides of archives use. Sarah Street presented a paper that highlighted a crucial function of close study of archival material. As opposed to using archives on an illustrative basis, she uses them as a platform to challenge or enrich existing theoretical writing on film authorship. Marc Vernet from Université Paris Diderot, shared the core of a report he had written for the French Government focussing on the implications for archival work of that nation's employment regime for archivists which affords them careers spent at the crossroads of film theory and film preservation - but without continuing professional development.

Finally, Barbara Hall from the Margaret Herrick Library - Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, gave an insight into the wealth of material it makes available to researchers. By focusing on the Library's holdings of Hitchcock's material, Barbara summarised the challenges of preserving and making available to the general public the Hitchcock archives. While attempting this, she and her colleagues have to keep in mind the materials' value for knowledge arbiters. The Herrick Library's endeavours to hold this balance speak eloquently of every archives ongoing difficulty in evaluating, and adapting to the shifting impact of any given filmmaker's work and legacy. (these final three paragraphs are taken from the review of the conference which was written by my colleagues and posted on the conference webpages

I realised at the top of this post that I said I wouldn't give a full overview, oops - once I started talking about it I couldn't stop. Suffice to say the conference was a resounding success and I'm very glad to have played a part in it, and for anyone who took part in it who is reading this - thank you all for your contributions!!

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