Thursday 21 April 2011

Researcher's Tales at the BFI

Monday was the first time I went to a 'Researcher's Tales' evening at the British Film Institute Library and Archive on Stephen Street.  I've been wanting to go for ages but would never have been home from work in time before - it's so great now that I'm both living and working in the same city!  Researcher's Tales is billed as "An occasional series of informal discussions for BFI National Library members in which leading writers, historians and practitioners in film, television, artists' film and the moving image reflect on their past, current and future work."

It was such a great evening - the talk by Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis was fascinating, and the clips they used to illustrate their points were great.  They talked over each other at times, contradicted and corrected each other but that was all part of the dialogue and you really got a feel for the regard and affection they have for each other. The talk was about Rear Projection - a film technique which I recognised but hadn't heard the term for before.  Basically for anyone else like me who hasn't heard the term used, it means that the stars are shot doing their scene in a studio with the scene itself e.g. the landscape, city scape, ocean etc projected behind them on a flat screen.  I'm sure everyone can think of at least a few examples from films they know but what I hadn't realised was just how widely used it was, particularly from the early 1930s through to the late 1950s.  Laura and Mark recalled how they first began talking about, and discovering their mutual interest in this under theorised and under discussed area of cinematic history.  Laura was showing Mark one of her favourite films - the 1930 film Her Man and although Mark was uninterested in the initial aspect Laura wanted to show him he was intrigued by the use of rear projection. This started the dialogue and research which they discussed on Monday night as they "realised that rear projection had an intrinsic aesthetic interest of its own and that its very artificiality, its lack of transparency, brought with it a certain 'modernist' self-consciousness".  You can read more of their views on rear projection here.

We were also privileged to see clips and segments from a number of films by Mark Lewis.  These films were fantastic, particularly Backstory (2009) and Molly Parker (2006).  I really enjoyed the Researcher's Tales and am looking forward to making it to more of them in the future.  You have to be a member of the BFI Library in order to go but that's fine by me too - going back to the Library at Stephen Street for the first time in ages reminded me of what a special place it is.  I so hope they change their mind/the finances change and they don't move it, as proposed, to the much smaller space in the exhibition room at BFI Southbank.

N.B. The clip that they showed from Her Man was copied from Laura's VHS copy of the film.  Mark referred to the poor quality of this but said it was all they could get as the original film has been destroyed and there aren't any copies of it in archives.  I had a look online and it seems you can get it on DVD but these are poor quality copies, probably also from VHS, which I think people can sell now as the film is in the public domain - though I'm not sure if that's just in America or worldwide.  It made me think again of film archiving, obviously not all films can be preserved, or indeed merit being preserved - however, how much of what is saved and what is lost is often down to chance.

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