Friday 12 March 2010

Archiving the Future| mobilizing the past

Less than a week to go till the Society of Cinema and Media Studies Conference in Los Angeles and I'm getting pretty excited! I've just been having a look at the conference programme and there's some really interesting sounding panels, well, they all sound interesting actually, but of course I'm particularly keen on the ones which discuss the use of, and role of, archives in film studies.

In addition to the packed conference programme there are lots of screenings and special events scheduled in as well. One I'm particularly looking forward to is a screening at UCLA of The Exiles. This is a film I mentioned briefly in a previous post about The Pleasure Garden (1953), a film by James Broughton and starring Lindsay Anderson. In the same blog post where I first heard about the release of The Pleasure Garden there was also discussion of another recently restored film The Exiles (1961). This film was the debut feature of Kent Mackenzie who had previously made a short film Bunker Hill about the eponymously named area of Los Angeles. Inspired by the experience of making this documentary he carried on to make this feature film. It follows a group of young Native American men and women living in the Bunker Hill area and is based entirely on interviews with them and their friends.

Still from The Exiles © Milestone FIlms

Still from The Exiles © Milestone FIlms

The film was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in cooperation with University of Southern California Moving Image Archive, National Film Preservation Foundation and Milestone. There's detailed discussion of the preservation process in the press pack for the film. In 2003 a film by Thom Anderson Los Angeles Plays Itself began a renewal of interest in Mackenzie's film. However these plans were shelved partly becuase it was thought that only one 35mm print survived, and also due to concerns over the copyright clearance of the music used throughout the film. When Milestone found out that the music was created specifically for the film, and that there existed both the original negative and the fine grain interpositive for the film, they resurrected the plans to distribute the film. In order to preserve the film before distributing it, it was taken to UCLA where Ross Lipman, the preservationist who also restored Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (thanks for that one too!), worked on creating preservation materials and new prints.

I can't wait to see the results!

Still from The Exiles © Milestone FIlms

Sunday 7 March 2010

BFI restores first ever film of 'Alice in Wonderland' (1903)

The first ever film version of Alice in Wonderland has been restored by the British Film Institute (BFI) and is now available to watch on the BFI's YouTube channel. I've seen this link on so many blogs and websites already - it's great to see the interest this film has generated. It must be very gratifying for the folks at the BFI who were involved in restoring it to see how popular it has been. It has already had 445,832 hits on YouTube since 25 February!

Here's a bit more information about the film - taken from The Bioscope.

"Alice in Wonderland was produced in Britain by Cecil Hepworth (left), whose studies were in Walton-on-Thames outside London. Denis Gifford, in his British Film Catalogue, credits the direction to Hepworth and his regular director at this period, Percy Stow. Mabel (May) Clark, who had joined Hepworth as a film cutter, plays Alice; Hepworth himself plays a frog, his wife Margaret plays the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts, while future director of Irish films Norman Whitten plays the Mad Hatter and a fish, while cinematographer Geoffrey Faithfull and his brother Stanley are two of the playing cards. The film was originally 800 feet or twelve minutes in length (though it was divided up into sixteen scenes which could be bought separately). Eight minutes survive today, in a somewhat ragged state. It was the longest British film yet made.

Alice was made with close attention to Tenniel’s original drawings, though it was bold enough to include its own additions to the narrative, giving Alice a magic fan (Tim Burton adds the Jabberwock to his version of the tale, which seems a somewhat greater liberty to take). Its special effects, achieved using optical printing and some ingenious use of scenery, allow us to see Alice grow large and small with impressive effectiveness. But perhaps the most delightful element is the procession of playing cards (filmed at the Mount Felix estate at Walton), which seems to have involved the participation of a local school. The narrative makes no sense when viewed with cold logic, but then neither does Lewis Carroll’s original. In short it is random – but cool. Now go tell someone about it.

There's some interesting debate about the merits, or otherwise, of film archives using YouTube and other similar mediums to disseminate films and archival material on The Bioscope. I first came across this Alice in Wonderland film on the BFI website, then on various other film and archive related websites and blogs - however I also admit to reading Perez Hilton (I'm never sure whether this is something to admit, or something to try and cure, but hey, there you go, it's out in the open now!) and I was really pleased to see this film embedded on his website - anything that promotes the work of film archivists to a wider audience, and just makes these types of films available for folk to enjoy, is a good thing, is it not? I realise that taking archival material out of its context is a big archival 'no no' but I think it's exciting! As long as the original context is still there in the cataloguing, preservation and original access medium, then it's great to see the archival object, whether it be a film, a letter, a photo, or anything else, being used in different ways. I'm not so naive that I don't realise the potential problems with the context being lost i.e. films being used in completely inappropriate ways to represent things that are against the original context or creation, but going by the example of the wide appeal of Alice in Wonderland it's looking like the positives will outweigh the negatives. What do other folk think about this?

Friday 5 March 2010

Lillian Gish photographs from the Lindsay Anderson Archive

I missed the anniversary of the death of Lillian Gish on the 27th February - she was born in October 1893 and died on 27 February 1993. In honour of Lillian Gish I thought I would post some photographs from the Lindsay Anderson Archive. Anderson worked with Gish on 'The Whales of August', indeed Lillian Gish was the catalyst for the movie being made as Mike Kaplan, the film's producer, was determined to find a film he could make with Gish. I love 'The Whales of August', not because I'm being loyal to my work, but because it is a beautiful, graceful and all too rare portrait of growing old and of paying respect to the older characters in the film. I wasn't surprised when I was cataloguing the material for this film to find that it did very well in Japan, a culture well known for its respect for the elderly.

Lindsay Anderson and Lillian Gish on set of The Whales of August, LA/1/11/4/2
© Lindsay Anderson Collection, University of Stirling Archives

Lindsay Anderson and Lillian Gish on set of The Whales of August, LA/1/11/4/2
© Lindsay Anderson Collection, University of Stirling Archives

Lindsay Anderson and Lillian Gish on set of The Whales of August, LA/1/11/4/2
© Lindsay Anderson Collection, University of Stirling Archives

I think these first two photos maker a good pair - one where Lillian Gish looks to be directing Anderson and the other in which he is directed her.

I was alerted to this important date through the blog of Dan North - the editor of 'Sights Unseen: unfinished British Films' containing a chapter, Hooray for Hollywood? The Unmade Films of Lindsay Anderson, by by Karl Magee (University Archivist here at Stirling University). An extract of this chapter is available to read here.

Thursday 4 March 2010

4D performance using an Archive setting

'4D' was a term which confused me slightly - I wasn't quite sure what it meant in the context of a dance-based performance piece. What it meant was a quite breathtaking show which was a wonderful and very fitting tribute to the Scots-born film director Norman McLaren.

The dancer/choreographer of the show Peter Trosztmer is on stage for pretty much the entire length of the performance (running at 1 hour 40 minutes) which is impressive in itself - well it certainly seems it to a non-dance expert like myself! The show is his tribute to Norman McLaren and the performance is based around a narrative set in the Archives of the National Film Board of Canada. Through this we see and hear the impact that the work of Norman McLaren had on Trosztmer. I'm not sure how it's done but the effect we get is of Trosztmer dancing within and in perfect time with the films, of him talking to people he interviewed about Mclaren (but the people are projected images rather than actual presences). I don't think my description of it are doing justice to the effect of the performance - it's definitely something to see if you get the chance.

The music is amazing throughout, particular favourites of mine remain 'Begone Dull Care', 'Boogie Doodle' and 'Lines Horizontal' (the original music from 'Lines Horizontal', by Pete Seeger wasn't used in the performance but the music that was used fitted the scenario better I think - although I do love the Seeger score!). Having just looked at some letters which McLaren sent home to his parents which are in our Archive here at Stirling I was struck by references to events discussed in the letters. For example the film 'A Phantasy' which is very surrealist in style, reminding me of Dali and also of De Chirico, was explained as being a reaction to McLaren's experience of the Spanish Civil War. I had just read a letter he sent home to his parents in which he discussed the hardships of life for the people in the Spanish countryside where he was staying, he discussed the lack of food and the need for change to the system. However nowhere does he indicate the traumatic affect which the brutality of Franco's soldiers was having on him. He obviously didn't want to worry his parents - a natural instinct we all share! Instead the trauma came out through this work 'A Phantasy' - this was the first time I'd thought of it in this light and it made it even more moving. Likewise 'Neighbours' is a statement against war, I had picked this up, it would be hard not to, but I didn't know it was to do with him having experience the Spanish Civil War, then his experiences of China when the Korea War broke out. The more I watch the film the more moving it is. Here's a promotional sheet for 'Neighbours' from the Norman McLaren Archive at the National Film Board of Canada, taken from their 'Focus on Animation' webpages.

Neighbors : An Academy Award Film. 1952. One-sheet : 1 page : 28 x 21.5 cm
© National Film Board of Canada. Reproduced with permission of the NFB

I feel so lucky to have seen this show at it's only Scottish venue at the MacRobert Arts Centre here at Stirling University.

Monday 1 March 2010

British Film Institute release 'The Pleasure Garden'

Another gem has just been released from the BFI Archive. 'The Pleasure Garden', made in 1953 by the American poet James Broughton (1913 - 1999) is a lovely, surreal and poetic film set in the Crystal Palace Terraces in South London. The film won the Prix de Fantasie Poetique at Cannes in 1954.

Front cover of photograph album LA/6/2/1/5
© Lindsay Anderson Collection, University of Stirling Archives

The film opens with people living an idyllic carefree life in the park, which abruptly comes to an end with the arrival of Col. Pall K Gargoyle (John le Mesurier) who is determined to stop all the fun and freedom by erecting notices banning everything and arresting people he doesn't approve of. Then along comes their saviour, Mrs Albion (a wonderful Hettie Jacques) who waves her magic scarf to liberate everyone and open them up to their emotions, thereby returning the park to it's idyllic, happy state. Lindsay Anderson's had a small role in this film (described on IMDb as'Toff in top hat'), acting alongside Jill Bennett, and he is also credited as the 'production manager' for the film. Unfortunately as Anderson didn't keep copies of his letters until he employed a secretary in the 1970s we don't have correspondence about 'The Pleasure Garden', however I know there is some in the Collection of James Broughton's Papers at Kent State University Special Collections and Archives.

Page from photograph album LA/6/2/1/5
© Lindsay Anderson Collection, University of Stirling Archives

Page from photograph album LA/6/2/1/5
© Lindsay Anderson Collection, University of Stirling Archives

James Broughton and Lindsay Anderson were friends and we have a lot of correspondence between them in the archive. Cataloguing the correspondence of so many other people (all the letters to Anderson) has led me to take quite instant likes or dislikes to people and cataloguing the letters from James Broughton I just instantly found him interesting, funny and a warm person - it made me want to find out more about him. Being surrounded by such a wealth of research materials in the Archive, and in the library in general, meant I could do this. I've been enjoying reading 'A Long Undressing: Collected Poems 1949 - 1969' which is part of the Anderson Archive. I particularly liked the last section of poems 'All About It' which start with a quote 'Into every life a little Zen must fall' (attributed to - Old saying). 'Song of Song' included here is the final poem in the book.

Song of Song © James Broughton

On a final note - when I was doing some google searching on James Broughton I came across a short film he made of one of the poems from the 'All About It' section I mention above. Called 'This Is it' (1971) the film of the poem of the same name is a touching short film following a young boy following a red balloon while the words of the poem are read (does anyone know who the woman reading the poem is?). You can see the film on the Art Forum website where they also had this short review by Robert Greenspun from the New York Times: "James Broughton's creation myth, This Is It, places a two-year-old Adam and a bright apple-red balloon in a backyard garden of Eden, and works a small miracle of the ordinary. And since that miracle is what his film is about, he achieves a kind of casual perfection in matching means and ends."

This was supposed to be just a quick post about the DVD release of 'The Pleasure Garden' but it's ended up a bit of an ode to James Broughton! That's the way it goes with Archives though - they lead you off in unexpected directions. I love that I'm learning new things every day - though I imagine that can be said of any job - it just depends how you look at it!

I'd just like to say thanks to Frank's and his blog for alerting me to the DVD release of 'The Pleasure Garden' and 'The Exiles' (more of 'The Exiles' in a later post!)