I’ve been meaning to write up my thoughts on silent film histories more often. Here, have a roundup of what I’ve been reading over the last two or three months!
The Magic Mirror: Moviemaking in Russia, 1908-1918 by Denise J. Youngblood. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.
I’ve referred to The Magic Mirror often in the past, but it was only a couple of months ago that I sat down and read it cover to cover. My love of Russian cinema of the 1910s is well-documented, and I thoroughly enjoyed the volume! Youngblood’s scope is cultural history: she draws on advertising, journals, newspapers, and the films themselves to consider cinema in the context of Russian society in this period. As she points out, cinema is one means by which the passions of the day were reflected and validated; it holds “great potential to enlighten us about urban life, reactions to modernization, and the creation of a new public cultural arena”.
Youngblood sketches a history of Russian cinema from its beginnings, dating from 04 May 1896, which marked the first film screening in Russia – but per the book’s title, her focus is on the native production of the pre-Civil War period, beginning in 1908 with the Drankov film Стенка Разин | Stenka Razin, generally considered to be the first Russian production. The Magic Mirror is split up thematically: Part I of the book, Scenes from a Film History, provides overviews of producers (“In the Movies”); theatres, owners and audiences (“At the Movies”); stars, marketing, and hits; and respectability. Youngblood does a great job of illuminating these parallel histories, considering how few records survive from the period (or may never have existed, in the case of audience data). A very interesting section is her exploration of the cultural phenomenon of movie suicides, that is, suicides by audience members – this enjoyed something of a fashion! The chapter on Stars is excellent. It covers Russian stars too, but no surprise to learn that in the early teens, Asta Nielsen was the undisputed actress of choice among audiences, Max Linder the most popular actor; Valdemar Psilander (renamed “Garrison” for Russian audiences) was the runner-up.
Part II of the book, Fragments from a Film Programme, analyses the themes, motifs, and genres of Russian film production in this period. The chapter titles outline the content: “Sex and Suicide”; “Murder and Mayhem’; “Fun and Foolery”; “History and Literature”; “The Guide to Life”. Her analysis is the best kind: extremely readable, witty, and insightful without delving into reaching or esoterical interpretations.
There are a couple of curious omissions – for example, I was surprised that Youngblood doesn’t mention Счастье вечной ночи | The Happiness of Eternal Night (1915) at all. But if it was unavailable for her to access, so it must be. She describes После смерти | After Death (1915) at length, though doesn’t mention Yevlaliya Kadmina in relation to it; to the best of my knowledge, I am the first to delve into that connection in detail. She does write in depth about quite a few films that aren’t readily available: a couple that stood out to me as highly intriguing were Кормилица | The Wet Nurse (1914) and the shocking Малютка Элли | Little Ellie (1918).
Youngblood is clear about the scope of her examination, and the execution is top-notch. She paints a vivid and engaging portrait of Russian films and the ways in which they reflected and influenced the wider culture in this period. It’s a relatively slim volume but perfectly formed. Highly recommended.
The History of Italian Cinema by Gian Piero Brunetta. Trans. Jeremy Parzen. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009 (originally published in 2003 in Italy).
Gian Piero Brunetta is a giant among Italian film historians, a truly eminent figure in the study and historiography of Italian film. Therefore, I had high hopes for this book, but unfortunately they weren’t totally realized. Although this English version is published by an academic press, it seems to be pitched as more of a generalist/popular history, and therein lies the problem.
Done well, I really enjoy it when authors weave together historiography/academic history and generalist history, but here I found it an uneasy blend. Brunetta takes every possible opportunity to mention the activities—or usually, the shortcomings—of academic researchers. While it is of course appropriate in any history to sometimes make statements to the effect of ‘Little research has been done on topic X’, I thought that these kind of comments recurred a bit too often in Brunetta’s text, often with a tone approaching admonishment. For example, Brunetta calls out André Gaudreault for publishing an article that incorrectly concluded that Italy did not have a culture of carnival barking. Fair enough, but it seems like a strange thing to make a point of. In my opinion, a more productive approach would have been to use the fruits of research to help paint a portrait of film history, with most of the meta-commentary consigned to footnotes; this would also help the flow of the text.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of good points to this book. The History of Italian Cinema contains a lot of great information about the silent era, brings together a number of different strands of film history (social, industrial, aesthetic, political), and includes some nice analysis. Brunetta’s turns of phrase are often quite poetic and charming, too: “These [film] producers were scattered across Italy like spots on a leopard.” And who could resist the following:
Cinema wanted to slice the bread of science, art, and culture and serve it to the masses and upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. It wanted to transform this bread, as if by transubstantiation, into a living being made of bodies and blood for a new type of periodic ritual.
I also really like what he wrote about diva films, which includes some interesting thoughts on character archetypes.
In summary, the issues I had were moderate rather than glaring, but irritatingly recurrent; still, maybe other readers aren’t bothered by them. In large part, I think they were due to the truncation between Brunetta’s original texts and the English version. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but this was not my favourite film history book.
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Ritchie. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001.
An excellent book. Donald Ritchie’s monograph covers the whole history of Japanese film up til the date of publication, but I’ll focus on his treatment of the silent era, though the rest of the book is equally interesting and readable.
Ritchie’s research and writing is excellent, but in my eyes his greatest strength is his critical methodology. Writing for a Western audience, he is adept at describing Japanese sensibilities and cultural mores, and how these operate in the context of film. Further, he interrogates the ideas of progress and evolution as they apply to film history. This kind of problematizing is de rigueur in early film history academic research, but popular film histories still often tend to treat the history of early film as a development from ‘primitivism’ to artistic maturity (maturity equalling the Classical Hollywood model of narrative film-making, of course). But clearly it is teleological to consider early cinema as a striving towards the narrative film ideal that we now take for granted (… and implicitly, that’s an idea that I try to bring across on this blog). A number of cultural forces led Japanese film to develop differently than how it did in Western countries; for example, the figure of the benshi (Japanese film interpreter) was an important part of the Japanese cinematic experience. As Ritchie writes, “From the Western perspective, it could be said that the benshi delayed the cinematic development of narrative in Japan. However, this line of thought is valid only if one believes that the development of narrative was a ‘natural’ development of the film and that there were no other alternatives. Actually, as Japanese film itself indicates, there were.”
Benshi were instrumental in imparting meaning to the audience; it’s well-known that they could be a bigger draw than the film itself. Benshi even made records that sold well and were listened to without the film; Ritchie also mentions one whose big hit was Das Kabinet der Caligari (DE 1920), and rendered it on stage “constantly” without the film. (Sidetrack: I remember once reading an interview with Colleen Moore where she had been told that she was a huge smash in Japan, only to later find out that her popularity was largely down to the benshi who interpreted her films. Moore was typically good-natured about it).
Early in the book, Ritchie outlines a good anecdote in censorship history concerning benshi, too. The French Pathé film La Fin du Règne de Louis XVI—Révolution Française (c.1907) was perceived to be a threat to the public peace, since Japan considered its emperor to be of divine descent. Before the film was to open, it disappeared and another film took its place: The Cave King: A Curious Story of North America. Louis XVI was now transformed into the leader of a band of robbers, and the storming of the Bastille became “a band of citizens loyally joining the police to suppress the outlaws, all this action taking place in the Rocky Mountains.” With the narration of the benshi, the story of the film was completely transformed.
A key point that Ritchie makes is that in Japan, cinema was perceived as a new form of theatre rather than as a new form of photography, as it was in the United States. Therefore, its adoption was guided by a whole different set of cultural assumptions: the idea of ‘film frame = stage’ persisted longer than in other countries, and considered along with the importance of benshi, cinematographic innovations in editing, shot construction, screenplay, etc were consequently less important.
One of the central themes of A Hundred Years is the idea of realism, and how it is differently culturally interpreted in Japan versus in the West. Ritchie describes how in its early cinematic history, Japan had no tradition of the realism in the Western sense. The crux of the matter is the difference between presentation and representation; presentation referring to a rendition of reality as portrayed and mediated by an authoritative voice, and representation being the Western style which assumes the reality of what was being shown. Different forms of artistic reality; the presentational style prized by Japanese culture may be perceived as highly stylized elsewhere. This is key to understanding why close-ups were not used in the same frequency or manner in Japanese silent film, yet techniques that might have been considered avant-garde in the West were used regularly in Japanese films of the 1920s and later.
This is not to say that Japanese film rejected the conventions of Western cinema: such films were warmly received in Japan, and very influential on Japanese filmmakers. Many of the prominent Japanese directors of later times fondly remembered the products of American silent film; Ozu Yasijurō is cited as having been inspired by Thomas Ince’s Civilization (1916) to become a film director. Intolerance (1916) caused a sensation when it was shown in 1919 in Japan; other films that were highly influential on filmmakers include Sunrise (US 1927) and Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle (US 1924). Western cinematographic techniques were incorporated into Japanese filmmaking, but the results could be best called a synthesis of styles rather than wholesale assimilation. A recurring pattern described by Ritchie is that of the Japanese artist undergoing a period of Western influence, later to return to a more Japanese style. What is Japanese style? Many things, but Ritchie provides a good overview of different storytelling conventions: “While Western plot stresses occurrence, causality, and responsibility, Japan’s traditional narrative means, the suji, emphasizes sequential flow, connection, association.”
In regard to the silent era, Ritchie describes the genres and forms that played important roles in Japan’s early film history: shimpa (“new school”, i.e. theatrical forms that reacted against kabuki conventions; partly Western), shingeki (“new theatre”, the Japanese version of Western realist theatre), jidaigeki (historical films, usually set in the Edo period of 1600-1867); gendaigeki (films about contemporary life), etc.
The only thing that stood out to me as lacking was that Japan’s transition to sound film-making in the 1930s was almost completely glossed over. However, it may be that this topic has been covered in depth elsewhere.
I own a copy of Donald Ritchie’s earlier book The Japanese Film (1959; co-written with Joseph L. Anderson); it’s a while since I read it, but from what I remember A Hundred Years has some common material with the earlier book, but is written with greater cultural nuance. A Hundred Years ties together a number of threads of film history: Film as both social phenomenon, developing art form, industrial product, form of drama, barometer of the cultural climate. Ritchie writes from a place of deep respect and knowledge. Essential reading.
Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell. United Kingdom: Virago, 2013.
Not a silent film book, but germane to the topic in its portrait of the mid-1920s. This was lent to me by a friend who is a huge fan of The Great Gatsby; I’m not the Fitzgerald superfan that she is, but I devoured this book. It’s a strange but sparkling blend: part social history, part literary history, part analysis of Gatsby as a text. Churchwell is wonderfully elegant writer, pulling together all sorts of interesting cultural nuggets in painting a picture of the Jazz Age, and she makes insightful observations about Gatsby’s themes and contents, the Fitzgeralds’ lives, and other literary personalities of the time.
One of the main threads of the book concerns the Hall-Mills murder case, which was a major news story at the time that Fitzgerald was writing Gatsby and, Churchwell argues, influenced his manuscript. This is where her otherwise assured approach stumbles, because it is too much of a reach: yes, Fitz would have heard about the murders, but there is no verified connection or close correlation between this event and the writing of Gatsby. If Churchwell’s argument was that as a part of the general cultural background, the murder case was an influence, that would be more valid, although still too tenuous: one could equally say the same of other current events or media. So while briefly sketching the parallels between the Hall-Mills case and Gatsby would have been interesting, I don’t think it really works as an extended theme – it almost feels like Churchwell is writing two separate books here. That said, although it did get repetitive, reading about the murder case as it developed – a botched investigation if there ever was one – was quite interesting, not to mention revealing of police procedure and tabloid conventions of the time. Churchwell only mentions this in passing, but the Hall-Mills murder inspired The Goose Woman (US 1925), a fine film with an excellent lead performance from Louise Dresser.
Even though the Hall-Mills sections wear out their welcome, Careless People is still a very insightful and entertaining book.
Hollywood’s Copyright Wars: From Edison to the Internet by Peter Decherney. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
Another really great read. Such a book was sorely needed: most silent film histories focus on the Edison-led patent wars rather than on copyright or other legal aspects of the motion picture business, and Decherney’s history of copyright and the American film industry is consistently interesting and informative. As a film scholar with a history of engagement in IP issues, Decherney is perfectly placed to bring together film and legal history in such a work. His writing style draws in the reader, and he explains concepts concisely, without either overexplaining or getting bogged down in jargon. Hollywood’s Copyright Wars covers topics in appropriate detail, and Decherney interprets and contextualizes events, rather than just relating them, which to me is the mark of an excellent researcher and writer.
The flipside of copyright enforcement is piracy, which is a major topic throughout Hollywood’s Copyright Wars. As Decherney states, “Copyright law is the battlefield on which media piracy battles are fought; it is the official engine for distinguishing piracy (or, more innocuously, ‘infringement’) from the many legal forms of copying, distributing, performing, and building on art and culture.”
Unauthorized use or reproduction of content is a constant issue for copyright holders. Think of Phife Dawg talking about bootleggers in Show Business: “Seems in ’91 everybody want a rhyme / And then you go and sell my tape for only $5.99?” But while A Tribe Called Quest’s claim to their music is unambiguous, things were a lot more murky at the beginning of the movies. Were movies photos, something akin to plays, visual stories, or something different? And what if they were adapted from another work, such as a book? US intellectual property law of the 1890s/1900s was not equipped to deal with this new medium, and film producers struggled to define the medium in regard to legal protection and copyright of their products. In fact, this issue points forwards to one of the main ideas of the book: that moving image copyright has often been regulated by extralegal means, rather than by legislation or case law.
Decherney highlights the extent to which piracy was key to the early film industry; indeed, as he demonstrates, piracy is a natural part of the development of a new medium. Although some ground rules quickly came into play, unauthorized duping of films – particularly European films, less likely to have US copyrights – was a key tactic of every major early US film company. The efforts to which Edison went to obtain copies of Méliès’ films is legendary – Edison had to go through multiple intermediaries, Méliès being wise to Edison’s duping ambitions.
Decherney details several important court cases of the era, including the long battle of the Kalem Film Company, and one where Charles Chaplin took on Charles Amador, a.k.a. Charlot imitator ‘Charles Aplin’. In a later case concerning James M. Cain, the question arose: how much of a plot is the unique expression of the author, and how much might be the inevitable result of storytelling logic necessitating the use certain stock characters and situations? Several legal authorities recur as big influences on the history of movie copyright: Judge Leon Yankwich, and the excellently-named Judge Learned Hand, whose cases included the famous Letty Lynton (1932) lawsuit.
The middle chapter, “Auteurism on Trial”, depicts the ways in which directors and other authors attempted (sometimes successfully) to invoke moral rights in gaining more control over their creations. Decherney gives an excellent overview of the different philosophical underpinnings of the (Anglo-)American and European legal traditions, which are most visible in the differing approaches to moral rights (droit moral). In the US, copyright is legally considered a kind of commodity: “a legal construction that can be bought, sold, traded, or dissolved”. The foundation of US copyright law is that creative work will ultimately belong to culture at-large; one can see this as a nicely democratic approach. The European (and particularly the French) legal tradition, however, is based on the idea that creative work is the unique product of an individual, and the work cannot be totally separated from its creator. Therefore, even after the term of economic rights expires, creators retain some control over their works. The classic film example of this is John Huston’s heirs successfully blocking The Asphalt Jungle (1950) from being broadcast in its colourized version on French television in the 1980s, arguing that it consituted a falsification of the Ford’s creative work. French courts awarded damages, but this court case would never have had any traction in the US, which only signed the Berne Convention in 1988 (!), and then in large part due to pressure from studios, who wanted greater abilities to enforce their copyrights in other countries. The US still does not really recognize moral rights, with the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 being a key exception.
Some of the material in Hollywood’s Copyright Wars was familiar territory for me from the course I did on moving image copyright during my Masters, particularly the issues around moral rights. But the scope of Decherney’s book is very impressive, and I learned a huge amount. Each chapter is focused around a different copyright issue: piracy; plagiarism; moral rights; fair use; digital technology and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act in particular. Some of the story is famous: the antitrust (i.e., competition law) Supreme Court ruling, the Betamax case, time-shifting, George Lucas’ aggressive self-protection. But there are plenty of parts of the story that are not so well-known (at least to me) and that I found highly interesting: Monty Python’s battle with ABC, the use of copyrighted material in avant-garde work, Harold Lloyd’s legal dispute regarding The Freshman (1925).
Overall, Hollywood’s Copyright Wars is an excellent history of the many ways moving image copyright in the US has been regulated, whether via industry self-regulation, technological control, or legal means such as legislation or case law. My commentary here has focused more on legal mechanisms, but as Decherney demonstrates, film/moving image copyright in the US was often actively managed outside that sphere: legislation was not always adequate, and Hollywood studios often kept things ‘in-house’ or developed other strategies to avoid the unpredictable outcomes of court cases. Recommended.