Records of Loss
Department of Communications
University of South Florida
After I saw From Stump to Ship, the 1930 amateur film about the long logging industry, I viewed Woodsmen and River Drivers, a 1989 compilation documentary that integrates From Stump to Ship footage along with historic still photos and interviews of retired woodsmen. The archival film and the contemporary documentary deal with the same topic: the vanishing of Maine’s long lumber industry and the loss of a way of life that accompanied it. As I confronted the past depicted by the documents’ images and narratives, other pasts that are not portrayed within the frame came to mind and helped to shape my viewing experience. I realized that when memories, nostalgic longings for a way of life that has vanished, or constructs of earlier spectators mix with the past that is framed within the documents, the viewer experiences a kind of double vision. This bifocality--or the experience of seeing both far and near--is a result of the viewer confronting various pasts both framed and unframed and then making sense of them through the lens of the present. From the viewpoint of the present, the viewer measures the past, which often results in a contemplation of loss that accompanies the passing of time.
While both documents help to create bifocality, their relationship between the past and present is not the same. Woodsmen and River Drivers seems to choreograph the relationship between the past and the present, while I am left to uncover and to interpret the link between them when I view From Stump to Ship. While both moving image documents are instructive portraits of a way of life that has all but disappeared, they reveal two distinct ways in which the concept of time is experienced. Like an old photograph, From Stump to Ship reflects the subjective experience of time past, as it frames a frozen past that appears to be entirely isolated from the present.
Woodsmen and River Drivers, on the other hand, is suggestive of the experience of time passing for it juxtaposes the past with the present, creating a temporal continuum that dramatically reveals the effects of time’s progression.
In this article, I begin by providing a historical context for From Stump to Ship and Woodsmen and River Drivers and then interpret how both documents help to create the experience of bifocality. An understanding of how we experience an amateur archival film and a documentary that integrates footage from it is has become increasingly important as cultural critics, film preservationists and to some extent, the general public, have come to recognize the cultural value of historic amateur films.
Because collection, restoration, preservation and storage of these cultural artifacts is so time consuming and financially taxing, it is important for moving image professionals to consider how contemporary audiences may respond to the moving image documents that are made accessible to them. And while not all archival amateur films can, will or even should find a substantive audience, some do. Many Maine citizens, for example, have discovered the cultural and historic importance of From Stump to Ship. In 2002, it was also named to the National Film Registry, a mark of distinction that is infrequently bestowed upon amateur films. As more moving images like From Stump to Ship become accessible to the public, we will want to have a clearer understanding of how such films help to shape our viewing experience and our relationship with eras that precede us.2
A Brief History of From Stump to Ship and Woodsmen and River Drivers
In 1930, Alfred Ames, the president of the Machias Lumber Company in Washington County, Maine created a 28-minute film of his long lumber business. Using a 16 mm moving picture camera, Ames focused his camera upon the woodsmen and river drivers that worked for him, creating a social history of life in the woods during the early twentieth century. As the title of the film suggests, Ames documented the entire process of his lumber business—from the cutting of trees to the milled lumber setting sail to market. He documented his employees sawing trees into 16-foot logs during the winter months and his horses toiling as they hauled great loads of lumber through snow packed woods to the river. As winter turned to spring, Ames filmed the river drivers agilely running over logs in the rushing water, shaking them with their pick poles to keep them floating with the current. Ames takes care to name most of the men shown in the film, and he emphasizes their individual skills. As the camera rests upon the 48-foot band saw at the mill, for example, Ames explains that it must be sharpened on a grinding machine. “Notice the sparks fly from the emery wheel on the filing machine. Jim Mealey is the filer. To file he simply points up the tooth with the file. These saws have to be rolled, hammered and tensioned. It is some job to make one run perfect.”
Ames and his nephew, Rufus Fuller, wrote a script to accompany the silent footage, providing viewers an account of the lumber business and details of the men who worked for him.3 Ames stated in the script that he made the film because he knew that “the long lumber industry in Maine was a thing of the past.” One of his original intentions for the film may have been to show it to his workers, for Ames exhibited the film at the Machias Lumber Company farewell banquet in 1930. “Mr. Ames is an expert amateur photographer and the pictures were of high caliber and intensely interesting to these men,” a newspaper article explained, “most of whom saw themselves on the screen at work.” 4
While Ames recorded the final days of his family’s lumber business and an important chapter in Maine’s economic and social history, the film was also used for political purposes. In 1932, Ames, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, exhibited From Stump to Ship as he read the script at Maine granges, churches, and American Legion posts as part of his campaign. An article in Machias Valley News suggested that this was a highly effective manner in which to run his campaign because Ames did not have to make any promises that he may later have difficulty keeping. 5 Nevertheless, Ames did not win the election, and the Democratic candidate, Louis J. Brann, became Maine’s new governor.
After the election, Ames lost interest in the film, and From Stump to Ship was not seen again until the mid-1940s, when Rufus Fuller borrowed the film and took it home to Providence, Rhode Island. There, Fuller showed the film at his children’s schools and to the theater department at Brown University. But after a few showings, Fuller put the film away, storing it in a cracker tin at his home. The film remained on a bookshelf in the Fuller home until 1970, when Fuller’s wife, Alice Fuller, donated the film to the University of Maine at Orono (UMO). At the university, the film made its way to David Smith, a historian of the Maine woods. For a few years, the film remained on the floor of Smith’s office, buried under documents and papers. Upon rediscovery of the film, Smith moved it to the Public Information Office at UMO. While the film was finally accessible, it received no scholarly attention until 1984—fourteen years after the film was donated to the university.
When Smith and Henry Nevison, the radio and television producer for UMO’s Public Information Office, finally viewed From Stump to Ship in 1984, they came to the conclusion that the film was an important historic artifact because it portrayed a fundamental of aspect of Maine’s cultural and economic heritage that had long disappeared from the realities of everyday life in the state. In order for the film to be restored, reconstructed and made accessible to the public, a team of scholars from UMO (that included Smith and Nevison) collaborated with Karan Sheldon and David Weiss, independent producers who had recently moved to Maine from Boston. With funding from the Maine Humanities Council and Champion International, a woods products company, Sheldon and Weiss were able to create a reversal work print, have the film restored and then reconstructed in 1985. 6
The decisions that were made during reconstruction of the film changed the nature of the original artifact. Some of the film’s collaborators, for example, were as committed to Ames’ script as they were to his images. They decided the film would be more cohesive and more accessible for contemporary viewers if a voice over (done by Tim Sample, a Maine celebrity, narrator, and humorist) of Ames’ script were added to the film. To show the film with sound on 16 mm projectors, the original 16 frames-per-second was changed to 24 frames-per-second. In addition, some elements of Ames’ script were also changed. Words that did not correlate with the images in the film were cut and in some places, two sentences were condensed into one. The film was altered by the 180 edits that were made to the film, reducing the film by approximately one minute. Most of the cuts simply tightened the film; for example, some cuts were made in places where Ames had forgotten to turn off his camera before he rested it on the ground. Some original shots appeared out of sequence and they were reordered for a more logical progression. Finally, a (fiddle and harmonica) musical score of early twentieth century jigs and waltzes common to the north woods was added to the film. Clearly, the reconstructed From Stump to Ship is not the same as the original film. The addition of a voice over and the musical score added an audible dimension; the frame rate changed the look of the film; and while the alteration to both the film and the script was not monumental, both of the original artifacts have been changed. While most of the original film and Ames’ words remain in the reconstruction, it is important to note that the film that is considered here, that has been viewed widely by contemporary audiences, and was named to the National Film Registry is not Ames’ original film. The reconstruction is an archival, amateur film that has been professionally produced as to accommodate existing sound and film technology.
Once production of From Stump to Ship was finished, the film was exhibited at UMO in September 1985. Expecting a few hundred people to attend the screening, Weiss and Sheldon were dumbfounded when eleven hundred people came to see the film. As part of the agreement with the Humanities Council the project participants took the film on the road, and from October 1985 to March 1986 nearly 8,000 people across the state viewed the film. From Stump to Ship resonated with the people of Maine, in part, because both the film and the public manner in which it was exhibited commemorated the widely forgotten history of woods life in the early twentieth century. Following the film screenings, audience members were invited to offer their reactions to the film. Many spoke of parents or other relatives who had worked in the woods and retired woodsmen and river drivers shared their own memories. In more private and casual conversations often following the public screenings, Sheldon and Weiss spoke with many of the retired lumbermen, some of whom had worked at the Machias Lumber Company for Alfred Ames.
From Stump to Ship is a document that has helped to restore and maintain the memory of the woods life; nevertheless, it is from the point of view of Alfred Ames, a prosperous business owner. Through their meetings with the many retired woodsmen at the film’s screenings, Sheldon and Weiss envisioned a documentary that was from the point of view of the retired workers—providing them with the opportunity to respond to the film that Ames had left behind. Sheldon and Weiss believed it was imperative to document their testimonies before it was too late, for most of the men were already at least eighty or ninety years of age. Fully familiar with the genre of the compilation documentary (a fact-based piece using personal testimony and other material), Sheldon and Weiss envisioned a production that combined a chorus of woodsmen voices in their own environment along with From Stump to Ship cutaways, historic still photos, and music germane to the region and period. The Maine Humanities Council funded The Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History (at UMO) to do a series of 25 oral histories with retired lumbermen whose experiences were associated with Woodsmen and River Drivers. The most dynamic and intriguing interviews were then videotaped to be included in the half hour documentary Woodsmen and River Drivers.
The Maine Humanities Council and Champion International Corporation provided a small budget to produce the documentary that was released in 1989. Over a three-year period, with supervision from UMO’s Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History, producers Sheldon, Weiss and director and videographer Michel Chalufour wrote, videotaped, and produced the thirty-minute documentary. Like From Stump to Ship, the structure of Woodsmen and River Drivers corresponds with the seasonal rhythm of the long lumber industry: there are woodmen’s recollections of woodcutting in the winter, river drivers’ memories of spring drives, and finally, reflections of millwork and schooners full of cargo headed to market during the summer months. The documentary has received critical acclaim, winning a gold medal at the 1990 International Film and Television Festival. It has been distributed through public screenings and home video cassette sales, and in the early 1990s was shown on PBS stations across the country as well as on The Learning Channel.
The Experience of Watching the Past
As we move toward an interpretation of the subjective viewing experiences of From Stump to Ship and Woodsmen and River Drivers and an understanding of how both documents help to evoke bifocality, we must first consider the ways in which spectators identify with what they see on the screen. Explicating the untranslated work of the Belgian psychologist Jean-Pierre Meunier, the film scholar Vivian Sobchack explains that our engagement with a film depends upon our knowledge and our familiarity with the objects that we see on the screen.7 The more familiar we are with what we see, the more likely we are to see beyond the screen object and back to our own life-worlds. For instance, the filmic objects in our home movies become referents for other places and times that we have experienced. We are dependent on the images that we see only in as much as that we use them (images of our parents, children, homes, friends, and pets) to evoke and recover memories. We view these kinds of moving image documents with one eye to the past and the other to the present, measuring the distance between them and the losses that have necessarily incurred along the way.
We may experience the documentary or a fictional film differently than the home movie because our knowledge of the images that we see is often incomplete—although not completely absent. While it may be that we are familiar with an image of the past that is constituted in a documentary or a fictional film, the images are not necessarily of our own past, so we must attend to the narrative more completely than when we watch our home movies or other films that portray portraits of the past that are personally familiar to us. This makes it less likely that we will see beyond the screen object and back to our own life-worlds. Such moving images can and do evoke the experience of bifocality; however, it is a less personal and more abstract experience.
We cannot necessarily predict how a spectator will experience an archival film or a documentary that integrates its footage because it depends, in part, upon the viewer’s relationship with the images on the screen. From Stump to Ship has a long history of viewers, ranging from Ames’ workers, to gubernatorial speech attendees, to academics, to thousands of contemporary Maine citizens. Clearly, not all viewers have responded to or could respond to the film in the same manner. When Ames exhibited his film to Machias Lumber Company’s farewell banquet in 1930, a newspaper reporter stated that the men viewed the film with fascination, as they were able to watch themselves working on the screen. Surely, seeing themselves on film must have been intriguing. However, the men must have also experienced an acute sense of loss as they watched what visibly remained of their working lives at the Machias Lumber Company.
Evocative of a time that was immediately past, the workers must have looked through the images on the screen, to reflect upon their working lives. It is likely that only Ames and the workers at the Machias Lumber Company could so completely experience the film in this way—using it to channel their specific pasts and to reactivate important elements of the lives that they had recently left behind. The attendees who watched From Stump to Ship at granges, churches and American Legion posts as they considered Ames as a potential governor of Maine would have likely used the images as a mimetic devise as well—though not to the extent as Ames or the men who once worked for him. Two years after the closing of Machias Lumber Company (which marked the end of the long lumber industry that had sustained the state’s economy for generations) the attendees would have most likely used the film as a catalyst--to evoke memories of the a way of life that was quickly disappearing from their state.
When From Stump to Ship reappeared in the mid-eighties, the number of people whose past was directly linked with the film had dwindled; however, as Sheldon and Weiss toured the film around the state, it became clear that the film was still meaningful to thousands of Maine citizens, and it still evoked powerful memories for retired woodsmen and their families. Sheldon, who kept a journal of the 1985 From Stump to Ship exhibitions around the state, wrote the following about one of the viewings:
We showed Stump at the high school and about 400 people came, including four river drivers from Princeton and Grand Lake Stream. After the presentation many people stayed in the cafeteria for molasses cookies. The river drivers stayed and told stories endlessly. Vern was away in the woods and came home to find he had a new daughter. ‘Where’d you get that?’ he asked his wife. He’d been gone six months or more.
After another From Stump to Ship viewing Sheldon wrote, “One man told of cutting 84 cords a day with two other fellows. Someone up front said he had a single horse and cut selectively. He pointed out the lumber under the stage and said it was Fraser, Canadian wood. It was a lively group with the enthusiastic, ‘I worked in the woods; this is a great film.’” 9
Retired workers and their families thought From Stump to Ship was a “great film” because they or their family members had “worked in the woods.” In other words, the specifics of Ames’ film hardly seemed to matter to the retired workers. After the viewings, what they had explicitly seen on the screen was not discussed; instead, they saw through the images of From Stump to Ship, and used them as a springboard for their own memories. Particularly in the town of Machias (where many of Ames’ workers once lived), community members did not necessarily have to see the film to be affected by it. “The film was in the air,” Sheldon explained, “It validated the town’s experience and its identity, generating many positive memories for the community.”
The people who recover personal memories as they watch From Stump to Ship have directly experienced what they see on the screen. They need not focus on the details of what they see on the screen. However, for most of us, the film is a less personal portrait of the past, providing contemporary viewers with both visual and descriptive details of the woodsmen’s skills, the intensity of their labor, and a portrait of the woods lifestyle. As the camera films a river drive, for example, Ames states that the camp cook has “halloaed (sic) luncheon”—meaning that it is time for the men to come in from the river and have lunch. As the camera focuses upon a man running over logs to get to shore so that he may eat lunch, Ames stated, “The fellow in the rear is Brown from East Machias, now a bellhop at the Falmouth Hotel, Portland. He said, ‘Mr. Ames, I came pretty near falling in.’ But he landed on shore all right.” The next scene shows about a dozen men at their camp preparing for and eating lunch. Some wipe their faces with a large towel. Others are shown eating their lunch, sitting on logs. Ames explains that the men eat breakfast at four in the morning, two lunches—one at nine in the morning and the other at two in the afternoon, and dinner when they come in from camp in the evening. He takes care to provide exact details of what they eat. For example, Ames explains that their lunch at nine in the morning includes “canned beef, boiled ham, hard-boiled eggs, biscuit, doughnuts, cookies, tea.”
After seeing From Stump to Ship at an Elder Hostel, Arthur Gates wrote, “Being from St. Louis, MO., this was totally different than anything we had ever seen but very enjoyable and quite understandable even though we had no background to understand it.” 10 Like Gates, most of us must pay close attention to the images in order to fill in the gaps of our partial knowledge. As I have never experienced a river drive or even seen one on film before I saw Ames’ film, I watch the drives in From Stump to Ship with great attentiveness. Ames filmed the river drivers agilely running over logs in the rushing water, shaking them with their pick poles to keep them floating with the current. He stressed the potential danger of river driving, particularly when the logs were jammed. As the film portrays the men tending to a log jam six to eight feet deep—all the way down to the bottom of the river—Ames stated, “The men on these logs have to be careful because if their foot slips down between some logs they are liable to have a foot or a leg pinched off. You will notice the logs gathering momentum all the time.” As Ames describes the process of pushing the logs with a pick pole to keep them from settling in a cove, he mentions that the sound of the river is so loud that the foreman must simply motion to the workers with his hands to communicate with them. I see the foreman gesturing with his hands to the other men, and because the film is my only experience with a river drive, I believe that the sound of the rushing river was overwhelming, and I am certain that river driving was a dangerous occupation. I am present and mindful of what I see on the screen. I do not drift away to my own past experiences as I watch the workers push the logs out of the cove.
A relative of Alfred Ames, a historian of the woods, a long-time Maine resident, or someone who simply vacations in Machias may have their own memories that shape their viewing experience of the film, but for many people From Stump to Ship functions as a compelling and informative documentary. Like me, their experience of the woods life is composed by way of Ames’ images, and any sense of a past that has been lost and then resurrected by viewing the film is not a personal one. In other words, the nostalgia that we may feel as we watch Ames’ film is one that he created by combining his images with the statements that he made in his script.
It is important to remember that Ames was aware that the way of life depicted in the film was soon to disappear. “Knowing that the long lumber industry in Maine was a thing of the past,” Ames explained in the beginning of the script, “in 1930 I purchased a moving picture camera to make a record of the long lumber operations on the river, and show by our method of forestry the size of the logs were able to produce.” It is in this context that we begin to watch the film; we are aware that this is one man’s account of a life that was being lost to him. During the film, Ames does not elaborate upon the sense of loss that he was presumably feeling, however, he does remind us of it as the film concludes. At the film’s conclusion, a schooner is seen, under her own sail, taking a cargo of lumber to Boothbay Harbor, marking the final step in the long lumber process and providing Ames the opportunity to reflect on the final days of his career in the lumber industry. “This is the Bertha V,” Ames says of the schooner, “sailing out into the night in a southeasterly rain. This is what I call the twilight of my career.” As the schooner departs, a sense of finality is emphasized, for Ames ends the film by quoting the final stanza of Longfellow’s poem “The Day is Done:”
And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.
In Longfellow’s poem, the speaker explains that a feeling of sadness and longing has come over him as darkness replaces the day. He wishes to be read a poem that that will ease his restless feelings. And once the poem has been read, the speaker explains, then the night will be filled with music and his cares will disappear. It is impossible to know exactly why Ames chose the last stanza of this poem to conclude his film; however, it may be that the film itself (like the poem that the speaker wishes to have read to him) is the remedy to the sadness and longing that Ames feels, as his “day” as a lumberman ends. For most contemporary viewers, any sense of nostalgia that they may feel as the film ends is an impersonal and abstract sense of loss that is channeled through Ames’ expressions of regret. In a way, From Stump to Ship is concrete representation of bifocality, his filmic images are the past he is about to leave behind, and his narrative seems to be his attempt to make sense of what he is losing.
The Experience of Lost Time
Like From Stump to Ship, Woodsmen and River Drivers recovers a personal past for only a small number of contemporary audiences, for it is a fascinating record of a kind of life that is no longer lived, a life that has receded into the archive. While our own pasts may not be summoned by either Ames’ film or Woodsmen and River Drivers, a study of the past’s irretrievability are summoned in both. From Stump to Ship is primarily the filmmaker’s personal record of loss, filmed at the moment when the life Ames had known his entire life was disappearing. Woodsmen and River Drivers, on the other hand, constitutes a collective record of loss for the woodsmen, filmed more than a half century after the life the men knew has disappeared.
Woodsmen and River Drivers integrates still photos, oral interviews, and archival film cutaways: conventions that signal to contemporary viewers to pay close attention to the images because something can be learned by watching them.11 Typical of the compilation documentary format, Woodsmen and River Drivers frequently depicts an interviewee who speaks of his memories. Woodsmen and River Drivers footage that closely correlates the details that the interviewee has recounted follows. In the documentary, for example, four retired woodsmen recreate a bean hole meal (a meal of beans cooked in a large pot over coals in a hole in the ground). Sitting at a picnic table on a bright summer day, the retired men reminisce about their working lives. As the camera cuts away to Woodsmen and River Drivers footage of river drives, one of the men sings a song about the dangers of the drives. “These words were scarcely uttered when the jam did break and go,” Oly Watson sings, “and carried off the six brave youths, including young Monroe.” Recounting the day that his brother-in-law drowned when he slipped off of two logs, Earl Bonness remembers that Ames came to the site and held the drive for five days. “That was a kind gesture,” he explains as he looks down. “Because everyone felt dreadful. And that was a pretty sad story to take back to his wife. But that could easily happen on a log drive. I had a few narrow escapes myself. Another day, another era.”
“Frequently the men talk about an activity, the actual event is shown, so that the emotional and physical aspects are both captured,” writes a Geography and History reviewer of Woodsmen and River Drivers. “It is impossible not to experience the danger and excitement as you witness men traversing a river of logs by jumping almost carelessly from log to log, or riding atop a log as it rushes downstream.”12 It is true that Woodsmen and River Drivers footage enables us to see the events that the men describe, helping us to better understand the woodsmen lifestyle. However, the interviews in Woodsmen and River Drivers juxtaposed with the images filmed by Ames also capture a profound sense of time passing and of the loss that accompanies it. For example, at one point in the documentary, the narrator explains that specially studded boots were just as important to the men as axes and peaveys. We then see archival footage of a handsome, young man proudly holding a new pair of river driving boots, as we hear the voiceover of retired river driver Lowell Vose state, “Well, they were a brand new pair of caulk boots. Thought I had to have a pair of caulk boots.” We then see the aged Vose speaking as he sits in a chair, holding a battered pair of boots. “Or I wouldn’t be a river driver. So, I had a brand new pair of boots. They were beautiful. That was right at the start of my river driving experience.” The juxtaposition of the young man and the new boots shown in the archival footage and the old man and the worn out boots is startling and the viewer cannot escape the message: time has taken its toll, weathering both the man and his boots.
Woodsmen and River Drivers documents the changes in the once thriving lumber town as well. As the documentary nears its conclusion, a long time Machias resident, Norman Nelson, looks down at the site where the mill once stood. As the camera records a few stones left from the mill’s foundation and the still riverbank, Nelson recalls that when the mill was in operation stacks of lumber would fill both sides of the riverbank and that twelve to fourteen vessels would be lined up to carry the lumber away to market. The narrator explains that Alfred Ames understood that economic changes, the effects of the Great Depression and the loss of traditional markets, spelled the end of the long lumber industry and a particular way of life. The wood camps, the sawmills, and the schooners have all disappeared, the narrator explains, and the only traces of the woods life are in the memories of the people who worked in the woods. “Today few know of their great skill and endurance,” the narrator states. “Still the woodsmen and the river drivers look back on their years along the Machias with pride.”
The documentary helps most viewers comprehend a way of life that has vanished. But, the format—the historic cutaways and men remembering their pasts—enables us to see the men in their youth and then observe and listen to them as they attempt to reunite with the lives they have long left behind. In other words, we are able to comprehend the experience of the woodsmen, but we also are given the opportunity to understand the experiential impact of time passing. One of the woodsmen, Newell Beam reflects on his past as the documentary concludes. “I am proud. I’m a woodsman. Yes, I know what to do in the woods and this and everything about it. I like it; I still like it, if I could go in. But I can’t go in,” he explains. “I can’t do it anymore. I’ve been there too many times.” If the viewer feels a sense of longing or sadness as the documentary ends, it is no wonder, for only the memories of the woods life remain vital. The documentary offers a study in irrevocable loss, as we are witnesses to the woodsmen’s youth (as seen in the Woodsmen and River Drivers footage), their attempts to reconnect with their pasts, and their profound awareness of the passing of time.
From Stump to Ship and Woodsmen and River Drivers are poignant explorations in loss, though they are moving in different ways. We are aware that when Ames looked through the moving picture camera lens to make his film he was looking ahead to the time when his life as a lumberman would be over. He was, in a sense, creating a format for his future nostalgia. His awareness of what he was about to lose remains forever in the present, preserved in his images and his words. On the other hand, in Woodsmen and River Drivers many years separate the woodsmen from the life they once knew. The men are at the end of their lives; the faces that look into the camera are worn, and their bodies, which once regularly performed strenuous physical feats in the woods and on the river, move about gingerly. Their memories of a time long past and archival footage of their young faces and strong bodies are all that remain of their lives in the woods. While Ames’ film preserves a story of a man who knew a significant moment in time was about to disappear, Woodsmen and River Drivers documents a story of men who both narrate and embody the effects of the passing of time.
The experience of watching From Stump to Ship and Woodsmen and River Drivers varies according to the relation that the viewer has with the objects on the screen. For some viewers, the images that they see are referents that help them to channel their own memories of a time that has past. For others, both Ames’ film and Woodsmen and River Drivers constitute a learning experience and there is a distinct distance between the viewer and what they see on the screen. Still, both documents are studies in time lost. While From Stump to Ship is a much older film, the loss depicted in it is far more instantaneous because Ames was self-consciously preserving the end of an era at the moment of its conclusion. When viewers see the schooner Bertha V leaving the harbor at the end of Ames’ film, we are aware that as he looks through his movie camera he is watching the beginning of the end of his life as a lumber man. The viewer must interpret the long stretch of time and the many changes that have occurred since the film was made. On the other hand, in Woodsmen and River Drivers, we see moving images of both the past and present; the loss of a way of life is specifically framed for the viewer in the juxtaposition. In addition, both the retired woodsmen and the documentary’s narrator explicitly tell us that the woods life and all of its adventure and rusticity is long gone. Thus, part of the intended experience of Woodsmen and River Drivers is a feeling of nostalgia for an era that has disappeared. The documentarians construct a life-world for the viewer, narrate its demise, and then create the space for us to deliberate upon its irrevocable loss.
The Experience of the Lost Audience
Woodsmen and River Drivers was written, videotaped and produced using modern documentary conventions. Its compilation format signals to its viewers that they can glean knowledge about a time that has disappeared. While the documentary’s audiences may differ in age, status, or geographical origin, one similar and constant characteristic of all of its viewers is that they live in the contemporary world. All viewers of Woodsmen and River Drivers have comprehended its meanings through the lens of the present day. From Stump to Ship , on the other hand, evokes for contemporary viewers a peculiar sense of nostalgic fascination about its earliest audiences, a fascination that is unique to moving images that were made in an earlier era. Watching From Stump to Ship we see a way of life that is disappeared, but we may also be aware that its original audience has been lost to us as well. While it is likely that Ames’ first audiences were aware that what they saw on the screen was an era that was disappearing, the 1930s audience members were not looking back very far; they did not construe what they saw on the screen as archaic or quaint (however, the experience may have been out of the ordinary, for it is most likely that the exhibition of From Stump to Ship was a rare occasion for rural audiences in Maine to join together to view their own world on film).13 Nor were they constructing an imaginary profile of its earliest audiences because they were the film’s contemporary viewers.
When I view From Stump to Ship I cannot help but imagine the Maine audiences who watched in the 1930s. I try to envision the woodsmen who viewed it at the Machias Lumber Company farewell banquet, and I construct hazy identities for those who viewed it at granges, churches, and American Legion posts during Ames’ gubernatorial campaign. In other words, my experience of watching Ames’ film is divided between watching the film and imagining the film’s earliest spectators. As the film nears its conclusion, for example, Ames pans the area around the mill yard with his camera and explains that the small houses seen in the film are owned by the mill men who have worked for Ames’ father, brother and himself. “They all own their own homes,” Ames explains, “and they are very comfortable.” A statement such as this may be irksome to our present day sensibilities, for we are aware that Ames who was a wealthy and powerful businessman, a Maine state senator (1916-1921), and a gubernatorial candidate cannot speak for the workers and their families that live in the houses. However, as I listen to Ames declare that his workers are satisfied with the lives that he has helped to create, I try to imagine the reactions of his earliest audiences. Were the men who watched the film at the Machias Lumber Company farewell banquet offended, amused, or agreeable to Ames’ perspective? Were the people who gathered in granges and Legion halls satisfied that what Ames said was the truth of the matter? Or did they find his attitude patronizing? My divided experience of simultaneously watching what I see on the screen and imagining the reactions of the lost audience creates a particular kind of nostalgia that is unique to moving images from another era.
The cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek calls such a divided experience “nostalgic fascination.” Using the genre of film noir to detail his analysis, he asserts that contemporary audiences cannot take the dramatic scenes of film noir seriously. “What we really see when we watch a film noir, is this gaze of the other: we are fascinated by the gaze of the mythic ‘naïve’ spectator,” he argues, “the one who was ‘still able to take it seriously,’ in other words, the one who ‘believes in it’ for us, in place of us.” Asserting that our relation to film noir is always divided between fascination and distance, Zizek believes that the distance we feel from the film is, in effect, what draws us to it; the inability to be absorbed by the film’s narrative is the very condition that creates its allure. We are drawn to the gaze of the original audiences—the lost audience who could identify with such a film without irony or sentimentality. The assertion that earlier viewers of film noir necessarily took the films seriously and that present-day viewers cannot is questionable; however, the idea that we experience “double vision” when we watch a historic film is helpful for understanding part of the experience of watching Woodsmen and River Drivers. 14 Constructs of earlier spectators juggled with contemporary perceptions may help to shape the archival film viewing experience. It is as if we watch such a historic film in a room crowded with ghosts. We necessarily watch images of the past through the lens of the present, but our perceptions are haunted by those earlier spectators, the ones whose vision were not encumbered by the phantom audiences that came before them. 15
From Stump to Ship and Woodsmen and River Drivers are both moving image records that document a particular way of life that has been lost. The subjective experience of them is unique to each viewer, for the experiential impact is determined in part by the viewer’s lived experiences in relation to what is seen on the screen. If what we see on the screen is unfamiliar to us and does not reflect our own experiences, we may feel nostalgic, but the past remains generalized and remote. It is simply the non-present. The more familiar we are with what we see on the screen, the more we use the screen’s images to reflect on our own life-worlds. As we watch the images on the screen and we reconnect with our personal histories, particular elements of the past take on a distinct contour and shape as they are brought to the forefront of our consciousness. In this case, the past is more than an abstractive non-present. However familiar we are with what we see on the screen, it is clear that the past is navigated through the filter of our present-day consciousness. In both the contemporary documentary and the archival film, the past and the present commingle in varying degrees, creating the condition of bifocality--a kind of temporal double-consciousness for the viewer.
However, while both From Stump to Ship and Woodsmen and River Drivers are documents of lost time, their temporalities are distinctive. The archival film is frozen in the past. With no references to present day, Ames’ film creates the impression that past and the present are entirely unrelated. The viewer then, must actively interpret and make the connections between these two temporal worlds that seem extraneous to one another. Furthermore, contemporary viewers may judge their own reactions to the film in accordance with their ideas of the phantom audience—furthering the effect that the past and the present are distinctive from one another. The archival film, then, creates the experience of time passed. The documentary, on the other hand, creates the experience of time passing. Rather than the temporal stasis of the archival film, the documentary reveals time’s fluidity. Woodsmen and River Drivers visually and descriptively juxtaposes the past with the present enabling the viewer to see and to hear the effects of passing time. As the retired woodsmen look into the camera and tell us of their memories, we cannot help but be reminded of time’s inevitable march. We see a way of life as it once was--as well as its present absence. While both documents are records of the past’s irretrievability, for most viewers it is possible to remain at a distance from the effects of time as we watch From Stump to Ship . In contrast, Woodsmen and River Drivers poignantly reveals the relationship between the effects of time’s progression and the human condition.
- I am happy to report that my husband and I are now summer residents of Bucksport, as we are the proud owners of a 170–year-old Cape, four miles from Northeast Historic Film.
- For a detailed cultural and historical interpretation of the 16 mm camera see Patricia R. Zimmermann, Reel Families (Bloomington, IN.: Indiana University Press, 1995). For a complete account of the history of home movie technologies see Alan Kattelle, Home Movies: A History of the American Industry, 1897-1979 (Nashua, New Hampshire: Transition Publishing, 2000). For a Freudian interpretation of the amateur filmmaker and his/her films see Mark Neumann, “Home Movies on Freud’s Couch, “The Moving Image, 2:1, 2002. For a phenomenological interpretation of home movies see Vivian Sobchack, “Toward a Phenomenology of Nonfictional Film Experience,” in Collecting Visible Evidence, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). For an account of how an amateur film helped to form a regional film archive see Janna Jones, “From Forgotten Film to a Film Archive: The Curious History of From Stump to Ship,” Film History: An International Journal, in press.
- The information in this article concerning the early history and reconstruction of From Stump to Ship and the creation of Woodsmen and River Drivers was gathered through interviews with Karan Sheldon and David Weiss (both of Northeast Historic Film), archival materials, and the personal papers of Sheldon and Weiss. A detailed analysis of the reconstruction of From Stump to Ship and its impact on the state of Maine, as well as its impact on Sheldon and Weiss’s decision to form Northeast Historic Film can be found in Janna Jones, “From Forgotten Film to a Film Archive: The Curious History of From Stump to Ship,” Film History: An International Journa ,vol. 15 Number 2, 2003.
- “Machias Lumber Co. Has Farewell Banquet,” The Union Republic, October 30, 1930.
- “Alfred K. Ames Is Going Strong in Other Counties,” Machias Valley News, April 27, 1932.
- Because the team did not view the original artifact as having innate value, once the film was restored, they used Ames’ print to cut A & B rolls in order to save a generation and have better image quality for release prints. Weiss maintains this was probably the worst of several bad decisions that they made as they set about reconstructing the film. In order to make the A & B rolls they cut the original Ames’ print into 200 pieces. While Sheldon and Weiss would form Northeast Historic Film in 1986, at the time of the 1985 reconstruction of From Stump to Ship their mindset was of producers, not film archivists.
- Vivian Sobchack, “Toward a Phenomenology of Nonfictional Film Experience,” Collecting Visible Evidence, (eds) Jane M. Gaines and Michael Renov (University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 243.
- Karan Sheldon, personal journal, December 9, 1985.
- Ibid. October 19, 1985.
- “From Stump to Ship: The Preservation, Assembly and Public Outreach Program for a Rare 1930s Documentary Film on Maine’s Logging History,” Final Report, January, 1987.
- Whether what can be learned from the documentary is “true” is beyond the scope of this article; however, the influential texts New Challenges for the Documentary, ed. Alan Rosenthal, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) and Jay Ruby, Picturing Culture: Explorations of Film & Anthropology (University of Chicago Press, 2000) explore this issue in detail.
- Arlene M. Albert, “Woodsmen and River Drivers: Another Day, Another Era,” Geography and History, Spring 1990.
- For a comprehensive analysis of early non-fiction films, see Jay Ruby, Picturing Culture: Explorations of Film and Anthropology (University of Chicago Press, 2000).
- Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, (The MIT Press, 1992), 112.
- Woodsmen and River Drivers takes great care to explicate the power relationship between Ames and his workers. The documentary explains that Ames’ relationship with his workers and his dominance in Machias was typical for a lumber industry owner. For example, we see old footage (that is not included in From Stump to Ship) of Ames smiling and shaking his finger at a man standing next to him. The narrator states that Ames was openly paternalistic. Retired woodsman Frank Dowling describes the relationship between Ames and the lumbermen of the town. “I can’t say he was a philanthropist or anything like that,” he states, “but he provided work for the majority of people who wanted to work along that line.” He also claims that the men were committed to both their work and the company. “It is impossible to describe the espirit de corps that you find in that bunch of men. They were all working for the own interests just as same as if they were owners in the company,” Dowling insists. “It doesn’t seem possible but it’s a fact nevertheless.” The narrator states that in small towns, from generation to generation, the same families played the same roles, and Ames was the dominant figure in Machias because his company was and had been the dominant industry in the town for generations. To further detail the relationship between the workers and Alfred Ames, Woodsmen and River Drivers includes an interview with Agnes Dinsmore—a retired bookkeeper for the Machias Lumber Company. Dressed in her Sunday best, sitting in a chair in her home, Dinsmore explains that she began keeping the books for Ames around 1928. She worked at the company’s headquarters that was situated above the general store (also owned by Ames) that stocked groceries and provisions for the lumbermen and their families. She states that the woodsmen were dependent on Alfred Ames, as their salaries were low; their provisions were supplied by his general store, and once their debts from the store were paid, they had little money left. But, Dinsmore also remembers that Ames lent money to his workers when the needed help. “And so we’d take a note and I had an envelope full of notes and every so often they’d make payments on the notes,” Dinsmore said. “And I don’t know that they were ever all paid.” It is impossible to know for certain, but future generations of audiences may wonder how late twentieth century spectators responded to such an explicit interpretation of the imbalance of power, as such an explication will surely be marked as a late twentieth century phenomenon.