Toward Access, Interpretation and Understanding, Excerpts

Mark Neumann
Associate Professor
Department of Communications
University of South Florida
mneumann@cas.usf.edu


I’d like to welcome everyone to the fourth annual Northeast Historic Film Summer Symposium. I look forward to this symposium each year, and I always come away having learned a great deal. This year we have two full days of excellent papers covering issues of access, pedagogy, audiences of amateur film, the therapeutic uses of home movies, the 28mm format, the origins of national cinema, and how we might better understand cultural life through archival film.

Before we begin with our presentations, I want to offer a few remarks to introduce some of the issues that emerge for me regarding this year’s symposium theme, “Toward Access, Interpretation, and Understanding.” Here at Northeast Historic Film, the issue of “access” to archival film seems to operate on a philosophy of openness, and they continually take a proactive approach toward bringing public awareness to their collections. But access also has an important relationship with interpretation, and our broader understanding of archival film, amateur film, and obscure and rare images is largely reliant on how we make sense of why such films are significant.

In order to make access to archival film relevant to a wider segment of the public—students, teachers, researchers, citizens, filmmakers, and other scholars—we need to make a case for these films; it’s in this basic way that access, interpretation and understanding are interdependent.

Considering we have a wide range of archivists and academics assembled here, I thought we might begin by all looking at a few minutes of amateur film and then discuss it. This is film that I know none of you have seen, so we all have the opportunity to view it together for the first time.

This film comes from a factory machinist who lived and worked in New England his entire life. He never graduated from high school, ending his formal education in the 10th grade. He purchased his first movie camera in 1947, on the occasion of the birth of his first son. He made the films I am about to show you in the mid-1960s, when he was in his early forties. He used a new camera, his second, a Yashica 8mm camera with an automatic zoom lens. About 25 years after he shot this film, he transferred the film to videotape. Rather than seek out a professional transfer service, he made the transfer himself. His method for doing so involved hanging a sheet in his living room, projecting the film, and then recording the projected image with a video camera mounted on a tripod. I mention this because it will become apparent that something…well, doesn’t seem right in the images you will see. There appears to be two fields, or planes, on which the images move.

The films show us portions of the man’s two-week vacations from the factory, traveling with his family through parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, the Midwest, upstate New York, Ontario, and the Maritime Provinces. These portions come from compilation reels he made where several years of vacation footage are spliced together on a single reel. The majority of the editing in the film was done in the camera. I haven’t edited the film except to excerpt from two separate reels and join together three separate selections from two of his vacation compilation reels. I did so on an editing deck in my university department, so this version is one video transfer away from his original video transfers.

Finally, I want to add that I’ve added music. This is for two reasons. The first reason is to alleviate potential boredom. I’m always apprehensive about the silence that accompanies silent films, and I know some of you may object to my inclusion of music. But, I’m not sure that home movies were really ever viewed in silence, and I’ll talk about that in a moment. The second reason for including music is a bit of an experiment. The music is two selections from a recording by Brian Eno called “Music For Films,” which is a set of recordings of “potential” film soundtracks. That is, they are soundtracks of films that don’t exist. They were not commissioned for any film except for what was being “screened” in Eno’s brain when he composed them. I incorporated them with these films as an experiment in “chance,” and to see how the music might intersect, perhaps, synchronize with the film images. These films will run for approximately 11 minutes.

[The lights dim, the film is projected and, when it is finished, Neumann continues]

I wanted to show these films because I’m hoping they might serve as an overture of sorts for the symposium. Give us an example to reflect on, and discuss.

My own interest in amateur films, and home movies like these, stems from a cultural interest in how such films might be used to better understand cultural life. But I have to confess that I’m not entirely sure that I know what home movies are. I’m not trying to sound naïve as much as challenge some of my own assumptions, and maybe some of our collective assumptions about amateur film. What features constitute their existence in our lives? How they are situated in the context of a family? An archive? What significance do they have in the midst of exhibitions—both private and public?

Questions such as these and others, I believe, are rooted in the practices of interpretation and understanding—the latter terms of our conference theme—which are also the practices that often make the case for the time, effort, and money that goes into preserving and archiving any particular film. So, when I confront home movies like the ones we just viewed, I’m interested in them because they often baffle me, and they leave me with a sense of curiosity rather than the satisfaction of obvious comprehension. I think that our efforts at making sense of such films is somewhat like a line that a critic once used to describe Jackson Pollock’s paintings (and I’m paraphrasing): “Pollock’s canvases are a case of domesticating wildness.” What might this characterization mean for how we make sense of amateur film?

Well, I think that there is a kind of “wildness” in the vast landscape of amateur film that we are struggling to tame. Our efforts at interpretation, cataloging, and the very techniques and language we employ are efforts to find a way of speaking about such films that can confound us, and slip away from us when we try to put them into categories, or describe them in a database. And considering that we come to these films from different backgrounds, are we prone toward trying to “fix” these films within the language of our professions, our disciplinary approaches, and does this narrow our best efforts? Instead, I have to wonder if we might seek to work toward some alternative and common language for understanding and valuing amateur films that work against our own anchored ways of seeing and knowing, and rub against the grain of our own “instincts” for interpretation. For instance, if we take the films we just viewed as an example, how would we situate them in an archival collection? How would we describe for others what we have just seen?

Let’s begin by thinking about the production and authorship of these films. How did these films get made? Whose film is this? To say that the creation of this film should be assigned to a particular individual would be most likely be a mistake. We realize, for instance, that the factory machinist (who I told you made these films) appears in several scenes and that other members of the family are using the camera to film him while he is cooking, or driving, or fishing. In this way, the film provides us with evidence of a somewhat multi-authored text. In this case, the camera is a device that circulates within the family, and the resulting footage is indicative of the viewpoints of several individuals, different in age and interest. There are at least two generational viewpoints at work in this film.

To a great extent, much of camera work shows the documenting of different landscapes, and how the family moving through, or posing in those landscapes. At the same time, there are clearly narrative conventions at work. For instance, we see the fish being cleaned by the lake, and we see the fish being cooked by the man who cleaned (and presumably caught it). In another segment, we see a tower; we look up at the tower and zoom in on the observation deck. Then we are on the observation deck looking down at the place where the previous shot was made. And finally, the camera pans to payoff, the view achieved from the high place. These are—at base—familiar narrative techniques. On the other hand, there seems to be no real regard for any sense of geographic continuity in the films. We move quickly across a wide range of regions. We are in Pennsylvania, Chicago, then West Virginia, then upstate New York, then Ontario, and none of these places seem to come in any order that suggests there is anyone paying attention to the actual itinerary of the vacation. Instead, the films have been assembled around a common sense of time—the time of the family vacation—and what links these places together is the narrative of the family who appears against the backdrop of this wide ranging geography of attractions and scenes.

And what do we make of the transfer to video? Is this an element of production? Or is it merely a by-product of the original film, an assumption on our part for the value of an original object rather than a process of recovering the process of revisiting the text, reinterpretation? In addition, some of you might cringe at my inclusion of music in the projection of these films. After all, they are silent films. But are they really? Technically, there is no capacity for recording sound on the original 8mm the factory machinist used to record these images, but we do know from our own experience that when films such as these were viewed in the home, they were often accompanied by the voices of those who watched them. And would it make a difference if the factory worker, while engaging in his homespun technique of film to video transfer, dropped the needle on his stereo and recorded music he thought was appropriate for images he was projecting. In many of his video transfers this is the case. Clearly, there is an impulse for preservation at work in his efforts to put his film on VHS tape, but there is not an ethic of purity as much as continued engagement with the film in an effort to make the images meaningful.

What I’m driving at is really a question of continual productivity rather than a final sense of production as being an essential and fluid element of film. It’s an element that doesn’t only reside in the creation of an exposed piece of film and how it is edited, but is also an ongoing process that continues into the practices of spectatorship, which also include the ongoing processes of interpretation, and the contexts of interpretation.

Perhaps it might be useful to suggest that we invoke a distinction between film and image as Roland Barthes did in his book, Camera Lucida, his last book before his death in 1981. For those of you have not had the opportunity to read it, Camera Lucida is a mixed bag of analysis, theory, a personal account of the role photographs played in Barthes’ life. He dedicated the book to Sartre, as homage to his earlier work, The Psychology of the Imagination. Now, I won’t take the time to summarize the whole of Barthes’ book. Instead, I would merely like to point out a few of his ideas because I think they might be useful in this context. One of the distinctions Barthes makes in Camera Lucida is between the photograph and the image. In many ways Barthes regards the photograph as the technical and chemical process of recording and extracting an event from the flow of time, and stabilizing and anchoring a trace of it with a camera. Images, on the other hand, are the "site" of a continuous process of reinterpretation produced out of the historical context of the presentation of the image and the performance of the viewer. In other words, unlike the photograph, images are not stable and are continually re-made to be meaningful. This continual remaking of meaning, of course, depends on the variations of contexts in which they are seen and contemplated.

How might this idea be useful for us? By distinguishing between photograph (to some extent, we can substitute “motion picture film”) and image, Barthes is aiming toward a division where the process of interpretation rests on numerous factors that exist outside the frame, and is largely a consequence of the productive relationship between a viewer and the image. Later in his book, he tries to supply us with a language that teases out the experience of interpreting an image. Two terms—what Barthes calls “the studium” and “the punctum” —-are particularly appropriate in this context because they reflect the tension between culturally based dispositions and the idiosyncrasies of the subjective viewing experience. The studium is the spectator's attraction to an image that emerges from such factors as cultural background, interest, or curiosity. For instance, Barthes describes photographs such as news photographs, war photographs, landscapes, or sociological photographs as providing for the spectator of a lot of studium. We know what these images are because we understand their conventions. The punctum, on the other hand, is that detail or piece of information that catches the eye, jogs the memory, arouses a sense of increasing interest in the image. The punctum has the power to expand an image beyond our sense of expectations. It offers a jolt or, as Barthes says, it is that detail that “pricks us” as we might be pricked with a pin.

So, if we consider the films I showed, we might say that they are typical of vacation home movies, and this analysis is suggestive of an attraction toward the image that reveals its familiarity with other images like them. But if we are struck by something in the film—the image of the knife blade puncturing the belly of the trout, the discomfort in the eyes of the boy wearing a civil war cap as he is asked to salute for the camera while at Gettysburg, or the family wandering below the “Big Nickel” in northern Ontario—perhaps, the film has opened up in some way, expanded beyond the frame, and this can provide us with a different way of finding a relationship with an image. I think I might best be able to illustrate the concept of punctum if I provide you with one more detail about the films we viewed: They are my father’s films. Among the faces who looked into his camera in 1965, is a six year old version of me, looking at you 38 years into his (and my own) future. Does such a detail expand the images you have just viewed?

I mention Barthes’ notions of studium and punctum because they are, in my mind, productive metaphors for thinking about interpretation of amateur films. The concept of the studium is, by its very nature, and by the extent that it is bound up in the codes of cultural training, a conservative dimension of interpretation. The punctum, on the other hand, is deeply idiosyncratic, but it emphasizes the productive relationship between viewer and image, and reminds us of the expansive potential for interpretation. I suppose it is, in fact, that expansive potential—one that comes from a radical approach to interpretation-- that I am advocating in the ways we make sense of amateur and archival film, interpret it, and talk about it at symposia like this one. It is the kind of discourse that we gather around a film that will supply us with its value and the ways we come to understand a particular piece of film.

For me, one of the central questions surrounding the interpretation and understanding of archival and amateur films is how we come to value these films. What are the forces that animate a film, allowing it to move from the protected atmosphere of cold storage and projected into the world of scholars, students, and perhaps even a larger public? The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, in his book The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective describes how there are regimes of value—variable intensities that rise and fall around objects as they circulate through culture. Appadurai is primarily interested in material objects—consumer objects that become gifts, household items, heirlooms, antiques, and mementoes—that take on new meanings in new contexts. But I wonder if we might begin to think about how the materiality of films, and the materiality of images, also move through our culture, and how they and rise and fall in their intensity and significance.

In this way, we might ask how the films we find in archives have a kind of “biography”. How have these films traveled across time and perhaps even across cultures? For instance, the films I showed you this morning have traveled to a classroom at the Sorbonne in Paris, and were viewed by French graduate students who attended a lecture I gave on American culture, leisure, and mobility. The films produced in a working class family in the 1960s for private purposes, became an example of cultural and sociological interest. Today, they have taken another journey as they were projected in this symposium aimed at the meaning of archival film. To what extent has this film been changed by such travels? Was there ever really a moment when it had an “original” meaning, or have these images always existed in a kind of fluid re-making of meanings and values? To what extent has any film been appearing and disappearing and reappearing again over time, and meaning something different each time?

In speaking about the meaning of time and popular culture, critic Leo Braudy once observed that as we move through popular culture, popular culture moves through us. That is, popular culture becomes integrated into our own biographies, and this, I think, would be true of archival and amateur film as well. Of course, a film cannot travel on its own. Yet films seem to take on a life (perhaps one that seems their own) due to the ways that they become intertwined with our own biographies. Perhaps a most pertinent example of this would be the case of From Stump to Ship. Sitting in obscurity in a university office until it is “found” and preserved by Karan Sheldon and David Weiss, the biography of that film is integral to the biography of Karan and David, and all of it is a foundational element in the establishment of Northeast Historic Film.

I think that when we begin to start thinking about these other ways of understanding the existence of archival films and amateur film, we realize that they are suspended in our various academic communities and, in some cases, our culture, through a variety of narratives. Some of these narratives are formalized in journal publications as in the case of Janna Jones’ account of From Stump to Ship in the recent issue of Film History. In other cases, the narratives are less formal and part of an oral culture that moves through the worlds of archivists and academics. And, of course, there are the lesser-known family narratives that provide the continuity among the films that constitute a particular body of home movies. In all of these cases, we see how the artifact of the film intersects with the existence of those who view it, write about, and try to keep it alive for others. It’s in this way that we can imagine how the significance of films—particularly archival films—emerges through a variety of discourses, and it’s in those discourses that they are projected into a realm of public life, and register with a renewed sense of intensity and value.

A few weeks ago, I was able to attend a screening of Peter Davis’ film, Hearts and Minds, here at the Alamo Theatre. This was a new print of the film, and Karan and David had invited Davis to introduce the film and, following the screening, he returned to the stage to speak about the film and answer questions from the audience. The Alamo Theatre was packed with people who had come to see the film—made about 30 years ago—about the effect of the Vietnam War on Americans. When the film was over, the audience spontaneously began to talk about the relevance of the film to our present war in Iraq. In many ways, the film served as a catalyst to air present feelings about being at war, and it became clear that these images of Vietnam had become a catalyst for nothing less than a community forum about the American invasion of Iraq. This was a case of how a film from one era can become relevant in another era, and how that relevance emerges from our private and collective interaction with it.

When I look at various collection catalogues and databases at archives, I have to wonder if there might be a place where we could begin to collect different kinds of narratives, pieces of information, reactions, ideas, myths, legends, and fragments of knowledge about different films that would allow researchers to have some sense of how a film has impressed itself on different viewers and audiences over time. I suppose what I’m suggesting is that we might think about how we could begin to assemble and collect the discourse that circulates around a film, and thereby allow the meaning of a particular film to be continually recontextualized. In many cases, entries for films in archival databases tend toward a language of neutrality. The film is described in some effort to be “objective” and thereby the film becomes akin to an object exhibited in a museum display case.

I am not suggesting that we dispense of this manner of indexing and cataloging films. Instead, as a way of closing my remarks this morning, I want to suggest the possibility of creating something like a “shadow archive,” a collection of entries about films made by those who research them and use them, that exists alongside the formal entries that are used to archive films. The significance of this “shadow archive” is that it would be a space to begin to see the biography of a film as it is linked with the biography of those who have viewed it, and studied it.

Such an endeavor would be an ongoing enterprise, and over time we could see the emergence of a body of ideas, and knowledge that provides a sense of how a film has become meaningful for different people over time. Rather than offer a list of “facts” about a film, this shadow archive might be closer to the sidebars found in newspapers. They would offer additional information, stories, and commentary about a film. I don’t think this would be difficult to accomplish because we already seem to be doing it in other arenas of discourse. For instance, I believe most of us here today are subscribed to one kind of listserv or another. From our experience on such lists, we can see how threads of discussion about various topics emerge and then disappear. In the case of what I’m calling a “shadow archive,” we could collect an informal body of information about a film that would, I suspect, be of great interest to others who want to know what others have said or thought about a film. Many of you, I’m sure, have had the experience of checking a book out of a library and have found that a previous reader has used the margins to record his or her reactions, ideas, and thoughts about what he or she has been reading. This marginalia are sometimes annoying, but many times it is interesting as well because it records the presence of another reader, and how that person moved through the text. We know from talking with each other at symposia such as this, that there are many stories we all hear and tell each other about films we have seen or that we are working with. The concept of the “shadow archive” would be a space where such stories would record how people move through film archives, and how archival films have moved them in one way or another.