Sound and vision blog

14 posts from March 2010

31 March 2010

Recording of the week: Ugandan legendary lamellaphone player praised

Muzale was a great budongo (lamellaphone) player among the Soga people of western Uganda. In this recording the performer Kasuwa sings a song in his praise.  The recording was made at the Uganda Museum where the then curator and recordist, Klaus Wachsmann, had initiated an innovative programme to include live music performances to demonstrate the musical instruments on exhibit:

Wachsmann 'Recording of the Week' highlights gems from the Archival Sound Recordings website, chosen by British Library experts or recommended by listeners. This week's item was recorded in 1950 at the Museum of Uganda in Kampala. It is selected from the Klaus Wachsmann Uganda Collection by Dr Janet Topp Fargion, curator of World & Traditional Music at the British Library Sound Archive.

The "foremost pioneering scholar in African music", Klaus Wachsmann (1907-1984) made roughly 1,500 unique recordings of indigenous music in pre-independent, pre-Amin era Uganda, most of which have never been published before.  Further information on the Wachsmann collection.

29 March 2010

Recommended reading no. 3 - Kafka Goes to the Movies

Here's number 3 in an occasional series that reviews unfamiliar or neglected books on film (which of course you can find here at the British Library). Today's choice is Hanns Zischler, Kafka Goes to the Movies (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2003)

"Was at the movies. Wept. Lolotte. The good pastor. The little bicycle. The reconcilitation of the parents. Boundless entertainment. Before that a sad film, Catastrophe at the Dock, after the amusing Alone at Last. Am completely empty and meaningless, the electric tram passing by has more living meaning." (Kafka's diary, September 1913)

This unique book has received ample praise, so it is hardly obscure, but it remains little known among the general film readership. Though not a casual read, it is mysterious, learned, engrossing, and beautiful to behold.

Its author is a German film actor with a taste for literary history. Its subject is Franz Kafka, author of Metamorphosis, The Trial, The Castle and inveterate moviegoer in his younger days. In 1907 the first permanent cinema was built in Prague, and soon among the enthusiastic cinemagoers of the city were Kafka (born 1883) and his friend Max Brod. From the diaries, letters and other writings of Kafka and Brod, Zischler traces the films that they saw, sometimes from just the vaguest hint of a title or plot, identifies the originals, finds reviews, stills, posters, and on occasion tracks down the films themselves.

But this is no mere exercise in producing an anecdotal filmography. Zischler is interested in what is revealed of Kafka in his impressions of cinema, how the cinema reflected his psyche, and the interelationship between the fevered world of early cinema and Kafka's own emerging artistic vision. In the background there is the home of the cinema, the modern city, endlessly stimulating, bombarding its inhabitants with images.

From fragmentary evidence Zischler leads us to detailed descriptions and analyses of such titles as The White Slave Girl, Nick Winter and the Theft of the Mona Lisa, Theodor Korner, Danzig, The Other, Hamlet (with Albert Bassermann), The Heartbreaker, Little Lolotte, Catastrophe at the Dock, Return to Zion, The Kid and several others, seen by Kafka between 1908 and 1921. He provides a filmography (noting which titles survive), and places the experience of each film within a particular point in Kafka's personal and artistic life.

On one level it is trainspotting with a heavy dash of cultural theory. On another, its bringing together of the everyday with the imaginary (much like the experience of cinema-going itself) makes for a thrilling read, particularly as one gets carried along by the detective work, as a fleeting mention of a film subject in a letter leads to an advertisement in the contemporary press, then to the film title, then to the film itself and back to Kafka's personal history.

Kafka Goes to the Movies is a pleasure to look at, and has particularly attractively arranged notes pages (which include illustrations). Zischler has gone on to repeat the trick with James Joyce, documenting not so much Joyce's renowned though brief period as a cinema manager in Dublin in December 1909, but rather his first documented experience of filmgoing in Pola (then part of the Autro-Hungarian Empire, now Pula in Croatia) in 1904. Unfortunately (for monolingual me at any rate) the book, Nase für Neuigkeiten, published in 2008, is only available in German (and is not held by the British Library).

Posted via email from Luke McKernan

25 March 2010

Leadbelly sings for his freedom

Available from the Time website

This is so wonderful to see (unfortunately I can't embed so click on the link above). It's Leadbelly from The March of Time in 1935, a famous sequence from the classic American news cinemagazine in which the American folksinger gains his freedom from prison by his singing ability, recorded by folklorist John A. Lomax. It ends up with Leadbelly's music being recorded for the Library of Congress and becoming part of the US national record alongside the Declaration of Independence. OK, so it's heavily staged for the cameras in the manner typical of The March of Time, but you have to see through the stilted delivery to what is such a precious record of a great singer, a great archivist, and incidentally a special early example of a film record showing the process of archiving - and audio-visual archiving at that. Leadbelly did sing for Governor Oscar K. Adle at Angola Prison Farm, Lousiana, in 1934, but history records that he was due for early release anyway and his song has nothing to do with his gaining his freedom - though Lomax always believed that the recording had helped his cause. In the clip Leadbelly says that he was freed from prison at an earlier time after singing to the governor, and this is apparently correct - in 1925, when he was held in Huntsville, Texas.

The March of Time was produced as an adjunct to Time magazine and shown in cinemas between 1935 and 1951 (though it had existed as a radio series since 1931 and continued as a television series after 1951). It was screened in Britain, with small variations in content, including some fresh stories filmed by its British unit. Acclaimed at the time for its dynamic style and its willingness to take on challenging subjects, it is probably best known today for the parody of its hectoring style in the 'News on the March' sequence from Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. The March of Time film library is now managed by HBO Archives. The essential history of the reel is Raymond Fielding's The March of Time, 1935-1951.

You can find plenty of information on Leadbelly (real name Huddie Ledbetter), with biography, photos, sound clips and much more, on the Lead Belly Foundation site.

Heads up to the Sound Archive Twitter feed for altering me to the clip.

Posted via email from Luke McKernan

24 March 2010

BFI and UK Film Council to merge

The much-discussed possible merger between the British Film Institute and the UK Film Council is to become a reality. As part of today's Budget announcements, the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) said that one element of its package of efficiency savings would be the merger of the two institutions, which was first flagged as something the DCMS wanted to see happen in August 2009, and was strongly hinted at in December's pre-Budget report.

The BFI is an independent body with charitable status and Royal Charter, and has been in existence since 1933. Its activities include the BFI National Archive; BFI Southbank and BFI Imax; BFI Education; Sight & Sound magazine; and the BFI London Film Festival.

The UK Film Council was established by the Government in 2000 as the strategic agency for developing the film industry and film culture in the UK. Its activities include backing British-made films (shorts and features); a network of regional screen agencies, the Digital Screen Network; Skillset, the UK skills and training industry body for the creative industries; First Light Movies, which gives children and young people the chance to get involved in filmmaking; and funding the BFI.

The news also comes after the BFI was promised £45m in funding by the Government to help realise its ambition for a National Film Centre on London's South Bank.

The exact nature of the merger has yet to be announced, but there has been much discussion in the intervening period about governance and function. The DCMS originally announced in August of last year that the move was "designed to protect the key existing functions of both the BFI and UKFC while reducing gaps and overlaps", adding that:

The overall remit of the BFI and UKFC will not be reduced. The proposal is for a streamlined organisation, which can spend more of its money on film and services and less on infrastructure, and in turn offer better support for Britain's film culture and promotion of its film industry. Its remit would span securing investment across the sector, steering the industry through the transition to digital, championing the cultural importance of the UK's film heritage and guaranteeing that the full diversity of film culture is available to all.

The UK film world will await what emerges with the greatest of interest now that we will have the one flagship instead of two,  with the hope that it brings a new focus and prominence to film culture in the UK.

Posted via email from Luke McKernan

19 March 2010

The Yanomamo play tricks on us

Fierce People, BBC Horizon tx. 1 November 1971

Superb stuff from Adam Curtis - The Medium and the Message, not just one of the best blogs out there but a pioneering and innovative combination of documentary, archive and web publishing that is showing one way television could change in a multimedia world:

Here he looks at the different ways in which BBC documentaries have portrayed the Yanomamo people of Brazil and Venezuela (supposedly models for Avatar's Na'vi) according to the temper of the times.

In 1968 they are drug experimenters seen as both corrupted by the world and incorruptible

In 1971 they are shrewd, cunning and highly political

In 1972 they just lie around all day in an idyllic state

In 1977 they are in a continuous state of tension, driven by their genes

In 1983 schoolchildren sing about how they worship animals and trees

In 1989 they are the perfect subject for rock musicians singing about the rainforest (Donna Summer, Iggy Pop, Ringo Starr...)

In 1997 they are the remnants of a shaman civilisation

"In all these examples we in the West - both scientists and TV producers - are projecting our ideas and our dreams and our fears onto the Yanomamo. But the Yanomamo are not just passive in this. Each time they seem to work out what the westerners want and then give it back to them perfectly. Or, as in the case of [anthropologist Napoleon] Chagnon they play with him and trick him in funny ways.

Which makes you wonder. Maybe they are just as sophisticated as us in the west? Or maybe even more so?"

All with the usual telling clips.

More on what Curtis is doing with The Medium and the Message in a future post.

Posted via email from Luke McKernan

Media History Digital Library

A huge step forward has been made for online research in film studies with the launch of the Media History Digital Library project. This is a major conservation and access project for histoical printed materials related to cinema, broadcasting and recorded sound, concentrating on American media industry journals and financed by private funds. The project has been established by film archivist and historian David Pierce, and has ambitious plans to digitise an make freely available online a wide range of American media journals, of which these are the target titles:

Industry Magazines  Billboard, Box Office, Cine-Mundial, Daily Variety, Exhibitor's Herald, Exhibitor's Trade Review, The Film Daily, The Film Index, The Hollywood Reporter, Motion Picture Daily, Motion Picture Herald, Motion Picture News, Motography, The Moving Picture World, Radio Broadcast, Radio Daily, Talking Machine World, Variety

Company Magazines  The Lion's Roar, Publix Opinion, RCA News, Radio Flash, Reel Life, Universal Weekly

Fan Magazines  Motion Picture Classic, Motion Picture Magazine, Motion Picture Digest, Radio Mirror, Screenland, Shadowplay

Technical Journals  American Cinematographer, American Projectionist, The International Photographer, International Projectionist, Motion Picture Projectionist, Projection Engineering, Radio Engineering, Sound Waves, Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers

A pilot project has a target of 300,000 journal pages, and already eight volumes (covering four years, 1925-1930) of the fan magazine Photoplay, and one volume each of the trade journals Motion Picture Classic (1920) and Moving Picture World (April-June 1913), have been made available through the Internet Archive, taken from the collection of the Pacific Film Archive.

There's an enthusiastic review of the project by Leonard Maltin on his Movie Crazy blog, and I review the project in greater detail on my silent cinema blog, The Bioscope.

The British Library hasn't digitised any film journals (though the stage journal The Era, available for the years 1838-1900 on our Newspapers site, has much information on the early film industry). However we do have a list of all the British and Irish cinema and film periodicals that we hold in our newspaper collection, which includes many rare titles and useful information on date ranges and changes of title.

Posted via email from Luke McKernan

16 March 2010

C-SPAN video archive online

President Obama's State of the Union Address, 27 January 2010, from

C-SPAN has put its entire video archive online, 23 years of broadcasting amounting to over 160,000 hours of content. C-SPAN stands for Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network. It's an American cable TV network owned and operated by the US cable industry as a free service. It was set up in 1987 to record government proceedings, and its archive documents practically every session of the Senate and the House of Representatives, presidential press briefings and many kinds of public affairs events. The New York Times reports:

“This is the archive’s coming of age, in a way, because it’s now so accessible,” said Robert Browning, director of the archives. Historically, the $1 million-a-year operation has paid for itself partly by selling videotapes and DVDs to journalists, campaign strategists and others. Mr. Browning acknowledges that video sales have waned as more people have viewed clips online. “On the other hand, there are a lot of things people now watch that they never would have bought,” he said. The archives’ fans include Ms. Maddow, who called it gold. “It’s raw footage of political actors in their native habitat, without media personalities mediating viewers’ access,” she wrote in an e-mail message ... C-Span executives said they hoped that its search filters would be up to the task. Mr. Lamb said, “You can see if politicians are saying one thing today, and 15 years ago were saying another thing.” He added, “Journalists can feast on it.”

The site gives the schedule for the three C-SPAN channels (C-SPAN, C-SPAN2 and C-SPAN3), the C-SPAN Congressional Chronicle (an index to the C-SPAN video recordings of the House and Senate floor proceedings), a blog, store and extensive search and browse options. There is a simple search option on the front page (which has a drop-down text feature showing summaries with your search term highlighted) and an advanced search option (for which you can add extra fields by clicking) allowing searches to be refined by date, tag, format, title, summary, person, organisation, location etc. You can browse the archive by programme type, series, congressional committee, date, topic, popular programmes and so on. Each record gives title, date, topic, tags, summary, duration (some of them run for hours), sometimes a transcript (generally made from uncorrected closed captioning), programme ID and the number of views. There are handy user features such embedding, sharing, links to biographical details of people featured, and related videos. Videos can be viewed full screen and are of a good quality.

It's a stunning resource, overwhelming in its size, limitless in the opportunities it opens up for American studies, political studies, and just for finding who said what when. What we wouldn't give to have something similar in the UK. Here we've had parliamentary AV recordings since 1978, when the Parliamentary Sound Recording Unit was created. This became the Parliamentary Recording Unit when it added video of the House of Lords in 1986, then the House of Commons in 1989 (the Sound Unit disbanded in 1992). We do have live access through the excellent ParliamentLive, which has coverage of all UK Parliament proceedings taking place in public, but its on-demand archive only stretches back 12 months from the date of broadcast. Thereafter you have to contact the Parliamentary Recording Unit itself for access.

Where the US cable network has led, maybe one day the UK will be able to follow in providing comprehensive online access to this archive much as we now enjoy with Hansard. It's good to be able to read, but how much more compelling it is to be able to see and hear as well. It helps us all the more to judge, to recognise, and to understand.

15 March 2010

Recommended reading no. 2 - Filming Literature

Here's number 2 in an occasional series that reviews unfamiliar or neglected books on film (which of course you can find here at the British Library). This time we take a look at Neil Sinyard, Filming Literature: The Art of Screen Adaptation (London/Sydney: Croom Helm, 1986).

"The legacy of the nineteenth-century novel is the twentieth-century film".

The opening line of Neil Sinyard's Filming Literature is typical of the work as a whole - a witty and wise observation, broad in its remit, bold in its assumptions, elegant in its expression. This has long been one of my favourite film books, one to which I can come back time again for useful insights and guidance on a subject which I find endlessly fascinating, the relationship between literature and film. The book seems little known, and may have been hampered by a dreadful cover and a minor publisher that long since went out of business. But I would urge anyone with an intelligent interest in film or literature to seek it out, or simply if you take pleasure in fine writing.

Its subject is, therefore, the relationship between film and literature. This is a field where one can go back and forth endlessly, and where many a writer has got bogged down in attempting to identify the minutiae of differences between the book and the film of the book. Sinyard avoids such traps, taking a broader view of how and why such films are made. His style is approachable, unburderened by theoretical language (while remaining aware of theory), and shows equal ease with literature and film.

He does not attempt to cover the whole field. The focus is on English-language literature to begin with, and the chapters focus on significant themes and examples. So we get chapters on Shakespeare, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, George Orwell, Harold Pinter's The Go-Between, James Agee's film criticism, analogies between the film and literary artist (Dickens/Chaplin, Twain/Ford, Greene/Hitchcock, Conrad/Wells), adaptation as criticism (looking at Great Expectations, Death in Venice, Barry Lyndon and The French Lieutenant's Woman), bio-pics, and finally film and theatre. Sinyard's great gifts are to understand equally the literary and filmmaking processes, to be able to call upon a wide range of film examples, and to come up with ideas that delight with their originality and expression. Here are some choice examples:

"The extraordinary opening chapter of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with its free movement between time and space, is one of the finest examples of montage in fiction."
"It is axiomatic that very few directors have become successful writers - Elia Kazan is a notable exception - whilst even Burt Reynolds and Sylvester Stallone can make technically competent directors."
"Olivier's Richard III (1955) is a splendid film, but it is a shame that the crowd scenes ... seem so sparsely populated, like friends gathering glumly for a thinly attended Equity meeting."
"Film lovers must find many of Orwell's remarks about the cinema distasteful and glib ... Dismissing popular cinema as 'treacly rubbish' is no substitute for a serious consideration of how films work and why they give so much pleasure to so many people ... It brings out the negative side of Orwell's posture as the honest, commonsensical man: an occasional philistinism and impoverishment of imagination, and unintellectual conservatism about new art forms and alternative modes of expression to realism."
"Film reviewing was no routine chore for him, but the culmination and fullest expression of his maturity as a writer. The film criticism of the 1940s is the heart of Agee's achievement, with his work in the following decade developing out of it and his work in the preceding decade seeming an important preparation for it."
"Kane and Kurtz are both men of limitless but frustrated potential ... Both men are disappointed with the world they find and compensate by building their own isolated monarchies."
"[T]he spirit of James is elusive, distilled as it is in a sensbility and style essentially attuned to an era before the film age. Still, this is a matter more of record than regret. A cinema that has produced its own rosebud need not lament the absence of a golden bowl."

And so on. Sinyard makes you want both to reach up to the bookshelf and to put on a DVD. You want to read again and to see again. He illuminates and intrigues. Seek out his argument of why One-Eyed Jacks is a Hamlet-derivative, or his discussion of the parallels between Great Expectations and Sunset Boulevard. There, you see - you are just going to have to take a look at them again.