Sound and vision blog

12 posts categorized "Publications"

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

19 March 2010

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

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.

18 February 2010

Recommended reading no. 1 - Picture Palace


I'm going to establish some occasional series here on the Moving Image blog, and will start with a series that reviews books on film (which of course you can find here at the British Library). The emphasis is going to be on unfamiliar or neglected titles. No one researching film needs to be told of the value of, say, David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film or Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler, but there are plenty of titles that ought to be taken off the shelves a little more often than tends to be the case.

We'll kick off with Audrey Field, Picture Palace: A Social History of the Cinema (London: Gentry Books, 1974)

Apart from biographies, there wasn't a huge number of British film history books published before the great growth of scholarly interest in British cinema from the 1980s onwards. So it is curious that this elegant, observant and very readable social history of cinema in Britain from the earliest years to the 1940s should turn up in so few bibliographies or reading lists. Audrey Field worked at the British Board of Film Censors (now the British Board of Film Classification) from 1948, rising to become Examiner of Films, and retiring in 1973. Her book looks at the habit of cinema-going, and in that alone it was unusual for its time. Scholarly interest in the 1970s was very much focused upon the screen, and it is only recently that academia has woken up to the realisation that film is as much a social phenomenon as an artistic one.

Field therefore looks not at the films, but at the audience, at the cinemas they visited, the people who ran the cinemas, and the critics and self-appointed guardians of those audiences (the BBFC among them). It is a book filled with good common-sense and a warm sympathy for the audiences who found in the cinema such a marvellous (and cheap) means to escape drudgery and to discover emotion, glamour and fantasy. She pokes gentle fun at the assorted anxious commentators and legislators who felt it incumbent upon them to control this medium that had to be wrong if was so popular among the undiscriminating masses, and her book is particular strong for the early years of British cinema. She cites a great many original documents (regrettably there are no notes and the bibliography is thin) which are a discovery in themselves and an encouragement to pursue the subject further.

Field gives particular attention to children - not for any sentimental reason, but simply because they formed such a large proportion of cinema audiences from the start, and because they are too often written out of cinema histories. She also looks at those who worked in the cinemas - projectionists, usherettes, managers - using her own interview material. She of course gives particular attention to the role of the BBFC (an industry body, not a state one), whose uneasy role she explains with an understanding of how such body must necessarily be a social barometer.

Throughout her focus is on those audiences who were simply out for a good time. As she observes:

"at the heart of all the tumult and heart-searching, were the patrons, the rank and file of the nation who, for once, having paid the piper, were calling the tune. Spellbound, fidgeting, lusting, loving, frozen with pleasurable fright, weeping a little, eating and laughing immoderately, the secret people, secure in the friendly dark, eluded the prying gaze of the sociologists to remain an enigma still".

So she writes well too, and this is a book well worth seeking out, not for its apparent nostalgia but for its intelligence and clarity. It reminds us what cinema is about, and warns us that the study of films is empty without consideration of how and by whom they are seen.

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