American Independent Cinema by Amy Hubbard, Daisy Bird, Josh Webb et al

Juno

Over the years at The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum we have created temporary displays based on courses taught at the university. This time a group of third year students studying on Dr. James Lyons’ American Independent Film module, volunteered to explore the themes of the module through an array of interesting artefacts from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum Collection. The group was led by museum volunteer Amy Hubbard and the students who participated from the course were Daisy Bird, Josh Webb, Maddie Joint, Rebekah Heaney, Imogen Buller, George Graham and Lauren O’Neill . The group researched and selected the items and designed and documented the display.

Examining the movement from early American Independent cinema through to the growth of what critic Geoff King has referred to as “Indiewood”, the display contrasts early films such as Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape (1989) and Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (1989) with recent popular flicks such as Juno (2007) and Melancholia (2011). We were particularly interested in considering how the style, popularity and audience of American Independent cinema have changed over the years and how this can be traced through the films’ publicity.

In putting together the display we were at first unsure of what we would be able to find in the collection. We expected that the majority of items would be books or periodicals as, unlike blockbusters such as Jaws (1975) which thrived on merchandise and publicity material, independents are typically marketed in a different way. We were therefore extremely surprised when we found hidden gems such as a deck of Big Lebowski playing cards (EXEBD 15093) and a spoof Reservoir Dogs postcard (EXEBD 26866). The variety of items that we found meant that we were able to contrast the difference within film publicity between the earlier independents and the more recent high profile offerings. Whilst, to a certain extent, the boundaries between the independent and major companies overlap, attempting to tackle this enormous debate within one display would be futile. With this in mind we decided to focus on the foundations of the independent sector and the points of contention that exist within it.

The left side of the display case focuses on the self-proclaimed “originals” of purist American cinema, the true independents, wherein the aesthetically challenging meets the financially thrifty. From Romero’s 1968 iconic horror Night of the Living Dead to “no-one-puts-baby-in-the-corner” Dirty Dancing (1987), the independents branch far and wide in terms of audience. Also, looking at lower budget films such as Spike Lee’s cult classic Do The Right Thing (1989), they seem, to borrow the words of critic Yannis Tzioumakis, to “retain a certain grounding on mainstream traditions” which attempt to subvert, challenge and reform Hollywood aesthetics (American Independent Cinema: An Introduction, 9). Less alienating than avant-garde and experimental films, the independents attract a niche audience more responsive to edgier, challenging subject matters. Indeed, this is a sentiment evident from the display case – with fewer promotional gimmicks and devices and sparing use of colour, the independents invite those who have to work to gain meaning from its films…except for perhaps Dirty Dancing!

The middle section of the display case focuses on Indie films, those that arguably retain the independent aesthetic but which also have the financial backing to realise a particular vision. This is evident particularly in the 1990s when many large film companies began creating specialist branches specifically designed to produce independent film content. This resulted in the independent concept being exploited for profit. The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum is packed with promotional material for these films partly because the Indie film was defined by its all-out marketing. Standing on the lines between the film festival circuit, film magazine features and commercial domination meant for numerous eye-catching posters, postcards, props and other promotion materials. We found a good example in the rise of Miramax Studios which, thanks largely to skilful exploitation-inspired marketing techniques, secured its presence with the release of Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape in the latter half of 1989. Made on a miniscule $1.2 million budget, the film was a resounding and monumental success with audiences flocking to see this edgy, erotic Palme d’Or winner of the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. sex, lies and videotape marks the explosion of the ‘Indie’ era and the subsequent aesthetics of the 1990’s for the independent film sector which can be traced in this section of the display.

The promotional postcard for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) (EXEBD 26886) is particularly interesting as a marketing product. Featuring an image of Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace in a black outfit and high heels, lying on a bed with a gun beside her, the postcard depicts the film’s most iconic image. In discussions we considered how in the film Mia Wallace is never actually seen in the costume shown on the poster, nor does she ever come into contact with a gun. This is a good example of the way that marketing was used during the Indie period; the image suggests that Thurman’s character is more of an explicit seductress than is portrayed in the actual film and the gun implies some kind of action or violence is involved in her story, both of which are clearly an attempt to draw a particular kind of audience.

In this section we also attempted to explore how some of these films were early projects from filmmakers who would become dominant figures of the “Indiewood” period. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs are both depicted in the Indie section, but the director went on to make even more popular and commercial films such as the Kill Bill franchise, shown in the display through the American Cinematographer cover feature from October 2003 (EXEBD 37727). Kill Bill is an example of “Indiewood” – a commercially and financially backed film with A-list stars which retains an indie aesthetic (essentially Hollywood’s version of an independent film). The right side of the display demonstrates a progression from Indie films to “Indiewood”, highlighting the change in marketing techniques and the commercialisation of the Indie genre. Items such as a Juno drink container (EXEBD 55217) and a Christmas card Polaroid for Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (EXEBD 42527) suggest ways in which “Indiewood” attempts to differentiate itself from typical blockbuster marketing, whilst simultaneously mimicking its ploys.

With the rise of “Indiewood” and the difficulty of distinguishing between Hollywood and Independent, the big question debated now is ‘does independent cinema still exist?’. The question that we perhaps should be asking, however, is ‘what is Independent cinema going to do next?’…

The following is a list of the key critical texts which informed our discussions and our approach to the display:

King, Geoff. Indiewood USA: Where Hollywood Meets Independent Cinema. London:
I. B. Tauris, 2009. Print.
Tzioumakis, Yannis. American Independent Cinema: An Introduction. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh UP, 2006. Print.
Tzioumakis, Yannis. “‘Independent’, ‘Indie’ and ‘Indiewood’: Towards a Periodisation
of Contemporary (Post-1980) American Independent Cinema.” American Independent Cinema: Indie, Indiewood and Beyond. Ed. Geoff King, Claire Molly, Yannis Tzioumakis. London: Routledge, 2013. 28-40. Print.

The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum for Historians by Emily Vine

I’m currently researching items in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum collection which could be of particular use to historians. I’ve come across a wide range of material which extends far beyond what you might expect to find in a museum of cinema, and have tried to identify how such items could be relevant to a broader range of historical themes and approaches than may be immediately obvious.

I began by looking at the collection of stereoscope cards; cards with two slightly different photographs printed next to each other, which when viewed through a stereoscope create a 3D image. Although they are held in the museum for their association with the development of the moving image, the pictures themselves comprise a wide range of subjects and have historical value beyond cinema or cultural history. I’ve been particularly focusing on a set of stereo cards depicting colonial life in India in the early 1900s, and also several sets which depict scenes from the First World War. The images of India are interesting because they were produced by a British company to demonstrate the ‘positive’ impact of colonial rule, and portray an extremely generalised and condescending view of Indian people. The images of the First World War were also intended to be viewed by the British public and consequently present a nationalistic view of the achievements of the British army; glorifying the events of the trenches and emphasising the bravery and camaraderie of the soldiers.
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I then moved on to look through a large number of nineteenth century guidebooks, social histories and periodicals which provide invaluable insights into Victorian life. They are part of the collection because they make reference to popular culture through the mention of cinemas, music halls or peep shows, but they contain a wealth of other information which would be very useful primary source material for social historians. Henry Mayhew’s four volume work London Labour and the London Poor proved to be an extremely valuable source of both statistical and anecdotal information about the lives of the working classes, with particular emphasis upon the ‘underworld’: the criminals, prostitutes, and street beggars upon which much of our conceptions of the ‘bleak’ Victorian age are based. The collection of London guidebooks proved to be equally as informative; providing a wealth of information about popular tourist sites, admission prices, public transport, popular recreation and leisure activities, and important public buildings and institutions, as well as maps of London as it once looked.

Those unfamiliar with the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum may be surprised at the extensive amount of pre-cinema material within the collection. Amongst much else there are numerous maps of Exeter and London from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, satirical / political cartoons, ephemera relating to panoramas, and a large number of eighteenth century prints, including my personal favourite, a print of a Hogarth engraving of Southwark fair.
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The appeal of these items extends far beyond their original association with the development of the moving image; they are artefacts which would be of great interest to social, cultural, political and even military historians.
Film magazines such as The Pictures and The Picturegoer are extremely useful for providing an insight into popular culture, leisure activities and social aspiration in the twentieth century. They demonstrate what a key role film played in the lives of ordinary people; both how film reflected social concerns and current affairs, and also how people reacted to film and aspired to have or be what was depicted on the big screen. They are invaluable resources for social or cultural historians, and those looking at concepts of gender, class, consumerism and leisure. The adverts in these magazines are particularly interesting; they are often targeted at particular ideals of masculinity and femininity which tells us much about societal norms. From a modern perspective it’s interesting to note how little celebrity magazines have progressed in a hundred years; when looking through the oldest film magazines of 1911 you can still recognise the early obsession with the beauty of film stars, and tips on how readers can look or behave like their idols.

Other interesting periodicals in the collection include Cassell’s Popular Educator and Living London. Cassell’s Popular Educator is a periodical containing miscellaneous articles of general knowledge; it was created in 1852 to allow the working classes, and those with limited access to formal education, to instruct themselves on a range of subjects, and consequently better themselves. It contains articles on English, History, Philosophy, Languages, Business and Commerce, Art, Music, Science, Mathematics, and was called by one commentator “a school, a library and a university.” Living London is an illustrated periodical with miscellaneous articles and stories about life in London at the turn of the century; giving an invaluable insight into a diverse range of social and cultural practices.
I found it interesting looking through the large collection of publicity programmes for documentary film showings and lantern slide lectures. They demonstrate how cinema and the moving image were used to inform as well as entertain, particularly by presenting to the audience images of a place or event they would otherwise never have access to. The subject matters of these documentary films and lantern slide lectures vary greatly, but they are often concerned with ‘exotic’ countries, far corners of the British Empire, the royal family or the First World War. The way in which these subjects were presented to the British public, or were considered worthy of widespread public attention, tells us much about conceptions of national identity, and attitudes towards racial or cultural difference.

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This project has emphasised that the usefulness and interest of the collection extends far beyond its primary purpose as a centre for the history of cinema. My research has focused upon items which would be particularly useful to history students, but the artefacts in the collection are relevant to a wide range of subjects and approaches. As part of this project I’ve updated many descriptions in the museum’s online catalogue at http://billdouglas.ex.ac.uk/eve/search.asp , so that many items should be more easily searchable through the use of broader keywords such as “British Empire” or “First World War”. The full list of items I’ve identified and made notes on should be distributed around the history department, and also be made accessible to history students via ELE. This list includes items which are directly relevant to a number of undergraduate history modules, as well as items which could be valuable primary sources for research projects such as Doing History or dissertations. I hope that this will make more students aware of the wide range of resources available to them at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum and also make it easier for them to search and access the collection.

Press Books for ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ and ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir’ by Sabine Starmanns

While I was looking through foreign language film material, I came across two extraordinary press books for two films by Marcel Carné: ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir’ (a.k.a ‘The Devil’s Envoys’) (1942) and ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ (‘Children of Paradise’) (1945). The press books form part of the Roy Fowler Collection at the museum, which includes a very rich resource of material from French cinema in the 1930s and 1940s. Normally, press books consist of a selection of publicity stills from a film or pages of publicity shots of the film’s stars. We also hold one of the standard press books of ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir’ as part of the BDC collection. However, by contrast, the press book of the film that I catalogued is unusual in that it does not focus on showing pictures from the film but instead aims to look like a medieval manuscript. It is ring-bound and the cover is illustrated with an elaborate embossed floral design, which runs through the whole book.

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The pages are separated by transparent paper. Although the book features painted scenes and characters from the film, they have been given a medieval look. The pages consist of a detailed plot summary in old-fashioned script, with separate paintings of the main characters attached to the top corners.

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While the drawings are such that you can recognise the actors, the only obvious link to the film is a flyleaf at the beginning advertising a specific screening of the film and listing the main cast and crew. This style of programme seems to have also been used at the film’s premiere at the Madeleine cinema in Paris.

The press book for ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ (1945), by contrast, manages to include black-and-white stills from the film within an old-fashioned overall look. The cover is unusually thick and embossed, with a hand-drawn and partly coloured picture taken from a film still.

Enfants1

Two more of those pictures are used to introduce the film’s sub-sections.

 

Enfants2

An introductory black-and-white hand-drawn picture sets the nineteenth century scene, while A4 portrait photographs of the main cast represent the film’s setting within the world of theatre. A detailed plot summary uses small drawings from the period to illustrate the text, as well as beautifully framed black-and-white stills from the film.

 

 

The press books’ luxurious appearance may have something to do with the fact that both films were directed by Marcel Carné during the Occupation of France. ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir’, which had the ‘longest first run (of a film) of the period’ (Turk, 190), was hailed by Andre Bazin at the time as ‘having restored to French cinema grandeur and style’ (Turk, 191), which shows that the opulence of the film, as well as that of the press book, was deemed necessary to reawaken pride in French cinema. It has been claimed that there were numerous allusions to the situation of occupied France in the plot, with the Devil’s envoys representing the Germans, while the unsuspecting castle inhabitants stand for the occupied French, submissive but defiant underneath. By setting the story in the 15th century, a time of court grandeur, Carné alludes to a more optimistic time in French history.

 

 ‘Les Enfants Du Paradis’ was not released until the end of the war. Carné was very keen to wait until the war was over before the film’s release, so that the film would be the first to be shown in free France (Turk, 227). The press book’s drawings give an indication of the production’s lavishness, with huge sets made to represent the Boulevard du Temple, the size of which could either demonstrate a pride in French culture and history during the hardship of war or be an example of Carné’s conviction that ‘quality filmmaking was inseparable from extravagant expense’ (Turk, 227). Interestingly, the film is still acknowledged to be one of the classics of French cinema. However, in addition to criticism of his excessive expenditure, Carné has been accused of making films that were not patriotic enough. However, the theme of what Bazin called ‘spiritual patriotism’ (Turk, 192) seems to run through both films. In ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir’, the quiet defiance of the French is supposedly demonstrated by the lovers’ hearts still beating after they have been turned to stone. Likewise, the image of the theatre, or spectacle, that runs through ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ has been regarded as an example of the ‘spiritual survival’ (Turk, 254) of life under Occupation. I believe that both films are examples of an attempt to awaken the French audience’s pride in its history and culture, as well as satisfying the need for audience escapism during, and just after, the war. Therefore, the films’ significance would have been emphasised by their press books’ unusually lavish format, designed to transcend the ephemeral purpose of publicity material in general.

 

 

Quotes taken from: Turk, Edward Baron (1989) Child of Paradise: Marcel Carne and the Golden Age of French Cinema. Cambridge, Mass.: HarvardUniversity Press.

 

 

 

The Lanternist by Patrick Crawford

 ‘Art and Film have a troubled and incestuous history’ writes Douglas Fogle in his article Cinema is Dead, Long Live the Cinema (Frieze Magazine, Issue 29, 1996). Fogle’s article looks at the relationship between Art and Cinema while reviewing a series of exhibitions that have taken place to mark one hundred years of filmmaking including an exhibition entitled ‘Spellbound’ at the Hayward Gallery. The exhibition attempts to fuse the mediums of installation art and film together by inviting artists and filmmakers alike to try their hand at crossover projects with contributors including Damien Hirst, Douglas Gordon (with his piece “24 hour Psycho”), Terry Gilliam and Steve McQueen. Fogle is less than complimentary about the success of these projects and insinuates that the increasing importance and seductiveness of cinema has meant that the medium already plays a major role in contemporary art and that crossover projects that attempt to glorify this importance suffer as a consequence. There is a strong argument that contemporary film is the essential medium for creative expression in our culture today. Indeed Fogle states quite candidly that a lot of static art has paled in comparison with the dazzling visual edifices created by filmmakers such as Orson Welles. ‘The world has rocked to the rhythm of 24 frames per second for over a century and hasn’t looked back’ he says. However, film still remains a difficult medium to master. Fogle points out that there are apparent gaps between the moving image and static art and that ‘visual artists trip over cinematic land-mines when crossing into film’. Film, Fogle maintains, is still alarmingly evasive despite its alluring qualities.

 Spellbound

Promotional leaflet for ‘Spellbound: art and film’ at the Hayward Gallery (EXEBD 41644)

It is interesting comparing this article (written in 1996) with Christopher Kenneally’s 2013 documentary Side by Side, which looks at the advent of digital film images and the decline of celluloid. The exhibitions the article reviews seek to highlight how far film has come since its invention in the 1890s and the important and dominant role it plays in contemporary art. However, film itself has developed remarkably since its centenary celebrations. The introduction of digital film has begun to supersede its photochemical counterpart. This is due in part to its accessibility. Side by Side seeks to illuminate this transition in optical media by interviewing many of the world’s leading filmmakers and cinematographers and noting their preferred methods. It is clear to many though, even to those filmmakers who prefer traditional methods of film practice, that digital is fast becoming the dominant medium. Accessibility is democracy, the film points out, and democracy is becoming vital to the arts.

Visual art is as unsentimental as the high street in many respects. Nostalgia is saved for the museums, the galleries and the antique auction houses. The supersedure of art forms and the beguiling nature of more accessible optical media is the subject of my short film, The Lanternist. Lanternists, who were sometimes referred to as Savoyards or Galantys, were traditional small-time visual entertainers in the early 19th century. They would travel between villages and towns putting on magic lantern displays in public places or in the houses of the wealthy. However, their trade began to decline towards the end of the century, due in part to the mass-production of magic lanterns and slides which made it possible for families to organise private lantern displays in their own homes.

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Alex Norton as The Lanternist in Bill Douglas’ ‘Comrades’ (EXEBD 60820)

 

Partly inspired by Alex Norton’s brilliant turn as an itinerant lanternist in Bill Douglas’ film ‘Comrades’, my short film portrays the galanty in a less than fortuitous light. However, unlike Bill’s Lanternist, who through the course of ‘Comrades’ takes on many different guises in order to tell the parallel stories of the history of pre-cinema and the struggles of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and who eventually appears as a successful showman in the final reel, the Lanternist in my film is tortured by the redundancy of his trade and desperately wanders the fringes of society searching for an audience. He engages in crazed and ritualistic dances as part of a defunct show that he performs to no one. He cuts a wraith-like figure walking a lonely pilgrimage. Along the way he finds discarded objects that reflect his own futility. I was inspired largely by Bill’s use of the Lanternist as a metaphorical figure in order to give his film a more harrowing visual, cultural and social context. In the final shot of my film I have included a Mutoscope display, that can be found in the Centre. The Mutoscope, like the Magic Lantern before it are all part of the progression in optical entertainment that has led to contemporary cinema as we know it today (my film is shot in digital). We should celebrate this progression, and indeed the progression of all art forms, and while innovation may be ephemeral it is vital to our culture. However, there are many Lanternists left behind along the way.

 

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Magic Lantern Slides: Bluebeard (EXEBD 64515)

 

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Image from inside The Bill Douglas Centre’s Mutoscope (EXE BD 69076)