Feb 25, 2017

Love in the Library (After Hours)

Last night I attended the New York Public Library's "After Hours" event, themed around their new exhibit, "Love in Venice." The evening - which ran from 6:30 pm until 9:00 pm - included dance lessons, masquerade mask making, speciality cocktails, tours of the exhibit, and (most relevantly) a curated selection of 16 mm films from the library's archives about Venice.

The films were being projected - via a film projector, no less! - in a small theater that was somewhat difficult to find in the slew of activities available. They were being shown on a continuous loop, and we entered during 'The Gondola Eye;' we only knew this because the screen outside the theater had informed us of which film was currently playing. These informational slides came up for each of the films.

The theater was small, the screen even smaller, but the film projector lent a level of nostalgia that much of the audience seemed to appreciate. There were five rows with a few leather seats, but many in the audience (myself included) sat on the floor along the walls. The door to the theater was left open and the bright light flooding in was terribly distracting, but perhaps less distracting than the door constantly opening and closing (?), as people were constantly coming into the theater (many of them turning around to leave within a couple of minutes).

'The Gondola Eye,' by Ian Hugo from 1964, was a great 27 minute film shot from the POV of the gondola (hence the name). Despite having no soundtrack with the exception of some ominous sounding bells here and there, the whirring of the film projector provided wonderful non-diegetic accompaniment. The content of the film itself was deeply somber, dark, and creepy, portraying Venice as a dirty city of filthy canals and depressing, muted colors - not at all what is usually associated with the city. I loved that about the film. We then watched the first five or so minutes of the next one - which was entirely different and done with claymation. This suggests that the curation of films (even though I did not sit through all of them) was diverse and thoughtful.

Overall, the films were a nice addition to the evening and a great supplement to the activities outside of the theater room. People seemed to appreciate the curation of the films for the most part and they appeared to be distinct and diverse. It was also wonderful to see the 16 mm prints projected on a film projector, and they seemed to be in great condition. Those who were sitting seemed to stay at least through the entirety of the film, but many people were popping in and out of the doorway as well, which was distracting. The vibe of the screening room was drastically different from the loud and crowded activities happening in the rest of the event; so I think it either felt like a welcome refuge from the chaos (and long drink lines) or a confusing, too relaxed component to the evening. Personally, I loved that the films were part of the event and cannot wait to attend the next Library After Hours.

- Sarah Dawson

Feb 22, 2017

The "Chinese" Exhibition-故事新編

A lot of things make me dizzy, like staring at moving train (I have never got carsick or anything, I just can't look at moving trains), like watching a long hand-held shot (typical examples, the beginning of The Diving Bell and Butterfly and the whole Birdman) and walking in Guggenheim. It is not that I am unhappy with the interior design of this museum. The layout is very unique. It is just my body and my brain is not happy with this museum. 

Anyway, I was there for the Chinese exhibition, which I wanted to go for a long time. Because I went to the exhibition in Whitney just several weeks ago, which was so great and I kind of had a very high expectation for this one. 

My first reaction is that the exhibition space is so small, although the exhibition takes the parts of two "floors". Guggenheim is not like any regular museums which have the whole flat floors. A lot of space in the museum is compromised for this circled up layout. Like I said in my previous blog, the moving image pieces need a lot of space and especially private space.  Another thing that bothering me is that this exhibition does not have a designated route. There are two entrances for the part on fourth floor and multiple exits. One entrance on the part of fifth floor, except the fact that the giant robot basically takes up all the space on fifth floor.  I suddenly feels that $18 admission fee is really not worth it, at least MoMA is free for NYU students. Back to the designated route, I kind of followed the "original" route for this exhibition. I came in through the entrance that had the wall text of whole description for this exhibition, and the first giant piece, Sun Xun's Mythological Time. I think this piece, being the true representation of the mainland China today, is the only one in this exhibition that is worth look at. 


To put together an exhibition about modern China, the curators first need to answer one question: What is China? In this exhibition, I see many ideologies contradict. I see the piece about the modern history mainland China, which is Sun Xun's Mythological Time. I see the artist Chia-en Jiao's pieces, which clearly represent modern Taiwan. The tea tasting part by Yangjiang Group follows the Cantonese and HK traditions. The artist Tsang Kin-Wah, obviously Cantonese, moved to HK and then UK. Zhou Tao, born and raised in China, got BFA in Canton and has an international background. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, and artists making that giant robot, are both from Northeastern part of mainland China. (The material of the robot, the movement all show that background of the artists. I can tell they are from northern and northeastern part without even looking at their bios.)

As a person born and raised in mainland, Sun Xun's Mythological Time is the best representation of modern China. The others are all somehow weird. 

Another thing that needs to be mentioned is that the reason why I had such a high expectation for this exhibition was because the title--"Tales of Our Time". This is a book title which is a collection of prose published in 1936 by Lu Xun, the famous Chinese writer. The book contains a  series of short stories that are rewrites of several Chinese traditional mythological stories. That is why I adore Sun Xun's piece. It combines the traditional Chinese art forms with new technology, and modern Chinese history. 

From my initial and preliminary research, I find out the curators are a group of people all with the mixed background, just like those artists. The foundation who organizes this exhibition is based in HK.   

I think whether it is someone from HK, Canton/Chinese American, Taiwanese, or people from mainland China going to this exhibition, their reaction would all be: This is not the China I understand. And a person from any western countries like US, UK walking into this exhibition, they will react like: Wow, this is China. 

Just I can tell how the Met Gala of 2015 China: Through the Looking Glass would be like that. So weird and so wrong. 

I will expand this for my mid-term. 

Feb 16, 2017

Captivated by ¡Cuba!

On Monday, I visited the American Museum of Natural History to see a new and wonderfully curated exhibit, ¡Cuba! It is co-curated by Ana Luz Porzecnski, director of the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation and Chris Raxworthy of the Museum’s Department of Herpetology. Upon entering the exhibit, you walk past several vertical banners that contain testaments of Cuban people who express love for their country but at the same time convey that it hasn’t always been easy. Structured as a Cuban street with “stores” that function as smaller portions of the exhibit, it’s a wonderful exhibit that makes you want to hop on the first plane and discover Cuba in person.

As a moving image archivist, my one and only gripe is the main moving image display in the exhibit towards the beginning. Aside from the fact that the video crams the entire history of Cuba into seven minutes, it stretches the archival footage in the video to an uncomfortable 16:9 aspect ratio. This footage was created long before the 16:9 aspect ratio came to be and should have been presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio. Several of the images were low resolution and stretching them out only made them worse.

Feb 9, 2017

Looking for "All My Babies"

All My Babies (1952) 53-55 min., depending on the copy
Director: George Stoley
Copyright: Georgia Department of Health
Columbia University Press

In the “Letter to Scott MacDonald from George Stoney, 3/22/01”, Stoney writes of the screening of his film All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Tale at a Cinema 16 screening. Although I had never heard of the film, an abundant amount of information about the film is available online with a simple Google search. It is an educational film from 1952 that depicts childbirth and the work of midwives in the Deep South. The film’s full content is available on YouTube, (posted by “Ultimate YouTube Resource” in January of 2014) with the description claiming the work is in the public domain. However, this seems dubious as the film’s content is also available online through Bobst, but only with an NYU account.  The Georgia Department of Health owns the rights and a 16mm print is available at the Center for Mass Communication of Columbia University Press.

Feb 8, 2017

EB Films

Screen logo 1952. 
Since I recounted some of this history of Encyclopædia Britannica Films in class, here are some fleshed out details.

The anthology Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States, ed. Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible (Oxford University Press, 2012) includes this sidebar. Listed as Table 3.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, Inc.

Among the many producers of classroom films, Encyclopaedia Britannica Films was perhaps the most successful, launching at the beginning of the boom period for educational reels. Hundreds of schools and libraries used the company’s productions -- which numbered up to one thousand titles.
The film corporation’s relationship to the redoubtable printed Encyclopædia Britannica obviously allowed it instant name recognition and authority. The encyclopedia, first published in Edinburgh in 1768, but was acquired and published by American firms from 1901. In 1928, the Sears Roebuck company bought the publishing brand, selling it to ad executive, philanthropist, and University of Chicago vice president William Benton in 1943. He maintained ownership until his death in 1973; thereafter a foundation bearing his name, and run by his son Charles, managed the company until 1996.

Upon buying Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Benton simultaneously created its film production-distribution subsidiary. Although unable to persuade the University of Chicago to be a full partner, he provided the financing that made it part owner. To launch Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, Inc. at full strength, Benton simply acquired two of the most influential entities in the educational film business. From Western Electric, he bought Erpi Classroom Films, Inc., which included production facilities and a large library of films. Benton also convinced George Eastman’s company to donate the Eastman Teaching Films collection to the university, Thus EBF began with more than 500 titles to build upon. In an industry known for marginal economic status, Benton made the motion picture operation into a viable, large-scale business -- buying out the University of Chicago’s share in 1952.

However, EBF was not simply built to exploit these assets. Its productions established a reputation for quality, both technical and educational. Its success was also attributable in part to a large sales and support team that visited schools frequently.

In 1966, near the height of the boom in educational film, the company became Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation (EBEC), producing and marketing other audiovisual media for schools -- filmstrips, supporting texts, and eventually video and Web-based media.

Financier Jacob [Jacqui] Safra bought the ailing corporation in 1996, creating Encyclopædia Britannica Holding S.A. Copies of most of the original Britannica films continue to be sold on video.

Sources: “Britannica Films,” Time, Apr. 24, 1944; “Help on Celluloid,” Time, Apr. 29, 1957;
“History of Encyclopædia Britannica,” Jan. 2010, http://corporate.britannica.com. Also, Kenneth Kaye, “40th Anniversary of Encyclopedia Britannica Films and Its Predecessor Companies, 1928-1968,” unpublished ms. (1968), provided by Charles Benton, who commissioned this study while president of EBEC.

-- Dan Streible

Notes on 16mm films

Thanks for the lively arguments about arguments in class.

Since we were 3 persons down due to illness, here are a few of the references from today and a few extra ones relevant to our cause.

We opened with a twin bill:

Despotism (1945) 10 or 11 min., depending on which copy you view.
Archival source?  Hard to say. There are 5 uploaded files on the Internet Archive alone. Many more on YouTube. The MP4 file we projected was from the Prelinger Archives collection at the IA.
Several files of varying resolution and format are available there. The URL  https://archive.org/details/Despotis1946 is among the ways in which this film is often dated 1946, as on the AV Geeks YouTube channel.  Encyclopaedia Britannica Films and Erpi Classroom Films were distributed as 16mm prints (by the hundreds), yet Worldcat.org lists only 2 libraries holding 16mm copies (North Carolina A&T State University and the State Library of New South Wales, Australia). Certainly other prints exist in private collections like those of Prelinger and Skip Elsheimer's AV Geeks. The EB Films company assets were sold to a holding company, which put them in a former salt mine, Underground Vaults & Storage Inc., in Hutchinson, Kansas.

Meteority (Meteorites, 1947) 10 min.
Directed by Pavel Klushantsev
Leningrad Popular Science Film Studio, USSR. In Russian with English subtitles added 2012.
Archival source: Gosfilmofond of Russia (35mm)

Manon Gray projected the DVD Orphans in Space: Forgotten Films from the Final Frontier (2012), produced by the NYU Orphan Film Symposium by Walter Forsberg, Jonah Volk with Alice Moscoso, then media archivist at NYU Bobst Library. Liner notes by Sergei Kapterev and the whole 40-page booklet are at https://archive.org/details/OrphansInSpaceBooklet. Worldcat lists 6 libraries holding the DVD set,  but not NYU (even though NYU Bobst Library does have a circulating copy).
Since the DVD's release, a nice looking copy has become available on YouTube. "Alexander J" posted it as Метеориты. Meteors / Meteoroid (though we are assured the Russian word translates best as Meteorites). Watch it here. No English subtitles.

We discussed the pairing of the two works:  educational films, American and Soviet; nontheatrical and theatrical; 16mm and 35mm; arguably dated and undated in different ways. Despotism has been appearing in a variety of blogs and Facebook postings, usually "programmed" with an argument something like "Britannica got it right; why do so many people not recognize authoritarianism in 2017?" or "This once-dated film suddenly looks smart and concise, given the results of the presidential election."

A 2013 digital release from Films for the Humanities & Sciences summarizes Prelinger Archives. Despotism this way: "Thoughtful and non-propagandistic educational film concerning how a society ranks on a spectrum stretching from democracy to despotism. Explains how societies and nations can be measured by the degree that power is concentrated and respect for the individual is restricted." Worldcat lists 6 university libraries holding this release (4 in Indiana, 2 in Kentucky; go figure).

An essential source for understanding the 16mm nontheatrical film phenomenon is Rick Prelinger's The Field Guide to Sponsored Films (San Francisco: National Film Preservation Foundation, 2006), available as a PDF here. It's an annotated filmography of 452 works, listing archival holdings. In the Introduction, Prelinger says "300,000 industrial and institutional films have been made in the United States" before 1980, "far more than any other type of motion picture."

The book's bio offers this useful summeary: "Rick Prelinger is the founder of the Prelinger Archives, a collection of 51,000 advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films that was acquired by the Library of Congress in 2002. He has partnered with the Internet Archive (www.archive.org) to make 2,000 films from his collection available online." That number is almost 7,000 now, with more than 1,000 items in the Prelinger Archives home movie collection. All digitized at the Internet Archive work station in San Francisco, where Savannah Campbell has worked.

The Field Guide lists four Encyclopaedia Britannica films, including

Making Films That Teach (1954) 18 min.
Film celebrating the 25th anniversary of the educational film company. Making Films That Teach illustrates the film production process, including location shooting in exotic locales, and includes numerous clips from Encyclopaedia Britannica films. NOTE: The black-and-white film ends with a color sequence.

Many of the works in the Field Guide list holdings from the J. Fred MacDonald Collection, the Prelinger Collection, and the American Archives of the Factual Film (AAFF). In fact all three of these large collections are now part of the Library of Congress holdings. Access has been slow to develop. However, now that film scanning workflows have improved -- and a new Librarian of Congress came into office in 2016 -- access to some of this material looks promising. LOC moving image section head Mike Mashon has been prioritizing the scanning of film titles found in the Field Guide. Working with the National Film Preservation Foundation, LOC will be putting a digital edition of the book online with most of the titles downloadable. (Two students in this Curating class authored prototype research notes and essays for the project.)

A curious curatorial discussion is ongoing about the AAFF Collection. Orphaned by Iowa State University, LOC took in the 25,000 films when they would otherwise have been deaccessioned. But twenty years later, the materials have not been worked on. We've heard in class about Indiana University and its Moving Image Archive, which has prioritized the collection, preservation, and digitization of 16mm educational films as core to its curatorial identity. IU is interested in helping process the AAFF Collection, which rhymes well with its own institutional history (a Midwestern state university, a distribution hub for educational films).

Stay tuned, as they say.

-- Dan Streible

Feb 5, 2017

Tickled Pink by Cinema 16 Screening

On February 1, 2017, I attended the “Amos Vogel and Cinema 16” screening at NYU. The films in the program were selected by Scott MacDonald, the author of our Cinema 16 textbook, and he spoke before and after the films were screened.

The program consisted of six short films, all of which were shown on 16mm. The first film, Arne Sucksdoff’s A Divided World (1948) is a nature film showing the predator/prey relationships between a variety of animals in a snowy forest. This was followed by Oskar Fischinger’s abstract animation Allegretto (1936), and then Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947), avant-garde film that MacDonald described as being controversial for its time due to its homoerotic imagery, but is not as shocking by today’s standards. In the middle of the program was Weegee’s New York (1948), a fascinating amateur version of a city symphony film shot by Weegee, a patron of Cinema 16, and edited by Amos Vogel. Rounding out the program were Stan Brakhage’s experimental short Loving (1957) and another abstract animated work, Robert Breer’s A Man and His Dog Out For Air (1957).

In his introduction to the program, MacDonald spoke of Amos Vogel and the history of Cinema 16, as well as Vogel’s curating style. Vogel tended to program a variety of different genres of films in his programs, often juxtaposing shorts that were very different in style, tone, theme, and content. MacDonald discussed the influence of Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of film editing on Vogel’s programming: there should be a “collision” between the different films in the program. If an audience sees too many similar films in a row, the individual works do not stand out as much and may blend together. By screening wildly different animations, documentaries, scientific films, and avant-garde works in the same program, Vogel thought each piece would be distinct and more memorable. In this sense, I felt like Vogel’s programming sensibilities worked. When I left the screening, I could recall significant details about each of the films shown. Each was unique and different, and stuck out in its own way.

I had seen none of the shorts in the program prior to this screening, so each was a new experience for me. Overall, it was a very enjoyable program and each film intrigued me in its own distinct way. The film that I was most fascinated by was Weegee’s New York.  With its kaleidoscopic imagery of Night York City at night time, including bright colors, and subjects that were out of focus more often than not, this film has a visual style all its own. The story of Weegee and Amos Vogel working together on it is also fascinating, since Weegee liked to shoot, but had no interest in assembling his footage until Vogel approached him. It is difficult in this film to tell where Vogel’s aesthetic takes over and where Weegee’s vision emerges. It was an interesting centerpiece in a program about Vogel’s curating practices to include a film he made with one of his patrons.

One critique I have about the show, and a question I would like to open up to the class, is that two of the prints shown (Allegretto and Loving) exhibited severe color fading. I understand that these may have been the only prints available, or the only ones within the budget for the screening, but it felt like an irresponsible decision to show them. In the case of “Loving”, the color on the film was so badly faded to magenta that the entire film looked as if it were tinted pink. Even MacDonald noted in the Q&A that, “Brakhage would be appalled” by the appearance of the print. While I appreciate that I was able to see all of these works on 16mm, as they would have been shown at Cinema 16, I questioned the decision to show deteriorating prints. If the only prints of these films available were that severely color faded, I may have preferred seeing a video or digital copy of the work. 16mm film has its own aesthetic, that I generally greatly enjoy, but a color faded print presents a version of the film that is fundamentally dissimilar to the artist’s original work. Showing a DVD version of Loving, while disrupting the 16mm-centric theme of the show, would have at least allowed for the opportunity to see a more chromatically accurate version of the work. The question I pose to the class is this: Is it a better curatorial decision to show a deteriorating print of a work on its native format, or use a video or digital surrogate?

--Savannah Campbell