Domitor Conference in Washington (1998)
As the President noted in his opening speech, when thanking David Francis, the head of the Motion Pictures, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress, for hosting this year's Domitor Conference, the Conference was beginning twenty years almost to the day from the end of the 1978 F.I.A.F. Congress in Brighton, an event which more than any other spurred the growth in interest in early cinema that gave rise to Domitor, and an event also organized by David Francis, as curator of the National Film Archive in London. As members will be well aware, the theme of our Fifth Conference was "Sound in the early cinema". A list of the papers presented is given below. In this review, I will concentrate on the events outside the panels at which papers were delivered, and also attempt to outline the areas of debate which emerged most clearly in the open discussion sessions that followed the formal panels.
The most powerful impression this reviewer brought back from the Conference is the variety of sound found in moving picture screening sites in the years before 1915. Of course, we all knew this-it is a cliché that the non-talking cinema was never a silent cinema, such a cliché that a revisionist trend, to be discussed in more detail below, has recently reasserted the importance of silence in the nickelodeon. However, the spectrum of sound we heard about, and even the more limited one we actually heard at the Conference, was still startling. Where synchronized sound systems were concerned, we saw the camera and projector for a sound-on-film system perfected by Eugène Lauste in 1913, recently rescued from crates in an asbestos-contaminated Smithsonian Institution warehouse. We heard modern restorations of sound films produced in the 1900s. Herbert Reynolds presented a programme in which Martin Marks played the piano scores published by the Kalem Company for screenings of Captured by Bedouins, The Siege of Petersburg, and other 1912 films. We heard papers on sound effects machines and sound-effects practices, and heard them performed by the Living Nickelodeon (of which more below). We heard papers on applause and other forms of vocal intervention by audiences. In a lantern-slide presentation by Laura Minici Zotti and David Francis, we heard recitations to lantern-slide series ("At the Level-Crossing Gates" and "Buy Your Own Cherries", read by David Francis, the latter with songs sung and accompanied by Martin Marks), and related films ("'Ostler Joe", recited by Helen Day-Mayer to the 1908 Biograph film starring D.W. Griffith). We saw, heard, and joined in the choruses for song-slide presentations by the Living Nickelodeon, and heard Bob Kosovsky sing "Meet Me Down at Luna, Lena" and play "The Vitagraph Girl" in a presentation by Ron Magliozzi on the relations between the sheet-music industry and the early cinema.
Where synchronized systems were concerned, Alison McMahan presented videotapes of Gaumont's restorations of a number of Gaumont Chronophone films, mostly café-concert songs, Richard Koszarski presented videotape reconstructions by Art Shifrin of two Edison Kinetophone films made in 1912, The Five Bachelors, a vaudeville sketch with most of its dialogue sung by a male-voice quartet, and The Deaf Mute, one scene (out of four filmed) from a Civil-War play in the genre of The Warrens of Virginia, and Eva Orbanz sent from the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek a group of Messter Biophon subjects, some with restored tracks, some without, including opera and operetta arias and choruses, two stripteases, and one comic dialect monologue (Auf der Radrennbahn in Friedenau). Unfortunately, these were all sound-on-film or -tape restorations reproduced with modern image and sound equipment, so we lacked the chance we obtained in New York in 1994 of seeing actual 1890s and 1900s projectors at work. The role of the synchronized film in the early film programme was perhaps another gap in the Conference's coverage, but Karel Dibbets made an interesting point in response to Richard Abel's paper. Abel had noted that in the American nickelodeon in 1906-8, when most of the films shown were French (usually from Pathé), the song slides represented the specifically American component, almost all of them being American popular songs. Dibbets suggested that in Germany the Tonfilm (although, as the examples we saw and heard show, its repertory included the essentially international form of Italian grand opera) was usually in German and often a characteristically German song, and thus functioned like the song slide in the German movie house, also largely dominated by films made abroad.
A recurrent theme of the papers and discussions is what was dubbed at the Conference the "Altman effect": attempts to corroborate, dispute, or otherwise come to terms with Rick Altman's recently advanced thesis in "The Silence of the Silents" (see "Members' Publications" in this issue of the Bulletin) that the music in early nickelodeons was not film accompaniment in the sense we are familiar with from film music performed by surviving veterans of the silent era and modern performances of the original scores for silent features. These practices are, according to Altman, characteristic of the later 1910s and 1920s. From 1906-10, films were often screened without music, which might be used only between films and for specifically musical parts of the program, like song slides; when music was played during the movies, it was cued directly by the picture, either as diegetic music, or as tunes evoked by the title or intertitles of the film, rather than by appropriateness of mood. Although the earliest music actually issued for performance with films in America, the Kalem scores of 1912, are like the later practice, as are the cue sheets issued by some companies and featured in music columns in the cinematic trade press from 1909-10 on, these, for Altman, represent pioneering attempts to move away from nickelodeon practice rather than norms of that practice. These controversial theses are supported by extensive quotations from contemporary sources. Altman did not present a paper at the Conference; instead, the troupe he founded and directs, the Living Nickelodeon (with Altman as the pianist, projection by Lauren Rabinowicz, sound effects by Corey Creekmur, and songs by Ann R. Lamond), presented an evening's entertainment, consisting of four different types of possible nickelodeon programme, including films (in Library of Congress Paper Prints), song slides (with 35mm copies of original glass lantern slide sets from the John W. Ripley and Marnan Collections), and (as occasional background) marquee ballyhoo music as if from outside the theatre. Despite the pleasures of the performance, especially the visually and vocally gorgeous song slides, later discussions showed that not all sceptics were convinced. The predominance in the programmes of short, essentially pre-nickelodeon films, was noted, as was the fact that no other silent form of public entertainment at the turn of the century lacked musical accompaniment. Is it really conceivable that dramatic films approaching a quarter of an hour in length were projected to ambient sound alone? If they had musical accompaniment, would not legitimate-theatre and variety-theatre tradition have dictated mood music not dissimilar to that found in the later published scores?
Altman's chronology neatly dovetailed with one offered by André Gaudreault and Jean Châteauvert in a discussion of applause at the nickelodeon, based on reports of such applause in the Montréal press. For them, these reports suggest that the silent spectator who became officially de rigueur in moving picture houses in the classical period was an innovation dating from around 1910; before that date, spectators applauded, commented out loud, and openly discussed the films they were seeing. Gaudreault and Châteauvert linked this shift to the now consecrated one pioneered by Gaudreault and Tom Gunning between a cinema of monstration or attraction and one of narrative integration, but they thereby introduced two significant shifts into that historical account. First, the date of the transition was moved up by three to five years to a point after most of the films discussed by Gunning in his account of Griffith's development of narrative integration (whereas some writers have wanted to move it back into the early 1900s). Second, the opposition, which was always linked to Metz's characterization of the classical spectator as a lonely voyeur, was now associated with the terms "public" and "private", suggesting an attempt to correlate it also with Oskar Negt and Miriam Hansen's conception of the nickelodeon (and the related kinds of early film theatre in Europe) as a "proletarian public sphere" tamed by the massified cinema of the classical period.
I may be putting too much emphasis on a single paper presented at the Conference, but the coincidence with the date Altman suggests for a shift from the "true" nickelodeon soundscape, and the frequency with which a 1910 transition defined in similar terms was mentioned in discussions, suggests otherwise. This chronological revision has several important consequences. First, by dissociating the transition from the development of devices of film narration, it shifts emphasis from text to context: monstration or attraction on the one hand, and institutional cinema on the other, come to depend more on the cinematic ambiance than on any stylistic features. Second, it encourages a view of the history of cinema as a development from a popular or even proletarian early cinema to a middle-class, middle-brow mass cinema in the classical period. This view is, of course, not a new one; it dominated film historiography until relatively recently, but seemed to have been displaced by more recent scholarship. The original opposition between the cinema of attractions and the cinema of narrative integration carried such implications only for a few scholars (notably Noël Burch, and in his case as part of a much more complex set of arguments). The cinema of attractions embraced projections for the Pope or the Tsar as much as those in penny gaffs or fairground booths. And, as several conferees remarked, during the transition to the institutional cinema, it was not necessarily the middle class that demanded a reverent silence resembling that at a symphony concert, while proletarians preferred the atmosphere of a saloon-it might be the cinema reformer who expected to talk aloud about the pictures just as he would discuss the newspapers at his Stammtisch, while the "shusher" could be a shopgirl wishing to be left in peace to enjoy her fantasies about her "moving picture boy". Detailed work on the variety of venues in which early films were seen, and close stylistic analysis, have considerably nuanced if not completely overthrown previous simplifications; it would be a pity if "cultural-studies" approaches reinstated the old nostalgia.
As I hope this survey indicates, discussion at the Conference was sustained, cumulative, usually well-informed, and at any rate uninhibited (Herb Reynolds was grateful to be informed from the floor during his presentation that Gene Gauntier was a woman). This liveliness and continuity vindicated once again the decision to confine the Conference to plenary sessions, though some conferees complained that the many ten-minute papers required to squeeze presentations into a plenary format were too short for anything very significant to be conveyed (they also encouraged a tendency to gabble that made the sterling work of the simultaneous translators almost impossible).
The Conference was attended by 91 people, most of them Domitor members, from 11 countries, including sizable contingents from Britain, Canada (anglophone and francophone), France, the Netherlands, and the U.S.A., and smaller numbers from Belgium, Denmark, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Sweden. Unfortunately, no-one came from outside Europe and North America, and, perhaps more surprisingly, there was only one Italian conferee, none from any other country bordering the Mediterranean but France, and no Austrians, Germans or Swiss.
Richard Abel is investigating avenues for the publication of the Proceedings. Subject to satisfactory terms being secured, it seems likely that a selection will be published by Indiana University Press, while others may appear in Film History. Papers which are not published in hard copy may be made available via the Domitor web site.
I think Domitor can congratulate itself on another successful Conference. However, what was by all reports the most magical moment of the week was missed by many members who had already departed, including this reviewer. On the last evening, the master conjurer, David Francis, pulled the biggest rabbit from his hat: the remaining Domitorians saw and heard, resynchronized (by hand and eye) after more than a hundred years, the film well known without its soundtrack of William Kennedy Laurie Dickson playing the violin in a test for the original 1895 Edison Kinetophone. Who said it was a myth that the cinema could bring the dead back to life?
Richard Abel, "That Most American of Attractions, the Illustrated Song."
Édouard Arnoldy, "Le déclin du café-concert, l'échec du Chronophone Gaumont et la naissance de l'Art Cinématographique."
Mats Björkin, "Public Sounds: The Politics of Early Sound Practices."
Cobi Bordewyk, "Sound, Silence and Censorship: Leiden Cinema Performances in the 1910's."
Marta Braun and Charlie Keil, "Sound , Early Cinema and Local Exhibition: A Case Study of Toronto."
Jean Châteauvert and André Gaudreault, "Les bruits des spectateurs."
Ian Christie, "Early Phonograph Folklore and Cinema."
Martin Barnier, "Polémique à propos de l'invention du parlant entre 1894 et 1926."
Stephen Bottomore, "Sound Effects: The Missing Dimension."
Richard Crangle, "Next Slide Please: The Lantern Lecture in Britain, 1890-1910."
Corey Creekmur, "Sounds of Blackness: African-American Dialect in the Context of Early Cinema."
Scott Curtis, "'If It's Not Scottish, It's Crap': Harry Lauder Sings for Selig."
Joseph Eckhardt, "'The Effect Is Quite Startling': Lubin's Attempts to Commercially Exploit the Possibilities of Sound Movies, 1903-1914."
Tony Fletcher and Ronald Grant, "Talking to the Picture: Britain, 1913."
John Fullerton, "Sound Acting and Narrative Development in Early Danish Comedy Shorts."
Jane Gaines and Neal Lerner, "The Orchestration of Affect: Melodrama Theory and Griffith's Epic Scores."
Tom Gunning, "The Silent Sound of Early Cinema."
Malgorzata Hendrykowska, "Early Polish Experiments with Sound on Film."
Marek Hendrykowski, "Karol Irzykowski's 'Death of the Cinematograph': A Pioneer Theory of Film Sound."
François Jost, "Les voies du silence."
Gary Keller, "Representations of Spanish and Hispanicized English in U.S. Cinema before the Sound Era."
Jeffrey Klenotic, "'The Sensational Acme of Realism': Live Dialogue as Early Cinema Sound Practice."
Germain Lacasse, "Le double silence de la 'dernière guerre'."
Alison McMahan, "The Gaumont Chronophone."
Ron Magliozzi, "Sheet Music and Cinema Merchandising."
Martin Marks, "The Edison 'Music Cues' of 1909-1910: What Did They Mean, and How Were They Used?"
David Mayer and Helen Day-Mayer, "Melodic Interludes in Early Film Melodrama Reconsidered."
Dominique Nasta, "The Use of Sound Elements in Melodramas before 1915: Diegetic and Pragmatic Considerations."
Jan Olsson, "Early Swedish Sound Films."
Bernard Perron, "Les transi-sons du cinéma des premiers temps."
Jacques Polet, "Le spectacle cinématographique des premiers temps: fonctions des accompagnements sonores dans la réception des vues animées muettes."
Lauren Rabinovitz, "'Bells and Whistles': The Sound of Meaning in Train Travel Film Rides."
Isabelle Raynauld, "Sound in Screenplays Written before the Talkies."
Herbert Reynolds, "Aural Gratification for Kalem Pictures."
Louise Ellen Schein, "Language, Voices, Faces and Spaces: Sound in Jewish Early Movie Exhibition."
Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan, "La réception des 'vues parlantes' dans le contexte de l'exploitation québécoise, 1895-1915."
Arnth van Tuinen, "Sound and Textuality in Early Griffith."
Jens Ulff-Moller, "'Talking and Singing Movies' in Constantin Philipsen's Kosmoramas, 1904-1914."
Pierre Véronneau, "Les vues pariées au Québec de 1908 à 1913."
Gregory Waller, "Sleighbells and Mandolins."
Rashit Yangirov, "Taking Movie or Silent Theatre: Creative Experiments by Vasily Goncharov."