Issue 8 Editorial

Issue no.7 was thematic: called “After Grierson”, it considered the worldwide and continuing influence of John Grierson, not only in film. In the present issue we have two more articles that continue this theme. The first is Terence Dobson’s “McLaren and Grierson: intersections” – an article that technical problems prevented us from including in issue 7, but that should be read in conjunction with that issue. Dobson’s interest in animation has led him to consider the several ways in which Grierson’s path crossed with that of innovative animator, Norman McLaren.

Brian Winston’s provocative piece on current debates in Britain about how much “truth” can be demanded of documentary, positions Direct Cinema in opposition to Griersonian definitions of documentary, and then considers how recent television is redefining the term yet again. The popularity of the docusoap in Britain has been accompanied by ratings-driven demands for ever more startling revelations. Winston suggests that, in an effort to challenge the worst excesses of this, the regulatory authorities have gone too far, misreading as dishonesty what were once standard practices of documentary, and creating new legal categories along the way. He is also concerned that this revision of definitions may lead to unrealisable audience expectations of all documentary: it would certainly be interesting to know what Grierson might have thought about this possibility!

Sylvia Harvey takes a different position in regard to broadcasting regulation. Comparing the British and American systems, she considers the possibility that regulation may even be “on the side of the angels” .

The latter two articles address one of our policy objectives, in considering the place of visual media in social history. We also have several, very different, articles on the history of film and the film industry in the 1920s and 1930s: one concerning France, one New Zealand, and one a genre that was popular in Hollywood, but also more widely familiar.

One of the advantages of the web is the networks that it makes possible. We are grateful to Brigitte Berg for informing the archivists’ mailing list of an event celebrating the rediscovery and rethinking of Bernard Natan’s contribution to classic French film. Out of that came Gilles Willems’ article reinterpreting company records in a fascinating story that challenges Charles Pathé’s version of the events surrounding Natan’s “take-over” of Pathé-Cinéma in the early sound era. This has been ably translated from the French by Annabelle de Croÿ, and is accompanied by visual documentation in the form of a group of images, not always directly connected to the article but reminding us of the richness of the period.

Chris Watson discusses a phenomenon that he has labelled “community comedies”. These short fictions appeared in the late silent period in USA, Australia and New Zealand. They were based on a standard plot, but produced in a local community, using local talent and showcasing local industries, landmarks and people. Watson is concerned with the twenty-seven New Zealand examples, and particularly with one made by Lee Hill in the town of Feilding. He sees this phenomenon as one provincial answer to Hollywood hegemony.  Screening the Past would be very interested to hear of research in progress on the Australian or American examples, and also of any other country where this genre appeared.

Russell Campbell’s article on “‘Fallen woman’ prostitute narratives in the cinema” considers the variants on the “fallen woman” archetype in silent and early sound cinema, both in Hollywood and in Europe. He finds that two variants dominate: the young woman who is seduced or raped, and the mature woman who strays from the path of virtue from force of circumstance or as an act of self-sacrifice. He is interested both in those that seem to come out of patriarchal ideology and those that challenge such views, and hint at feminist concerns.

Finally, our third area of policy interest is addressed in two articles concerning the representation of an historical figure on film. Michael Collins was a controversial figure in Irish history, and died young enough to preserve the legendary status he had acquired in his lifetime. Neil Jordan’s film,  Michael Collins (1996), has been nearly as controversial, and has already produced considerable debate, for instance in  Cineaste  (XXII no.4, 1997). We contribute to this debate Chris Eipper’s article “The ‘Big Fella’ on the big screen: cinema, charisma, myth and history”, and Ewan Morris’s “The good soldier: Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins”. Eipper is concerned with the way myth constructs history, and with the interaction of the charisma of historical figures and the charisma of the actors who portray them on screen. Morris is concerned with the construction of Collins as popular hero, and how this resonates with current debates about political violence in Ireland. Both articles reflect on the way the characterisation of Collins depends on the characterisation (even possibly the caricature) of de Valera.

But the world keeps changing, and new technologies must be taken into account in our concerns with the past. They are rapidly developing their own histories, cannibalising past technologies and forms as they go. They are also providing new opportunities for using the products of earlier technologies for research, writing and teaching, and it is some of these possibilities in the area of film history that are addressed in the last of our major articles. Tony Pearson and Richard Paterson both made contributions to the infog99 conference in Melbourne earlier this year, and we provide here versions of the papers they gave at that conference. Both are concerned with making films of an earlier time available in digital form to scholars and students in the future. Tony Pearson provides a technical report on the British PADS project – a pilot project, leaving open many questions about how problems of copyright will be resolved, which visual resources will be selected for such costly reproduction, and how British researchers and students will use the service when (or if?) it moves into full operation. But it will also make academics and researchers in other countries envious – unless there are other such projects on the go, which this journal would be very interested to hear of! Richard Paterson’s article introduces a complementary project to the PADS project . The BFI Online project raises a number of similar concerns, but from the perspective of a national institution which must serve both a metropolitan public, and, increasingly a series of regional publics as well, providing resources for the construction of regional histories in the UK of the future, whatever its ultimate form may be.

So, this issue covers most aspects of our brief, and demonstrates that we interpret history not only as what happened in the distant past, but also how the past influences the present and survives into the future.

Ina Bertrand
October 1999

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →