what’s news ? 1909

July 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

I haven’t blogged from Bologna and its Cinema Ritrovato and I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to do that — in the meantime you ought to check out David Bordwell’s post on his weeklong film viewing extravaganza. For the moment, this little item from an excellent, rich program.

I had a great time with the retrospective of short films dealing with suffragettes (and women comedians). Yes they were absolutely retrograde and the machism was insufferable, but it was the variations on male patriarchy that made it a fascinating exercise, as one could almost sense cultural variations at play unfolding before one’s eyes, from the British where the images tended to show women as fighters, strong, respectable…or impish, but on their own, to the Italians where do as they may women were trapped in the seduction game (even the woman-lawyer, sadly, fell for the persistent, and obnoxious, man of leisure who was pursuing her). To be sure, the British newsreel or fiction films, just like the French or the Italians, showed palpable discomfort with the whole suffragette movement (bombs, a sense of civil chaos even in those impressive, well-planned marches, a sense of the threat that out-of-control women may represent to the male hierarchy). 

One newsreel item showed, amazingly, the horse-race accident at the Derby at Epsom on June 4, 1913: Miss Davidson jumped on the course as the horses rounded Tottenham Corner to grab the King’s horse, but was hit and died of fractured skull (another newsreel showed the funeral). Amazingly, the camera captured all of it, and the scene is as shocking now as it must have been for contemporaries…at least for feminist contemporaries. The newsreel, unconcerned by the shock of that image (we’re talking horses running, human figure running to meet them, impact, flying body, horses tumbling — even in the long shot, it’s a big, gory mess), goes on to describe the end of the race, and that frantic moment when one jokey seemed to have pushed another close to the finish line, which a slow-motion revealed as perfectly true (what thrill!). The newsreel ended with shots of the winner, the horses, and so on. But nothing on the “accident”. Indeed, talk of newsreel as revealing cultural attitudes…

This short newsreel came back to mind this morning as I was reading from The Moving Picture World, July 10, 1909. One F. H. Richardson, from Chicago, is trying to give an example of “Practical Utility of Moving Pictures.” His candidate:

the recent auto races at Crown Point, Ind. These races were run within twenty miles of the corporate limits of Chicago, were very exciting and full of intense interest, yet not one in then thousand of the citizens even of this city could view them. The course had many sharp, dangerous turns and the race was replete with exciting incidents, few of which were viewed even by the people who did go to Crown Point and swelter in the hot sun all day long, returning with blistered faces minus quite a respectable chunk of coin of the realm. But the incidents they miseed they have seen. They have viewed them in all the vividness of their actuality days after the race was but a matter of history. How ?

Simplicity itself ! The Selig Company had a corps of men stationed around the twenty-three mile course at all points where there was most likely to be high speed, accidents or other things of more than passing interest, and it is simply amazing what they secured. Even myself, an old picture man, could scarce believe my eyes when I viewed the film at the Orpheum. At one of the bad turns a car skidded and turned squarely end for end. It is almost unbelievable that the camera could catch this incident, but there it is, every detail of it, and at close range at that. There is no manner of doubt about its being genuine either. No driver on earth would risk his life, to say nothing of the great, heavy racing car, to accommodate a motion picture man, no matter how much money he might be offered.

The article goes on, but Richardson has nothing more to say about the lives or limbs lost in said accidents (he goes to cite another example: motion pictures of Washington or Lincoln). No, the thrill of it is what matters — and I can’t help finding a common representational attitude with the Derby newsreel of Miss Davidson: what matters is the fact that reality is at all represented, not what is represented : or newsreels as “attractions” first, news second.

Note how it matters, too, to establish, however awkwardly, the “genuineness” of those accidents: as if there were lingering doubts about the truthfullness of film-recorded events. To me those doubts can be understood if newsreels themselves are understood as “spectacle” first and “news” second. There are far more reasons to doubt the veracity of a “spectacle” than “news” — at least off-hand.

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