Friday, 11 May 2012

Visit to the Cinema Museum, London

This is a post I originally wrote as a piece for the newsletter of the London Region Archives and Records Association (I still have to concentrate not to say Society of Archivists!).  I've altered it slightly since and included a few more photographs. The newsletter is available here.

London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) have a monthly film club: a free drop-in event with ‘screenings of archive films from LMA and other organisations, occasional guest speakers and plenty of opportunity for discussion'.  Sounded perfect - two of my favourite things, film and archives - together! When I saw the March film club was a visit to the Cinema Museum in Elephant and Castle I was even more excited as I'd been meaning to visit for years.  Emily, the organiser of the Film Club, was very friendly and arranged to meet everyone outside.  She had arranged for us to have a tour and a film screening.

Exterior of the Cinema Museum, photo by me
Ronald Grant was our host for the evening and he told us the story of the development of the film museum, the history of the building (it was previously a workhouse where a young Charlie Chaplin spent time), and a great history of film itself.  Ronald started working as an apprentice projectionist with Aberdeen Picture Palaces Ltd at the age of 15.  On moving to London he worked for the BFI and the Brixton Ritzy.  A trip back to Aberdeen led to a chance encounter with his old employer who showed him warehouses full of artefacts from the cinema chain he had worked with.  In order to save these from being destroyed he returned to London with a large quantity of artifacts and film equipment which formed the basis of the museum (there more on the history of the museum on their website.

Category Board featuring 'H' for Horrific!, photo by me
The collection has continued to grow since then and covers everything you could think of from the doors and display boards of the cinema to the interior fixtures, film projectors and the films themselves (over 17 million feet of film), film journals, books and magazines, uniforms of staff from the cinemas, posters and original artwork, publicity stills and photographs of cinemas, and I’m sure lots more that I’ve missed out!

I really liked this carved poster frame with Mutiny in the Bounty (which starred Richard Harris) in the centre, photo by me
Ronald was a fantastic tour guide, weaving his personal history in and around all the objects and artefacts in the museum. He also showed us the space they use for doing events including film screenings and sessions with film makers and actors – I’ll definitely be going back!

The evening ended with an archive film screening of a selection of films including some a film made about the last tram in London ( 1952) and, to my delight, a film by the New Zealand film-maker Len Lye which I think (I knew I should have written this up when I got home that night!) was A colour box (1935). I would highly recommend a visit to anyone interesting in film, film archives and film history.

Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to the April meeting of the film club so I can’t report on how that went but I’m looking forward to the May Film Club on Wednesday 23rd May.  Information on the dates of the upcoming film clubs are available here.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The history of the print

A weekend film screening served as a great reminder to me of what it is that makes the cinema and the medium of film so important - asides from the quality/enjoyment of the film being watched.  The film was Lust for Life - a biopic of Vincent Van Gogh starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Vincente Minnelli - intrigued, I decided to go and see it without reading any reviews.

The film was screened in one of my favourite London haunts, the British Film Institute. When a man came on stage before the film started I was surprised as hadn’t remembered reading about an introduction. Turns out he was just there to inform us that the print we were going to view was from Spain, with Spanish subtitles, but that it was the best print available so they had decided to run with it and hoped the subtitles wouldn’t put anyone off. This immediately sent me off on a reverie imagining  the cinemas and venues around the world where this film might have been seen and I found something very comforting in this. Is it nostalgia or something more? For me it was the reminder of the materiality of the film that I loved, to think of the care and attention needed to keep a film in circulation, of the various projectionists and film enthusiasts who have handled the film, the film goers who have responded to it. There’s just something magical about the history of the print itself. This isn’t to say I’m against digital projection in cinemas but just that seeing this old Spanish print of ‘Lust for Life’ reminded me that much of the power of the cinema, and of film itself, lies in it being this shared experience. The history of the print itself made me feel this on an even wider scale, not just sharing it with those at that particular screening, but with film lovers in other countries and in other times.

The notes given out at the screening informed me that the film is based on a book ‘Lust for Life’ written by Irving Stone, which is in turn based on the letters Vincent exchanged with his brother Theo. The letters are used as a very effective story telling device at various points throughout the film and they’ve left me with a desire to re-read the published letters at some point. Although there are, I am sure, some inaccuracies in the film, to me it really worked to convey the passion and creative life of Vincent Van Gogh and Kirk Douglas excelled in his role as Van Gogh. It was also a very welcome surprise to me to see a Lindsay Anderson regular, Jill Bennett, playing Van Gogh’s sister Wilhelmina.  This is the second film directed by Vincentre Minnelli and starring Kirk Douglas that I've seen in the past few weeks and I'm turning into a real fan - I think it's time to go seek out some more of both of their films!

Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh (Image taken from here)

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

'A Confederacy of Dunces' - a missing manuscript and a found history

This is the story of a researcher who went searching for a manuscript and discovered the memories he found instead were more valuable - I just loved this when I read it so thought I'd share it!

Cory MacLauchlin has recently published a biography of the writer John Kennedy Toole.  Butterfly in the Typewriter: the Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of the Confederacy of Dunces tells the long and sad tale of  John Kennedy Toole and his novel A Confederacy of Dunces. MacLauchlin tells how, after writing the book, Toole corresponded with an editor for two years.  When after this time they still could not agree on the revisions Toole shelved the manuscript.  He didn't write any more novels and after suffering a mental breakdown committed suicide at the age of 31 in 1969.  However the story of the book didn't end there as Toole’s mother found the manuscript and eventually found a supporter for it in the author Walker Percy, who found a publisher.  It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.  However the original manuscript which Toole's mother passed on to Walker Percy has never been found.

MacLauchlin states that
"I have been researching and writing about Toole for seven years, digging through archives, interviewing his friends and family, trying to decipher Toole’s character, his fears, his desires, his angels and demons. And I have often contemplated that missing manuscript. "
He tells how he almost thought he had found it when talking to Lynda Martin, the sister of Toole's best friend in High School.  He flies on a plane to go meet her, full of excitement at possibly finding the original manuscript.

The subsequent deflation when he realises it is a copy and not the original is quickly dispelled when Lynda Martin offers to recount her memories of John Kennedy Toole.  I think this bit of the article is a wonderful example of the importance of oral history, of the first-hand record, the completely not-impartial sharing of stories, of life.  Cory MacLauchlin expresses it far more eloquently than me here:
Earlier that morning, I thought I was going to find a rare artefact of literary history, which would help me gain a clearer picture of Toole’s descent towards suicide. But Lynda’s memories were far more profound to me than dissecting how Toole edited his famous novel. Of course, I had to report to my agent and my editor that I had not found the manuscript. But I took heart in what Lynda freely offered me: a vivid portrait of a young aspiring artist, exploring a city filled with unique characters. No documents in the Toole Papers offered such a depiction, a depiction far more valuable than his manuscript.
As he says, of course he would still like to find the original manuscript some day and I don't intend to denigrate the importance of original manuscripts in my re-telling of this story either.  When I thought was so lovely about this story was his surprise at what he did find, at these wonderful memories which won't be around forever and which, unlike the manuscript, could not still be discovered another 30/40 years down the line.. until of course MacLauchlin turned up to find the manuscript and instead ended up filming her oral testimony of John Kennedy Toole.