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The Rivers of Ink

A study of the phantom histories of cinema.
Anuj Malhotra
Daisy Doodad's Dial (1914). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress and Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes.
In countries without active, functional frameworks to sustain the performance of cinephilia (such as India, or Mexico, but also, say, Iran), a cross-generational transmission of an interest in the cinema is attained through traditions that are predominantly oral. Such a mode is—as all communication must be to remain relevant—plagued inevitably by tendencies of exaggeration, fabrication, or myth-making. This is to say that the heirloom of film culture that each successive generation of young cinephiles inherits in these countries is at least, in part, a collection of rumors, a tall-tale, an urban legend—at any rate, an elaborate fiction.  In parts of the world therefore, where the conduct of cinephilia relies heavily on how thorough its artifice is, a crisis that is pertinent for the rest of the world—presentation or preservationis resolved with much ease: presentation is preservation.
Such a model of preservation is essential, of course, to the cultivation of folk—the forms, the instruments, the lore—and insofar as one may acknowledge that cinema is after all, the folk form of the 20th century, it is true too that the model is applicable to it. This is also because cinema, much like any other folk-form, is suspended in a temporal limbo. In this, its present is simultaneously covered in the looming shadow of the past that preceded it, and the clouds of a future that are visible over the horizon.
Consider the scene, for instance, in The Godfather (1972), where Sterling Hayden is cast as the corrupt police chief, Mark McCluskey—this allotment is not accidental. The first installment of the series may very well have been a treatise on the immense revolution caused in American public life by the various events that resulted from the two World Wars, but it was distilled, still, through a very-1970s yearning for counter-narratives, a desire for revision and a general mistrust of politics. As such, the prosthetic imposition of Hayden—who carried within himself (and therefore, was “iconic”—an icon of) the public memory of the defeatism of 1950s Hollywood—onto the body of The Godfather, is a significant, very conscious decision, for it amplifies the discourse of the container-film. In this, when Michael Corleone murders McCluskey in a restaurant as an act of revenge—he essentially signals the conception of a new era, and as a corollary, the death of the older one. This, however, is attained through remarkable, covert dexterity: a film made in the 1970s, set the 1940s, achieves its commentary through an actor-symbol from the 1950s.
This tendency of the cinema—an active, ongoing cultivation of the iconic figure—allows the discerning viewer to glean linkages, associations, echoes and resemblances across a diversity of filmic objects, removed as they are from each other in time, place, intent or style, and yet cohered through the fact of the common, shared tapestry—of the cinema, itself—to which they belong. It is possible, for instance, that each film ever made is engaged in an ethical, artistic and political dialogue with every other film ever made. If one were to apply themselves to a diagnosis of this diverse network of interactions, one will witness the emergence of a set of phantom histories of film—a narrative that exists not beyond, but through the canonized, indexed and catalogued history of cinema. It is a story behind the story, one that transpires in the backstage of history.
To extend this strain of thought, and place it in the context of a film festival, it is essential to first acknowledge that an event of this nature harbors a set of titles that exist in a state of curious interaction with each other. They assume, therefore, the status of displays in a multi-screen, and if the festival is ambitious, a multi-format installation, where individual components may elicit a sensorial or an intellectual response in and by themselves—but exist, in general, in the service of a larger concept which begins to emerge only when all the screens are viewed together, or in relation to one another.
Is it possible, then, for a single edition of a film festival to host its own phantom history—a narrative that simmers below, or beyond the ambition declared in the neat passages that form the curatorial notes in the official catalogue?
The diverse set of curated programs at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival can perhaps provide an instructive answer in this regard—they seem, after all, organized with much caution, placed in sturdy, demarcated compartments which help evoke, or even dictate conversation.
These are also removed and separated from each other by both the realities of the schedule (and therefore, in time) and the pagination of the main catalogue (and so, in space)—but how is it that these interact with, enrich, inform and influence the reception of each other? It is in their intersection—such that it is not documented within the catalogue of the festival—that a question resides, beyond these statements of mission, beyond the curatorial notes, and beyond the declaration of a posture. One wonders, “what is it that the cinema is trying to tell us?” What lies, so to say, in the crevices of cinema’s history?
Here, two sections are particularly revelatory: Maggie Hennefeld and Laura Horak’s “Nasty Women” and Festival Director Jay Weissberg’s “The Effects of War,” for both their programs, even if they are constituted by films vastly distinguishable from each other, are possessed by a distilled, very pure chaos. In another section of the festival, Charles Urban and George Albert Smith’s Panorama of Pompeii (1901) yields another significant realization: if a filmmaker were to film or chronicle an eternal object—in the case of this film, Pompeii itself—he would, even if he were to resist this, invariably reveal his own way of looking at the world. The eternal object is after all, immobile and permanent; everything else must exist, therefore, in relation to it. In the case of “Nasty Women” and “The Effects of War,” it is not difficult to deduce that the titles that constitute the two respective sections feature depictions of another eternal object: violence itself, and in that, a thorough scrutiny of these can reveal, in both the cases and corresponding to them, a particular manner, a method of looking. If one were to examine the various films that are included within these sections, a clear diagnosis begins to emerge: within the space of a few years (roughly, from 1912 to 1917) the cinema seems to have developed an ethical crisis—and a deduction even more sinister: the interim duration seems to mark the death of the poetic urge in cinema.
The second-half of the 19th century is marked by the conscious development of a set of strategies adopted by a group of artists to mount a resistance against a world laden with overt order, geometry, symmetry and lines—to summarize, with the effects of industry. In his seminal text, A View from the Train, Patrick Keiller contends with the poet-figure (the flâneur-protagonist of his book): that resident within the poetry itself is a staunch, nearly radical desire to render the world anew—to cause in it, through the blunt forces of perception and then interpretation, a rupture, a mutation.
It is also a well-acknowledged fact that the surrealists loved Charlie Chaplin (“we are your servants,” declared the closing line of their 1927 paean to him—what an incredible intersection!) This of course is an essential question: why, indeed? In André Breton’s 1929 text, the Second Manifesto of Surrealism, he invokes figures like Hegel, Freud, Trotsky and Rimbaud—but also, Chaplin1. Why, indeed? The answer to this may in fact be that in Chaplin, they could diagnose cinema’s (and therefore, that of 20th century's) perfect distillation of the surrealist cause; the desire, to summarize, to blow the actual world asunder and then recompile the residual debris into a grand, but profound distortion. It must however be recognized that this tendency—towards a potent transmutation of the world as it existspredates Chaplin by at least two decades, and in fact, permeates much of early cinema (this should come as no surprise: the prevalent art movement of the era, Dadaism, would invariably have impressed itself upon on a medium whose fundamental, inherent form is plastic, and therefore, malleable). In his films, Chaplin assumed the status of a wrecking ball: impossible to contain, in possession of an incredible kinesis, and ricocheting endlessly off the walls of the cinema frame. These titles display that the individual figure can lead to a sublimation of all else—this is a crucial point to note, for we will notice, in the cinema from a few years later, the individual form will in itself have been sublimated; lost, so to say, within images of larger human conclaves (crowds, queues, marches, and sprawls).
In this tradition too, however, and as the various titles included within the “Nasty Women” program would have us appreciate, Chaplin was at best an inheritor. He perfected a model of the cinema that others—spiritual and artistic ancestors of his—had already erected (through, ironically, a series of demolitions) in the cinema. The chief antagonist in this case, as the curatorial note teases, was a mysterious figure who seared through the cinema of the late 00s and the early 10s with a force so cosmic that it seems to have left as its residue nothing but ashes: Betty, or Léontine, as she is known in some circles. It seems too that iconic figures in later cinema gathered these to birth their own, private phoenixes—this included, of course, Tramp, but also, a whole legion of destroyers: Keaton, Mabuse, Boudu, Hulot, Enokizu, Ichi, and Borat. Much like these cine-ciphers over whom her presence looms large, Betty seems to operate in these films as an animal of pure, immoral impulse.
It is not merely that her affectation of a gentile, rustic stupidity (that Chaplin cultivated as a form of virtue in The Tramp and that, perhaps, was also the character’s greatest lie) is after all, a ruse, but in that she seems to not only be conscious of the chaos she engineers—but also, revel in it. If poetry of the era borrowed from Surrealism the destructive urge, the desperate desire to upturn, and to reverse prevalent social habits, it is not difficult to deduce that this cause is also based in a deep desire to blaspheme (“the flowers of evil,” mourns Baudelaire—but remember also Un chien andalou [1929], the film of a conscientious offender). “[T]he weapon of choice for her is undoubtedly the string,”2 observes the curatorial introduction about Betty, and in this, places a special emphasis on her agency as an individual—the “weapon,” a tool that exists necessarily as a means to articulate an intention, and “choice,” a term that invokes will, desire and of course, power. The note recognizes in Betty a purveyor, a deliverer, an agent—a vital force, but also observes, about Léontine garde la maison (1912), that the film, “wraps up back in Léontine’s home—which is simultaneously on fire and flooded with water.”3 Cinema’s nature as a museum of iconographies will ensure later that this image will acquire—in a different context only a few years later—an entirely different meaning. But even more instructive: Betty Tries to Learn a Business (1912) (the title most symptomatic of her work), a film where our eponymous lead character must apprentice inside various professional setups—and fail spectacularly at each of these. This results in a circumstance where the film’s comic effects are achieved not through Betty’s status as an anachronism in each of these settings, or through her failure to do anything properly—but instead, through her refusal to. She traverses through an urban matrix: a residential block, a street intersection, a kitchen, a boutique, a garden—and establishes in each of them, sites of the poet’s revenge upon the world.
Rosalie et Léontine vont au théâtre (1911)
(Hennefeld, in her note for the catalogue of the festival, contends, “with every effort to suppress female sparkplugs […], the pot boiled over, no doubt inflaming the rising geopolitical tensions that would erupt in world war…”4—a phantom history that charts a remarkable line between the images that are a yield of an environment, and what they seem to reveal about its undertow. But is it true also that one can extend, in fact, this line to an even more radical conclusion?
The aforementioned excerpt from the curatorial note is a provocation: it ventures that the films that feature Betty may in fact have carried within themselves a scheme of clues about the state of the world as it would be in a couple of years after the films themselves. Here, the cinema becomes prophecy, the screen a crystal ball. The statement acknowledges the seepage of films into the world—but is the vice versa possible too? Will the cycle complete? Will the world, then, also begin to drain back into the films? The answer, it will turn out, lies in the titles within the “The Effects of War” program.
“[P]art of my rationale for this program,” declares Weissberg in his primer, “was to underline the sulfurous links between then and now…”5 The “then” here is of course, an evocation of the universe as it existed immediately after the First World War, with “now” meaning, quite literally, the world we inhabit at the moment—but a similar temporal thread can be woven also across an altogether different section of our historical embroidery: for instance, from 1912 to 1917. In and around both of these two years, the cinema frame seems to be resplendent with imagery that is essentially the samea faded ink blot which appears on a later page, but the first of whose facsimiles appears, in a darker, better defined version, on an earlier one. The chief iconography of the films made before, and after the war, is not distinct—it is comprised of images of people, distressed en masse, demolished buildings, structures that are flooded or on fire, gratuitous murder or injury, but also, women at work, men in the fields, the train and the railway station, working class neighborhoods, and perhaps even more specifically, the human body, as it assumes a grotesque form. And yet, we realize that this resemblance is uncanny—it is not quite the same.
In Betty Tries to Learn a Business, for instance, we traverse through different workplaces marshaled by women. Our titular protagonist positions herself in opposition to an institutional framework that confines her—this means, as a corollary, that she must remedy, even through violence if needed, the methods adopted by the other women who surround her. These are her coworkers: midwives, daily-wage laborers, tailors, nurses, chef’s assistants, bosses—all presented as mindless, uncritical devotees of a system that she will, in a few minutes, annihilate. Merely five years later, however, the same women will make another appearance in Women’s Work in the First World War (1917), a government-sponsored title, which will depict the same set of professional environments, but subtract from them the radical, rebellious force of our lead. In her absence, these women will suddenly begin to appear, in no particular order, stoic, virtuous, and patriotic. Again, this is essential, for in a nation under siege, it is imperative that film—much like any other popular media—helps national identity coagulate into a solid, sustainable form again: adherence to the system, therefore, is now a desirable quality.
It is crucial here to examine the cosmetic sameness of the content of the images from periods in history that are almost a decade apart—that are rendered, still, somehow, differently. We know, of course, that these two eras of image-production in Europe are separated by one of the four or five monumental events of the 20th century: the Great War. This phantom history therefore, is that in the wake of the war—which causes in the world a distortion so severe, no vaudeville artist can ever match it—there occurs a complete and total revolution within the very moral core of cinema.
The cinema and its poets can no longer invest themselves in a new imagining of the world as it exists—the world has transformed itself without their assistance. This is true also of the various films that populate “The Effects of War,” the most crucial section of the festival, and yet, one where film “as an art” is most conspicuously absent. This is in a major part because humanity’s own destructive urge has achieved for the poet what she could only express as a fantasy; as a hypothesis. If she wanted, through her poetry, to imagine a world in a state of perpetual entropy, it seems, cannons and tanks had accomplished this on her behalf. If she dreamt of murder, of physical mutilation, of corpses, of an upheaval of the social order—the dream was now a reality.
The titles featured in “The Effects of War” feature a sobriety and somberness completely missing from the films made only five years ago and featured in “Nasty Women”: the camera is positioned at a distance; it is static, fixed, almost as if to simulate the absence of a cameraman who handles it. There is no urge to destruct order, for there is no order left anymore; no performance of absurdity is required too, for the world is now absurd in itself.
Objects of the early cinema that were employed as poetic motifs—most noticeably, the train—are now filmed with the eye not of a poet, but of a forensic examiner. A sequence, for instance, recurs through the curation: a group of men and women, hoarded onto a train, set to be transported to a land that is not their own, but where they can at the least continue to live. This is understandable too, for in a world where so much has been lost, the camera’s most essential purpose can become to record: to index, to catalogue, to empirically, without doubt, verify an existence.
It is not outrageous to propose therefore that post-war cinema is no longer the cinema of the poet, but that of the surveyor—it is after all, a ritual of the aftermath of war that the ravaged landscape is visited by a “team of observers” (Humphrey Jennings’s A Defeated People [1946] made in the wake of the Second World War, screams over the image of a devastated city, “Look!”).
If one were to imagine, therefore, cinema as a medium that is only as deep as the surface, and a collection, essentially, therefore, of what is visiblethen it seems that in the case of the curation at Pordenone, the most obvious traces of one section exist actually in another. For if war is an event that yields a series of effects: people and their environments which are laid to ruins by extreme violence—then it is through “The Effects of War” that the “Nasty Women” attain their catharsis; and it is in the films included in “Nasty Women” that the “Effects of War” manifest most resolutely.

1. Noah Techiner, "A Poet in Tramp’s Clothing: Surrealist Writers and Chaplin ( 1918-53)." http://www.cinetecadibologna.it/files/festival/Sotto_le_stelle/2014/100charlot/atti/teichner.pdf
2. Maggie Hennefeld, Official Catalogue, Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto
3. Ibid. 
4. Ibid. 
5. Jay Weissberg, Official Catalogue, Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto


Pordenone Silent Film FestivalPordenone Silent Film Festival 2018BettyLéontine
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