Unraveling the Madison News Reel: An Unlikely Convergence of Collage, Industrial, and Local Film
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Unraveling the Madison News Reel
An Unlikely Convergence of Collage, Industrial, and Local Film

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Though doubtfully little more than a lark in its inception, the Madison News Reel (MNR) has reemerged as both an early found footage work and a belated entry in the tradition of local filmmaking in the silent era. Contextualizing the film historically and evaluating its aesthetic merits is slippery, as the film has only been partially identified, and does not situate itself neatly in the genres of collage and local film. Indeed, it is the film’s split identities and literally fragmented source material that yield the most intrigue, more so than the cumulative effect of the film itself (which is not without its pleasures). In fact, the film’s rediscovery simultaneously rescued from history a once ubiquitous and now forgotten enterprise of sponsored and nontheatrical films known as the Bureau of Commercial Economics (BCE). This article will examine the MNR as an early collage work, provide an account of its identification, and finally, consider the artifact’s local resonance today, after enjoying its extremely limited moment seventy-five years ago.

Discovered in Bristol, Maine, about eighty miles from the small town that provides its title, the 250-foot nitrate reel was donated to Northeast Historic Film (NHF) in February 2001. It was found in the third-floor eaves of a barn where there had been many tenants over the years, all of whom had left things behind. The film almost went unnoticed and was nearly discarded at this point, as it was the only bit of film on a 2000' reel among a large rusty box of otherwise empty cans.

Once accessioned into the NHF collections, the piece became known by staff as “The Eye Beholds,” from the animated logo that provides the film’s most striking moment. Given its apparent regional significance and early signs of decay, it was promptly preserved—still, the origins and purpose of the film remained a complete mystery. The film’s esoteric references and elusive humor make for an utterly baffling experience to contemporary viewers, who nonetheless respond to its playful spirit.

In fact, the MNR is a curiosity in almost every respect, particularly in trying to place it as an early found footage experiment. Assembled just a few years before Joseph Cornell’s masterpiece Rose Hobart (1936), this obscure work was likely shown exclusively to the local audience that was the subject of its limited address. In part due to this narrow spectatorship, I do not make a claim of lineage for the more sophisticated works that followed, particularly since the film’s sense of montage is limited at best.

In Film Form, Sergei Eisenstein defines montage not as “an idea composed of successive shots stuck together but an idea that DERIVES from the collision between two shots that are independent of one another.”1 The MNR in only one instance juxtaposes two images together to form a new meaning, and this comparatively extravagant gesture is in fact the film’s grand finale. More often, explanatory on-screen text is followed by a single appropriated image that supports its claims. Eisenstein and his colleagues [End Page 62] considered the intertitle to be the “first blind alley” of the cinema’s cultural avant-garde, particularly “the vain attempts to integrate it into montage composition as a unit of montage.”2 As we will see, the MNR is completely reliant on the intertitle for its uses of found footage to have any meaning.

While not as formally ambitious as Rose Hobart or Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958), the MNR also doesn’t appear to have any dialectical aims. In his book Recycled Images, William Wees recognizes montage, or collage, as the “most effective means for exposing the social/political implications of found footage.”3 The MNR, however, has little use for montage, neither as an aesthetic practice nor as a means for subversion. As Michael Zryd wrote in this journal about Craig Baldwin’s paranoid collage masterpiece Tribulation 99 (1992), the MNR also “culls its images from ostensibly legitimate institutional sources of knowledge production,” such as government films.4 In other hands, the...