- Guest Editor’s ForewordEarly Cinema and the Archives
The cover image introduces one of the principal themes of this special issue, “Early Cinema and the Archives”: “play.” A concept with many meanings (affect, agency, sensation), play also invites the viewer to participate actively through such devices as identification, manipulation, and decipherment, leitmotifs that run through several articles in the issue. Our cover shows us an impressionistic sketch evocative of a vaguely Parisian skyline with a daring, fully dressed woman on a tightrope traversing it, framed by an evocation of the Eiffel Tower on the left and, on the right, iconic buildings suggestive of the Trocadero Palace and the distant dome of Montmartre’s Sacré-Cœur. Or, alternatively, it is simply a painted circus backdrop using forced-perspective drawing to depict an unknown cityscape with an electrical tower and treacherous power lines. A man on a ledge looks on, shouting and beckoning to the woman as she moves (boldly or perhaps with trepidation) further along her way across the wires. The direction of the woman’s movement in the image is difficult to pin down. Is she going backward, forward, toward, away from the wildly gesticulating gentleman and us, the onlookers? The cinema poster, while dynamic and playful, screams of movement, contingency, transformation, and ambiguity in an electrified, modernizing world.
Yet, aside from being an audacious image of play and sensation (and arguably of social transformation), the poster also relates tangentially to several articles in this special issue as a form of identification; ephemera; a paratext; an archival or exhibition object; and a data point for historical research, close analysis, or what some of our authors define as “distant reading.”1 Whether viewed in paper or digital form, the still image invites us to examine it closely, to metaphorically zoom in and then out to [End Page ix] discover that it is a printed or digital image of a photograph (or a digital file) of a billposter transporting an advertisement for an early Dutch-distributed film.
Beyond its scarcely identifiable Danish lead actor, and its evocation of a woman treacherously traversing a cityscape, it contains edge or border markings that provide information about the absent film’s provenance; the companies that funded, distributed, and exhibited it; and the actual path the film (and the poster) must have traveled: starting in Denmark and heading to Amsterdam or Rotterdam, in Holland, then on to other, perhaps unknowable paths that (barring felicitous research findings) we may only surmise.
The prudently balanced oversized film poster or bill is being wheeled along steadily atop a two-wheeled handcart by its unmindful bill sticker to an unspecified location, presumably to (or away from) a movie theater called the Cinema Parisien, which, if one trains one’s eyes along the edges of the photograph (from the left margin to the small signs in the entryway), appears (at least at first) to be in a German(ic) language location. A close examination of the filmstrip itself, the projected film, and the paratexts (trade publications, advertising) would certainly tell us much more. As it turns out, the poster is for the still extant 1912 “sensations” film from the Nordisk Film Company Dødsspring til hest fra cirkuskuplen (The great circus catastrophe), attributed to director Eduard Schnedler-Sørensen; starring Denmark’s premiere actor, Valdemar Psilander; and distributed by Dutch cinema owner Jean Desmet. The vitally important Desmet Collection is the object of two complementary articles in this issue.
The use of analog or new digital scanning (or viewing) technologies to examine the filmstrip more closely or to conduct data-driven research (in the Desmet archive), as some of our authors do, or to engage in a comparative digital humanities approach of “distant reading” of similar films (of the same producer, director, actor, genre, etc.), promises to expand our understanding of the film, as well as the world from which it emerged, from its conception to its projection on the screen.
As Arlette Farge prescribes in her elegant historiographic study The Allure of the Archives, the perceptual and affective experience of archival research that comes from physical contact with the original texts (alongside paratexts, fragments, and...