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Mitchell and Kenyon, Archival Contingency, and the Cultural Production of Historical License

From: The Moving Image
Volume 6, Number 2, Fall 2006
pp. 52-73 | 10.1353/mov.2007.0003

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The lost or fragmented film is in many ways the ideal post-modern artefact, with its subversion of authorial intention and its decentring of narrative, formal, thematic and stylistic totality: the lost film, in a sense, embodies its own de(con)struction. Closure is denied, loose ends float free, the unities are blasted open. Instead of one unified production of a Great Artist, the lost/fragmented work offers a (great post-modern jargon) palimpsest of variant texts—what we have left, what was intended, what has been worked over by other hands etc.

—Darragh O'Donahue, "Paradise Regained: Queen Kelly and the Lure of the 'Lost' Film"

Introduction: DVDs and Lost Worlds

Can the absence of cultural artifacts or their physical histories project cultural value? In terms of lost films, cultural value is often ascribed as historical value—a function of the power of the authoritative gaze determining a film's public position of lostness, defined here as the capacity for being found and archived. Hence, the commodity value of the structured historical absence of the work makes sense only in that we fantasize about the potential value of an unearthed archival print. It is not actual use value in a commodity market that determines the worth of a lost film but an imagined state of economic and aesthetic fruition, situated within a contemporary cultural subjunctive context of "what it will likely have meant" to retrieve an absent object. Still, these variable meanings of lostness are never private or meaningless, as cultural values of absence are normatively negotiated through public discourse. In this sense, lostness is a sublime chaotic cultural condition that is publicly controlled, rhetorically subdued, and economically disciplined by the discourse of rescue and restoration.

What is it worth to own a piece of resurrected history? Has DVD devalued lost historical memory by rationalizing the inestimable sublime? It would seem on the face of it that digital presentation and mass distribution flattens an overwhelming mystique. For whom is a lost film valuable anyway? Collectors, historians, family of crew, critics, studio and public archives, film studies departments, and consumers are all plausible stakeholders in producing the value of a lost film. Such investor relations in missing history involve imbuing the production of collective memories with the affect of awe and virtual simulation of sublime wonder, speculating on the future historical possibilities of the lost object, if ever discovered. Missing-link theories supplement genre and auteur histories, investing discursive gaps with loaded expectations that a lost film could and should fill a hole in human knowledge, recuperating an otherwise amputated canon. Like junk bond traders, we cinephiles often let our imaginations overspeculate and run riot over these archival gaps, overinvesting lost films with an idea that we may have to rewrite history at large if indeed complete versions were ever brought to light.

In some cases this might be accurate, but I would be cautiously skeptical that an extended ten-hour director's cut of von Stroheim's Greed or an intact vision of Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons would rewrite film history to the extent we have come to expect. Rather, much of the value of a lost film is plausibly due to the fact that it is lost at all. The hype is often so inflated over such lost works that, at best, our preconceptions might be reinforced, telling us that we were right all along about a film's significance to the film canon. Still, as at least one aging filmgoer noted on a DVD extra about the famed lost Tod Browning / Lon Chaney collaboration, London after Midnight, we might very well be extremely disappointed at the artistic quality of the film if we ever did fully recover it.

On the other hand, it would seem proof apparent with the recent digital rescue of 826 Mitchell and Kenyon films in Great Britain that the films that really do rewrite history are quite possibly the least considered. Prior to their discovery, filmmakers Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon were best known for the Boer War reenactments, but after finding this wide collection of films, their reappraised historical value seems to usurp any previous estimation. Who could guess how...



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