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  • Eleventh International Domitor ConferenceUniversity of Toronto and Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada, June 13–16, 2010
  • Louis Pelletier (bio)

The film industry has long held sharp distinctions between mainstream and alternative uses of moving pictures. Indeed, one of the markers of classical institutionalized cinema is its profitable use as entertainment; other purposes, such as education and advocacy, have been marginalized. But the differences between education, entertainment, and advocacy were blurred in the first decades of moving picture production, providing a productive field of study for the eleventh biannual Domitor conference, which met in June 2010 at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University to look "beyond the screen" (this year's official theme) at the institutions, networks, and publics of early cinema. The event brought together more than seventy film archivists, silent screen enthusiasts, doctoral students, and established early cinema specialists, with even a few veterans of the International Federation of Film Archives groundbreaking 1978 Brighton symposium in attendance.

Domitor first met in 1985, and it continues to gain momentum in participation and in scholarship alike. These four days of presentations and screenings showed that early cinema research remains more relevant than ever. Organizers Marta Braun and Paul Moore, at Ryerson, and Charlie Keil and Rob King, at the University of Toronto, commendably decided not to hold concurrent panels, thus guaranteeing a sizable audience to all presenters and valuable discussion after each panel. [End Page 123]

The assembled scholars examined an impressive variety of texts, discourses, and practices, shedding light on moving pictures' relationship with social and political institutions before "Hollywood" was itself established as an institution. Presentations often concentrated on narrow case studies, yet managed to avoid falling into the trap of a history of firsts, great men, and masterworks. Rather, most participants sought to historicize a wide range of practices associated with the early years of moving pictures, and more particularly with their uses in the nontheatrical realm. This was often accomplished through investigation of the numerous institutions that have variously sought to control or co-opt moving pictures (including science and medicine, reformist and religious organizations, armies, legislators, and censors), as well as of the multiplicity of venues where they have been exhibited (including fairs, museums, department stores, and schools). The most comprehensive overview of the many uses to which moving pictures have been submitted in their early years was offered by Gregory Waller, whose presentation integrated a comprehensive survey of the numerous nontheatrical venues where moving pictures could be encountered in the United States around 1915. Waller also encouraged reflection on some broad categories often taken for granted, by reminding conference participants that "theatrical" and "nontheatrical," as well as "entertainment" and "educational," were ever-changing categories which could only be defined and understood through their evolving relation to each other.

The papers delivered at the conference thus collectively worked toward the reconstruction of—to borrow Alison Griffiths's words—a "more subtle genealogy of film" taking into account the wide variety of practices documented in both theatrical and nontheatrical venues. Griffiths's fascinating research on the use of moving pictures in American prisons contributed to this ambitious project by foregrounding the lively intermedial context in which film appeared at the turn of the twentieth century. The various sources mined by Griffiths more particularly show that, even in the most isolated of environments (prisons), moving pictures cohabited with an abundance of other media, attractions, and activities, including newspapers, vaudeville, lectures, and sporting games.

Quite a few papers turned out to be most humbling for film historians, who have often been led to believe that cinema—"the art of the twentieth century"—revolutionized the media landscape at its inception and then quickly became the dominant force in show business. Germain Lacasse's research on the long-forgotten Quebec tradition of election night festivities recounted how, in the context of these tremendously popular celebrations organized by newspapers, moving pictures were nothing more than a sideshow routinely upstaged by brass bands, telegraphic communications, magic lantern slides, and old-fashioned orators. Anne Bachmann similarly reported on a popular exhibition held in Scandinavia in the 1910s, where moving pictures were upstaged by, of all things, small-scale model houses.

The surprisingly rapid...


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