- Beyond the Screen: Institutions, Networks and Publics of Early Cinema ed. by Marta Braun et al.
From 13-16 June 2010, film, media, and communications scholars as well as filmmakers converged upon Ryerson University (Toronto) and the University of Toronto for the eleventh bi-annual Domitor conference. Domitor, the name proposed by the father of the Lumière brothers for one of their early movie projectors, is an international society dedicated to the study of pre-1915 cinema. The thirty-seven essays in Beyond the Screen: Institutions, Networks and Publics of Early Cinema represent an eclectic fraction of the 2010 conference papers. As the editors explain in the introduction, the contributors “explored the various ways that a range of institutions, both commercial and non-commercial, shaped early cinema’s functions and social uses” (2).
The institutions explored include a diverse cast of characters—individuals and groups—from the fields of education, science, social and religious reform, and advertising and propaganda. Organized beneath the somewhat porous rubrics designated in the title and among more specific divisions of “charity and religion,” “government and civics,” “education and advocacy,” “science and magic,” “art and aesthetics,” “exhibition and showmanship,” and “community and the public sphere,” the essays offer dazzling—and frequently, first-time—glimpses into the “ways in which [early cinema] influenced and intersected with realms beyond the world of entertainment” (1). Space constraints demand the reviewer select only a handful of the essays for critique; however, silence should not be understood to connote disparagement. All of the essays are well-written, well-argued, and often well-illustrated with archival images. [End Page 56]
Jennifer Horne, for example, briskly surveys the academically untilled ground of American Red Cross film production and exhibition from 1916 to 1922. During this time, Red Cross chapters screened over one hundred films (only seven of which still exist). Topics included agriculture, health, schools, roads, and child welfare, but the films also highlighted the organization’s charitable work during the First World War. Venues for these screenings ranged from rotary halls, schools, Kiwanis clubs, churches, libraries, and lodges. Horne then focuses on the ways the Red Cross employed the concept of neutrality as “both a filmic device and an ideological rationale” (13) and how the concept eventually broke down. She argues that a shift in the agency’s financial needs and the desire of exhibitors to display practical patriotism quickly broadened spectatorship from local Red Cross chapters to the public at large. In turn, this viewership expansion bred confusion within the agency, manifesting itself in internal documents and announcements in trade papers advertising Red Cross films. On the one hand, the agency’s professed mission of humanitarian work rested on an assumption of political neutrality. On the other, the Red Cross became an auxiliary of the armed forces once congress declared war against Germany in April 1917. As Horne describes the politico-cultural atmosphere of the time, “Lines between intellectual and popular audiences were blurred, as were the lines between information and spectacle” (14). Even after the war, films depicting the poor in foreign lands and Red Cross efforts to ameliorate their plight devolved into exotic exhibits of American superiority.
In another essay, Oksana Chefranova examines how Tsar Nicholas II shaped cinema’s development in Russia through his tight and enduring control over filmic documentation of his monarchy and empire. This documentation, known collectively as the Tsar Chronicle, consisted of about 363 private and public actuality films made before 1917. The emperor had always been an aficionado of film and photography, shooting and screening films within the imperial palaces, even ducking into local movie theaters during the war to take in a reel or two and express solidarity with his subjects. He also acted as film censor and promoted the careers of favored directors. Chefranova argues that the Tsar’s “multi-faceted participation in film was fundamentally a continuation of his supervision of all domains of the empire” (64...