This evening presents a program dedicated to Ken Jacobs avant-garde classic Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969-1971). The films in the program highlights its contribution to the revision of early cinema’s history, which occurred throughout the 1970s, and its repercussions in contemporary experimental filmmaking.
Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son appropriates cameraman Billy Bitzer’s homonymous film from 1905. When Jacobs rented an archival print of it for teaching purposes in the late 1960s, he was astonished by its composition which, not containing the conventional analytical editing of later mainstream cinema, made it difficult to discern the central action and characters. To explore and understand its form and modes of address, Jacobs began performing with the film on an analytical projector with a variable-speed function in reverse and forward projection mode, and to focus on details in the image by filming it from behind a translucent screen. The material filmed during these sessions makes up Jacobs’ now classic appropriation work which creates a transcendent experience through its exuberant scrutinies.
Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son is widely considered to have nurtured a paradigm shift in how film historians conceive of early cinema. From being considered mainly a ‘primitive’ steppingstone towards accomplished film art, early cinema became regarded as relying on its own cultural conventions by way of experimental filmmaking. Film historian Noël Burch’s article ”Primitivism and the Avant-gardes: A Dialectical Approach” (1986) underscores this by contending that Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son foreshadowed scholarly revisions of the period. Or, as film scholar Tom Gunning writes in his essay ”An Unseen Energy Swallows Space: The Space in Early Film and Its Relation to American Avant-Garde Film” (1983):
Comparing early film to recent films of the American avant-garde frees the early works from the ghetto of primitive babbling to which the progress-oriented model of film history has assigned them. If we cease to see early films simply as failed or awkward approximations of a later style, we begin to see them as possessing a style and logic of their own.
The titles in the evening’s program reflects this pas de deux between experimental film and the historiography of early cinema by making a full circle from experimental filmmaking to scholarly film history and back again. In addition to the projection of Jacobs’ Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son it will contain excerpts from Noël Burch’s rarely seen structuralist documentary Correction Please; or How We Got Into the Pictures (UK, 1979) which dealt with the modes of address and coventions of early cinema, and Peter Tscherkassky’s Coming Attractions (Austria, 2010), an experimental film which in turn pays homage to scholarly writings on early cinema by taking Tom Gunning’s aforementioned essay as its conceptual point of departure.
Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (Prod.: American Mutoscope and Biograph,1905)
Correction Please; or How We Got Into the Pictures [excerpts] (Dir.: Noël Burch, UK, 1979)
Coming Attractions (Dir.: Peter Tscherkassky, Austria, 2010)
Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (Dir.: Ken Jacobs, US, 1969-71)
Background Essay: Ken Jacobs’ ‘Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son’ (1969) and Early Cinema Studies
…the dialogue between early cinema historians, restorers, archivists and experimental filmmakers, this movement back and forth between historical understanding of the past and its reactivation in artistic works is essential for illuminating our knowledge and enriching our experience of film history and, in a more general way, our apprehension of what is in the film archives. (…) this historical mobility and flexibility invite new ways of thinking and writing film history departing from its historical mediations… 1
As stated by film scholar André Habib in the epigraph, experimental filmmakers have played a crucial role in the revision of early cinema and its historicization which resonated in academic film historiography. Experimental filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s – often referred to as “structural” filmmakers because of their films’ formal experimentation – produced original perspectives on the development of film form propagating a conception of early cinema as a candid, independent form of filmmaking devoid of the narrative conventions which were established in the 1910s.2 These filmmakers regarded the formal traits of early cinema as akin to their own formal experiments and engaged with them, to lend the words of film theorist Noël Burch “… as ‘found objects’ which can be said to have stimulated the sense of recognition…”.3 They did this by using film projection and duplication technologies in novel ways to manipulate the playback speed, direction and scale of archival films as a way of exploring early cinema’s non-narrative forms. In doing so they conveyed the point that filmic narration was a cultural convention and not an inherent feature of the film medium, which had only been established decades after the emergence of cinema. As suggested by film scholar Bart Testa, by using film technology to this end, structural filmmaking represented a congruency with emerging culturalist and materialist approaches to film history and technology that rejected an essentialist, teleological view of film art’s development to establish “…a mode of cinema critical of orthodox histories of cinema and allied with apparatus theory.”4
With regard to these exchanges between film historiography, archiving and experimental filmmaking in the 1960s and 1970s, Ken Jacobs’ classic Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969-1971) can be regarded as a particularly illustrative work in its use of film technology and its conception of film as an archival medium. It reflects an anti-essentialist perspective by engaging in a revisionist scrutiny of early cinema to illustrate and acknowledge its different formal conventions and to project them onto the present. As David Bordwell has written concerning Tom, Tom.. to suggest this: ”Jacobs’ reworking of the film was as important as any archival research in suggesting that early cinema operated with a distinctive and oppositional aesthetic”.5
Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (USA, 1969-71)
In 1969, Ken Jacobs created the first version of Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son out of cameraman Billy Bitzer’s homonymous film produced by American Mutoscope and Biograph in 1905, using a 16mm print distributed by the Library of Congress.6 The film had been made available through the recently finalized restoration project of the so-called paper print collection. The paper print collection had been created as a means for production houses to copyright their moving picture production on paper rolls – an archival medium chosen because of legislative restrictions – in the late 1890s, but had fallen into oblivion after copyright registration of motion pictures on film had been approved in 19127. It was only in the 1960s that a restoration of large parts of the collection was completed and made available for distribution that educational institutions got a chance to show and reflect upon the films again.
Fig. 1 Screen capture from Ken Jacobs Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969-1971). By the use of an analytical projector Jacobs stretched the original film of Billy Bitzer of the same title to two hours to critically interrogate the film’s form focusing on details in the image.
When Jacobs rented Bitzer’s film from LoC to show it in a filmmaking course at the SUNY Binghamton, he was astonished by its form, which he perceived as remarkably different – or ”visually busy” as he has himself put it – from later narrative cinema – in particular D.W. Griffith’s films. Its lack of conventional analytical editing as seen in mainstream cinema, made it difficult to orient oneself in the film’s frame and discern its central action and characters.8 To explore this form of composition and better understand it, Jacobs began performing with the film on an analytical projector using a variable-speed function in reverse and forward projection mode. This allowed him to focus on details in the image, and slow down and speed up actions filming it all from behind a translucent screen (see fig. 1). Using the material filmed during these performances, Jacobs created his now classic version of Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son, which stretches the ten minutes of Bitzer’s film into a two-hour investigation of its form, to show among other things that early film represented an alternative to conventional narrative cinematic forms and modes of address.9
Tom, Tom… had repercussions in contemporary writings on film historiography and has since been considered, as pointed out by film scholar Christa Blümlinger, a film which heralded a paradigm shift toward New Film Historicism and its emphasis on popular forms of cultural expression.10 In particular Noël Burch’s article ”Primitivism and the Avant-gardes: A Dialectical Approach” (1986) stressed the film’s role in the recognition of early cinema’s different formal conventions, just as Burch’s seminal monograph La lucarne de l’infini. Naissance du language cinématographique (1991), suggested that Tom, Tom… represented a ’modern look’ on the period which foreshadowed 1970s revisionism in pondering the difficulty of understanding early cinema from a contemporary perspective.11
In addition, Tom, Tom… could be situated within a broader strand of structural filmmaking which fuelled the scholarly revision of early cinema, through its approximation of experimental cinematic forms to early cinema conventions. Film scholar Tom Gunning’s article ”An Unseen Energy Swallows Space: The Space in Early Film and Its Relation to American Avant-Garde Film” (1983) clearly encapsulates this point:
Comparing early film to recent films of the American avant-garde frees the early works from the ghetto of primitive babbling to which the progress-oriented model of film history has assigned them. If we cease to see early films simply as failed or awkward approximations of a later style, we begin to see them as possessing a style and logic of their own.12
In Gunning’s view, the scrutinies of structural filmmaking exteriorized that early cinema’s formal logic was not narrative-driven but instead relied heavily on direct modes of address and the display of attractions (for which reason he also characterized – together with film scholar André Gaudreault – early cinema as ‘cinema of attractions). In this respect, experimental filmmaking held a liberating potential which helped film historians articulate a revisionist counter-position to the general film histories’ linear model. This can be said to reflect in concentrated efforts in the late 1970s to review early cinema from the vantage point of avant-garde filmmaking. As André Habib reminds us, Gunning’s essay was presented in the context of a symposium organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art entitled “Researches and Investigation into Film: its Origins and the Avant-Garde” where also Noël Burch’s “Primitivism and the Avant-Gardes…” was first presented.13 The symposium provided a framework for the discussion between film archivists and historians of early cinema and included four programs of experimental films containing amongst others Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom…, Ernie Gehr’s Eureka! (USA, 1974) and films by avant-garde directors such as Stan Brakhage, George Landow and Kenneth Anger, in conjunction with programs of “Historical Films” from for example the catalogues of production houses such as Edison, Biograph and Pathé.14
However, while this created a closer dialogue between academia and experimental filmmaking it did not mark a merging of the two milieux. The respective production contexts and intellectual environments of academic research and films remained too incompatible.15 On a conceptual level, a very significant difference between early cinema historians and filmmakers was for example that the former opposed itself to the understanding of early cinema as a particularly pure and innocent filmic language which had become corrupted by later Hollywood cinema. This is perhaps most vehemently illustrated in Noël Burch’s position that ambiguously resorted to the vantage point of structural filmmakers first to illustrate the significance of studying early cinema as pertaining to a different set of cultural conventions, to then distance himself clearly from structural filmmaking’s longing for early cinema as unsullied, by arguing that later narrative cinema could not be regarded as intrinsically conformist.16
On the other hand, as pointed out by Bart Testa, Burch’s activities from the late 1970s onwards also represents an exception to this division, as he directed films and television documentaries which merged academic film historiography with perspectives of structural filmmaking.17 In his film on film style from 1979, Correction Please: or, How We Got into the Pictures, Burch investigated French, British and American cinema’s development of form and modes of address from the years before 1906 till the early 1930s.18
Conceived in a typically structuralist mode of filmmaking, Correction Please… iterates the same dramatic scene five times; a young man named Williamson (named after British early Film pioneer James Williamson) is given the task of delivering a message to the countess Skladanowsky’s house (a reference to the German film pioneers Skladanowsky brothers). Each iteration of the action mimicks the stylistic conventions of a particular period’s editing and use of sound, alluding to the style of particular films and intercut with films from cinema’s earliest period.19 Following this structure, the first depiction of the scene employs a frontal tableau style with a voiceover mimicking the style of an early cinema bonimenteur – a narrator which in cinema’s earliest years explained screen action to audiences – while the last depiction shows the scene as it could have been edited and sonorized in the early period of sound film (see fig. 2). 20
Fig. 2 In Noël Burch’s Correction Please: or, How We Got into the Picures (1979) the same sequence is repeated five times inter-cut with examples from early films to eplain film form’s development. First the sequence appears in early cinema tableau style with a bonimenteur and audience sounds on the soundtrack respectively explaining the action and giving an impression of the screening’s atmosphere to then, in its fifth iteration contain analytical editing and sound effects in a style from the early 1930s.
Working at this intersection, Burch can be considered one of few “scholar-filmmakers” whose practice illustrates the exchange between experimental filmmaking and scholarship.21 His practice reflects how structural filmmaking was embraced by scholars as a form of audio-visual film historiography, while in general not being broadly integrated into scholarly practice. This has established a conceptual exchange which continues to develop up to today in found footage filmmaking and recycled cinema which reflect current archival research into neglected areas of the archive and – to recap the words of Habib – “…invite new ways of thinking and writing film history…”.
Beyond Structural Filmmaking: contemporary dialogues of appropriation, archiving and filmmaking
Filmic appropriation works beyond structural filmmaking prevalently denominated as found footage or recycled cinema, continue to nourish new directions in film historiography. Today, a dynamic between film historiography, film archiving and artistic appropriation drives a re-evaluation of hitherto neglected material such as industrial, “orphan” and educational archival films in numerous works by independent filmmakers. Such archival material is becoming increasingly appreciated as an integral part of film heritage by film scholars and artists seeing film archives and museums encouraging its valorisation.22 As an early example of this which evokes the format of the “Researches and Investigations into Film…”-symposium, can be mentioned for example the 40th congress of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) held in Vienna at the Österreichiches Filmmuseum in 1984, which comprised a series of film screenings compiled by the institution’s co-founder and filmmaker Peter Kubelka, screening films by American avant-garde filmmakers such as Ernie Gehr and Jonas Mekas alongside for example cigarette commercials and home movies.23
From a present perspective, as film scholar Eric Thouvenel has pointed out on the basis of a comparison between Ken Jacobs’ and Austrian filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky’s works, “found footage” films nourish reflection on film historiography through their predominant focus on lesser known or anonymous film to propagate a “film history with little ‘f’” along the lines of structural filmmaking’s counter-myths of film history.24 Such works’ focus tend to downplay classic notions of auteurs and stylistic schools to comprehend the forms of neglected material through appropriation. While there is a large corpus of films demonstrating this dynamic, a recent work which illustrates the continued role of filmic appropriation in scholarly revisionism of archival film and its ties to the debates around structural filmmaking in early cinema studies clearly, is Austrian filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky’s Coming Attractions (2010). Coming Attractions appropriates rushes from commercials taking the conceptual vantage point and frame of reference of early cinema studies with particular attention to Tom Gunning’s aforementioned essay “An Unseen Energy Swallows Space…”.25
The film suggests, as film critic Catherine Giraud writes in her introduction to Coming Attractions, that commercials can be seen as one of three “cinemas of attractions” alongside early cinema and avant-garde film.26 The film uses the concept of “cinema of attractions” to understand the modes of address of the actors in commercials by playing puns on reference films and concepts of early cinema scholars in its inter-titles. Playing on the observation which Tom Gunning made concerning the different relationship between actor and camera, screen and spectator in early cinema, Coming Attractions conceptualizes the seductive conventions of the commercial as a pendant to early cinema’s direct address, establishing this by playing on the title of Gunning’s essay, changing it into “Cubist Cinema No. 1. An Unseen Energy Swallows Face”.
Fig. 3 The section “Cubist Cinema No. 2. Rough Sea at Nowhere” from Austrian filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky’s Coming Attractions (2010) plays a pun on the title of Rough Sea at Dover (1896) of Birt Acres’ production company, filmed by R.W. Paul, to frame the appropriation of rushes from a soda commercial within early film history, the film avant-garde of the 1920s and the revisionist historiographies of early cinema studies with particular attention to Tom Gunning’s concept of “cinema of attractions”.
Furthermore, close-ups of products being advertised are ascribed the same spectacular qualities of for example the depiction of exotic locations in early cinema travelogues in the inter-titles’ play with words. The close-up of a sparkling soda of which the soundtrack amplifies the crackling sounds of bubbles and ice cubes is presented as the “Rough Sea at Nowhere”, alluding to the title of the famous travelogue filmed by British cameramen Robert W. Paul and Birt Acres in 1898 Rough Sea at Dover (see fig. 3).
Through the conceptual frame of early cinema studies, Coming Attractions thus renders the seemingly incognito rushes of commercials and its anonymous settings into a revisionist excursion into film history and the shadowy corners of the film archive, testifying to the continued dialogue between film historians, archivists and independent filmmakers today.
Text by Christian Gosvig Olesen, the curator of the program and PhD candidate at the Amsterdam School for Heritage and Memory Studies, University of Amsterdam, Media Studies department.