The future is fast approaching

Caught up in an information culture.


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The Cricklewood Greats (2012), Peter Capaldi’s Love Letter to British B-Movies

Still from The Cricklewood Greats (BBC, 2012).

Still from The Cricklewood Greats (BBC, 2012).

To round out my recent film history kick, we have perhaps the greatest documentary ever made on the history of British B-movies: The Cricklewood Greats, directed and hosted by Peter Capaldi, and written by Capaldi and Tony Roche of The Thick of It, Veep, and Holy Flying Circus.  A masterpiece.  A veritable masterpiece, sending up both British classic film and television documentary at the same time.  No, I’ll go further: a veritable masterpiece whose truthiness is capped off with a frothy Terry Gilliam confection, made up of documentary footage, all-too-painfully-true satire, digs at Thatcher, and the best worst only joke made at the expense of continuity girls in the history of comedy.

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Alice Guy-Blaché, the forgotten first female filmmaker

Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female filmmaker.

Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female filmmaker.

I think I’m on a film history kick here.  Filmmaker Magazine writes today about a Kickstarter-funded documentary on early filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché:

Alice Guy-Blaché wrote, produced or directed nearly 1,000 films over her 20-year career. She directed one of the first films to have an all-Black cast of actors. She was also a savvy businesswoman, opening her own film studio, Solax Films in the U.S., becoming the most financially and technologically successful film studio at the time on the East Coast. Alice also pioneered the first uses of synchronized sound and image manipulation/superimposition, among other things.

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Weekend Longform Video: Night Mail (1936)

Detail of Pat Keely's poster for Basil Wright's Night Mail (1936).

Detail of Pat Keely’s poster for Basil Wright’s Night Mail (1936).

Night Mail shows both the daily operations of two of the most efficient infrastructures ever developed, mail and rail, and something that today sounds so fantastical that it could have walked out of a steam-age fantasy or magical realism novel: a rolling post office speeding down the rails all through the night, humming with postal clerks, never once stopping as it delivers and picks up mail from each station along the route.   Continue reading


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The days of moving pictures flying on radio waves

Television pioneer C. Francis Jenkins with a motion picture prototype in 1925.

Television pioneer C. Francis Jenkins with a motion picture prototype in 1925.

This interesting historical sidenote comes via Shorpy.  This is inventor Charles Francis Jenkins, who later became an early pioneer of television and founder of SMPTE, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, who, though they may not be a household name, created color bars for calibrating screen color that everyone will recognize. He’s demonstrating a 1925 prototype of motion picture broadcasting that creates moving pictures when hooked up to the radio, which he first described it in 1913, but didn’t build and demonstrate till the early 1920s.

From the description, I believe that the box on the right is projecting onto the white space inside the frame on the wall, with a reflector in the raised portion of the box redirecting light from a bulb beneath it.  There’s most likely a spinning disk in the semi-circle, driven by a motor that takes up the rest of the box.  My initial thought was that the disk contained the frames of the animation of the girl, but after reading more, I don’t believe that’s the case – the image is actually being transmitted and created on the fly.  This is mechanical television, which is a different beast from the television technology that soon dominated, Farnsworth’s electronic television, and I’m not certain how the images are being created from the transmitted signal.

Jenkins’ history with motion pictures stretches back to 1894, when he started work on a project that would later be acquired by Edison, and hundreds of patents later, turned towards military and commercial modifications for aircraft and ships.  But he’s also responsible for that spiral-formed cardboard box your Quaker Oats come in.


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A Brief History of Color Photography

Photo by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration (1942).  Early Kodachrome.

Photo by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration (1942).

Over at Luminous Lint, Alan Griffiths and Robert Hirsch are collaborating to enhance Hirsch’s textbooks on the history of photography with the sort of rich extra content that wouldn’t fit into the printed form.  Currently available are A Concise History of Color Photography, the second chapter of Hirsch’s book Exploring Color Photography (5th edition, Focal Press, 2010), and Pictures on Glass: The Wet-Plate Process, the fourth chapter of Hirsch’s Seizing the Light: A Social History of Photography (2nd edition, McGraw-Hill, 2009).

The former moves quickly through a lot of fascinating territory in photographic history and science, and includes a section on Autochrome, the contribution of the Lumière brothers, “the inventors of the first practical motion picture projector, [who] patented a major breakthrough in the making of color photographs in 1904… the first commercially viable and extensively used color photographic process”.
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Pre-flight footage of Valentina Tereshkova – June 16th, 1963

Valentina Tereshkova, suited up for spaceflight.

Valentina Tereshkova, suited up for spaceflight.

Here’s a little Tereshkova love to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her spaceflight on  June 16th, 1963.  I didn’t realize this footage existed, but it’s great stuff.  It always surprises me to realize how actually literal it is when Bowie says, “Here am I sitting in my tin can“, and how much space-age technology really… isn’t.  We basically sent people up into total vacuum with snorkels and aluminum foil.  What wonderful insanity. Continue reading


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Chris Marker and DIY Filmmaking

Part of the mythos of Chris Marker’s La Jetée is that he made a film composed almost entirely of still photos shot on his 35mm camera, because he was unable to rent a movie camera except for a small shoot one afternoon – one of the ultimate statements of DIY filmmaking, a film made from essentially no film footage.  The soundtrack is composed of narration, music and an evocative collage of jet engines, heartbeats, and whispering; very little of it location sound.  La Jetée is an incredibly influential piece of storytelling, a classic of cinema, made with a tape recorder and a still camera in the age of film.  It’s hard to find a clearer demonstration that content can far outweigh technology.

The technical creation of La Jetée poses questions about the medium of film and the idea of what a film is.  Is film the capture mechanism, or just the delivery mechanism? What format is the original work of art and what is the adaptation?  Marker described the story as a photo-roman in the opening credits, simply a photonovella; with La Jetée now available as a book, “not a [book of a film], but a book in its own right — the real ciné-roman announced in the film’s credits,” as well as the original film, it becomes less clear which medium this story was designed for and which is the adaptation.  While the original film is certainly definitive, Marker’s calling the film a book and the book a film is an interesting way of muddying the waters, and the fct that the story is equally at home on film and on the page is an interesting statement on photographs as a bridge between paper pages and celluloid frames.

Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) – turn on captions if you’d like English subtitles: