Thomas Edison Film Festival Essay Series

40th Anniversary of the Thomas Edison Film Festival

by Craig Saper


Welcome to the 40th Anniversary of Thomas Edison Film Festival. For the 20th anniversary catalogue essay in 2001, written when I had recently published an essay about Thomas Edison, I began by recalling a scene in 1894 at Edisons Black Maria film studio - the worlds first - with a roof lifted up to allow for the sun to brightly illuminate the stage, and the entire building rotating to follow the sun as it moved during the day. The dancer Annabelle Whitford, who performed on numerous filmmaking sessions for Thomas Edison films between 1894 and 1897, performed a dance for the camera in one of the first motion pictures made in America. Known as the serpentine dance, Annabelle used a simple toga-like costume to create undulating folds of material flowing from her arms as if they were wings of a butterfly; the film frames were then meticulously hand painted. My essay concluded with a discussion of the Black Maria Film Festivals impact on the future work of its audiences, who were often inspired by what they saw to make their own experimental or documentary films or videos. To appreciate this festivals history, remember Annabelles serpentine dance in that studio playing the starring role in inventing the cinema; it is a hopeful, liberating dance.

Although much changed in the last twenty years, the last year alone brought what felt like two decades of tragedies and an upwelling of hope for a better future. Documentaries and experimental films have played a crucial role in agitating and reflecting on social and ecological justice movements: recognizing that Black Lives Matter, that climate disasters demand urgent action, that democracies in the United States and globally teeter near collapse, and that the global pandemic has killed more people than countless wars have before. These changes encouraged the festival organizers and supporters to change its name. They wanted a new name that was more inclusive and expansive than the old name, Black Maria, that alluded only to that first film studio space. The studio was itself named because of the similarity of the look of the studio to the police paddy-wagons of the time. Perhaps it was time to move away from any association with police arresting people, for a film festival that recognizes the liberating aesthetic and social justice vision of independent short films. Although well-known among media makers and scholars, the name needed to be more public-facing, engaged, and recognizable to the wider audience, without the associations of arrest; the festival is now known as the Thomas Edison Film Festival. The festivals goals continue to champion liberating media in form and in content.

In her 2016 festival essay, A Festival for the People, Margaret Parsons notes that this festival is a remarkable institution in our contemporary film history on the celebration of its thirty-fifth. In three and a half decades the Black Maria festival has transitioned from 16mm to digital formats without missing a beat. Yet it continues to regard traditional aspects of celluloid filmmaking as fundamental for both preservation and artistic production. In her 2018 festival essay Sally Berger, notes that this festival is a pivotal locus of short experimental works, an ideal exhibition venue from which to reflect on artists films using archival and found footage,  a full range of shorts in animation, documentary, narrative and experimental styles. Many of these are archival or found footage works films made either completely or partially with pre-existing films or appropriated footage (material from silent films, home movies and amateur films, newsreels, television footage, industrials, outtakes, etc.).

In her festival essay Tess Martin explains the important place of this festival because it is a venue for the non-corporate model of animation: Independent animation has a long history and exists in many contexts. You can find it at film festivals, on the internet, or in art galleries. And yet the medium of animation is still most commonly identified with big studio projects: Disney, Pixar, or, if you meet a stop-motion fan, LAIKA. This is, of course, a shame.  The format with the most advocates within the independent animation community is probably the short film. This format is conducive to an auteur approach, where the creator works primarily alone or with a few trusted collaborators. Especially in animation, short films are a format complete unto themselves. There should be no expectation that animators who make short films should be interested in making feature-length films.

Of course, there is nothing inherently liberating or apt about one model of writing or filmmaking over another, as the experimental-film historian, Scott McDonald, explained in his 1994 festival essay. McDonald recounts his excitement in discovering forbidden Hollywood films as a pre-teen, meant for older adults and teenagers, his enthusiasm for great filmmakers after a college seminar in the late 1960s, and also his initial disgust and outrage with experimental cinema. He could not forget these experimental films, they haunted him, and he has devoted a large part of his viewing time to exploring experimental cinema. He ends his story by explaining that watching all types of film is an acquired taste. In our childhood we learn how to understand conventional films, and later, if we can return to that child-like thrill, we might also learn to get beyond disgust, anger, and rejection of experimental media. In fact, the independent direction of the festival initially troubled the sponsors, connected to the Edison National Historic Site, who did not see the connection between Edisons early experiments and later experimental films, as media scholar David Taflers 1993 festival essay explained.

In his program notes for the 1991 tour of this festival, film curator Richard Herskowitz explained that experimental viewing meant watching movies from the standpoint of an editor looking for possibilities, where film audiences can learn to uncover new narratives to allow us to regard film as footage which we might manipulate and recreate; perhaps reminding us in this time of tragic upheaval that this is an opportunity to recreate our global narratives. This festival allows audiences to get ideas for their own work and serves as a gateway through which the experimental viewer can break a films frame and become critically and playfully reflective on its purposes and potential uses. The task of the festival is to project those possible worlds.

Jon Gartenberg, an administrator in the 1980s of the film collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, mentions the identification of contemporary filmmakers with the mythic pioneers of the cinema in his 1985 program notes. Gartenberg notes that in the early cinema, before the invisible narrative style became standardized in Hollywood and even before distribution and exhibition were standardized, films resembled cartoons, magic lantern slides, and skits. Many competing styles appeared simultaneously. Experimental filmmakers often find inspiration and ideas in early cinema experiments. These new experiments seek to illuminate a time of innovation before the corporate industrialization of film and media became the dominant mode of production. There is often, in this festival, a discovery of inclusive global excellence beyond the commercial restraints of the film industry. Gartenberg quotes British Film Studies pioneer Philip Drummond, to conclude that early cinema offers a number of roads not taken, ambiguities not absorbed into the commercial narrative cinema. But for the avant-garde these need not be seen as historys dead-end streets. They can be inspirations for new understandings of tradition and for new films. In 2021, the media in this festival serves as inspiration for new social systems, traditions, and solutions for our contemporary crises.

P. Adams Sitney, the influential author on experimental film, in his 1988 program notes, recalls that at the 1967 International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium Michael Snows Wavelength, that resembles an early cinema experiment in many ways, won the grand prize and became the critical success of the festival. Sitney notes that at the same time it was also the occasion of a political demonstration, the first of many during film festivals in the following year, contesting the relevance of showing such films. Far from coinciding with political protest, the avant-garde cinema was a vulnerable object of attack. As the late sixties saw the explosion of a wider experimental culture, and an openness to finding artisanal pre-industrial and independent ways to make and watch films, it also produced a new concern with reaching wider audiences with larger socio-political issues rather than experiments in style and form alone. The festival is still challenging us to ask if the imagining of new forms can coexist with the urgent need to reach a larger public.

The first and foremost scholar of documentary film, and a crucial influence on the foundation of this Festival, Eric Barnouw, discusses in his 1992 program notes his interviews with people associated with Dziga Vertov (Denis Kaufman), the highly acclaimed Soviet filmmaker. Barnouw begins by recounting his trip in the early 1970s to the Soviet Union to do original research on Vertovs films and life. The uniqueness and uncertainty of such a trip during the waning decades of the Cold War make his story read like a suspense thriller about research and discovery. At the archive he began looking through Vertovs films. He discovered some episodes of Kino Pravda previously unavailable outside the Soviet archives. In his investigation of Vertovs life, he began by asking about Mikhail Kaufman, Vertovs brother, the main cameraman and the central character in their famous film A Man With The Movie Camera. One confusion Barnouw sought to settle was the identity of Boris Kaufman, who had worked with Jean Vigo on the satirical documentary A Propos de Nice. Some critics confused Boris with Mikhail, and at least one other critic wondered if this was a third brother. Barnouw set out to find the third brother. He met with Mikhail for an interview, and from that interview Barnouw was able to track down the third brother. Boris had fled the Nazis by emigrating to Canada where he worked with John Grierson at the National Film Board of Canada, and later he entered the U.S. where he worked as a cinematographer for On the Waterfront. When Barnouw finally finds Boris living on 9th Street in New York City, he learns that the brothers had corresponded non-stop for fifty years, and, as Boris explained, Mikhail taught me cinematography by mail.

Because of the real and lasting fears of the Cold War at the time, Boris was less than forthcoming at the interview and later refused to participate or even allow a MoMA retrospective of all three Kaufman brothers films. Denis Kaufman chose the name Dziga Vertov because it was the onomatopoeia for the sound of a spinning (revolving) top, perhaps symbolizing a spinning film reel, the spinning of industrial machines, and the political revolution that might grow from those two more concrete images of spinning. The spinning reels from Annabelles Serpentine dance to Dzigas modernist films always involve change and risks.

Patricia Zimmermann, the activist eco-feminist film scholar, wrote a manifesto for the 1998 festival describing how media conglomerates now increasingly control the aesthetics or look of all media thus making experimental forms inherently political, and forums like this festival crucial. She celebrated the festival as a space for an unofficial, samizdat culture of hope, and like many others who have written the program notes for the festival over the last forty years, Zimmermann connects the world situation to a personal recollection of discovering her thirst for a long, intoxicating drink of new work I couldnt see otherwise.

Connecting experimental film to the early cinema, Zimmerman casts John Columbus, the impresario of the festival in those early decades, as a 19th century magic lantern showman who travels from town to town delighting the bored, starved populace with a trunkful of films and videos. This description now applies equally well to the current festival and consortium director, Jane Steuerwald. Steuerwald also directs the NJ Young Filmmakers Festival and the Global Insights Collection of media works. Jane brings with her one of the only festivals in the world that travels to its audience. By traveling to its audience, the festival resembles and re-invents the most important social innovation of the early motion picture industry: the films traveled in a circuit to the audiences rather than audiences having to go to central locations to see films. We need to recognize the festivals films and videos not as monologues or pictures but as invitations to invent - as ways to find solutions to the crises confronting us. The films in this Festival usually do not appear on mass cultures radar; as Zimmerman notes, this festivals offerings differ in significantly powerful ways from the independent narrative features screened at the Sundance Film Festival, which seem to me to have simply replaced the old B-picture system in Hollywood. I cant discern the difference between an Indy-film at Sundance and a Hollywood studio film once the elaborate sound mixes and special effects are stripped away.

In her festival essay Rebekah Rutkoff uses her personal poetic reading of Leighton Pierces 50 Feet of String (1995) to explore her own Late Season Cinematic Blooms, as a way to unpack how she had become interested in anything outside mainstream movies. Her encounter with Pierces film, late and accidentally, reminded me how often those happy accidents might happen when attending a film festival like this one. Rutkoff describes her epiphany in watching Pierces film at a yearly week-long non-fiction film seminar. Most importantly, Rutkoff saw that there was no inherent opposition between film and the other visual arts like painting, and that film could take on poetic value, even gain an ethical aura. It was in that chance encounter with Pierces film that won the Jurors Citation Award in 1996 at this festival that Rutkoff found an appetite for film  a point of entry, into a vast universe of moving images that had previously felt foreign.

Animator, professor, and long-time festival participant, Lynn Tomlinson, recounted to me how the festival reinvented itself and travelled over video conferencing during the pandemic shut-down of 2020, visiting colleges, streaming films, hosting young filmmakers, and introducing a new generation to the transformative power of the short film. The palpable excitement my students felt after meeting over the tele-conference with Jane, watching the variety of films, and learning first-hand about the thoughtful festival selection process, showed that they were realizing, during this 21st-century magic lantern touring festival, that they can become filmmakers themselves: they dont need to first become part of a corporate industry.

In the picture below, from the 1980s, nearly 40 years ago now, we see John Columbus at a film location with Jane Steuerwald, and wonder if they knew then that this festival would still be thriving four decades later and have had such an outsized influence on truly independent media making. Watching the variety of media projects at this festival might help audiences to begin to see the experimental as one more possibility rather than an affront to our conceptions of what a film, video, or essay should look like. The experimental is not the enemy of the serious, the popular, or the powerful. Twenty years ago, when I last wrote the festival essay, I had just published an essay on Edisons experiments. This year I again returned to writing about Edisons Studios in a book about an experimental writer and media-maker, who began his career by writing the best-selling magazine stories used for the first serialized movies ever made and, which in turn, led to the Edisons Studios creating the film industrys earliest distribution system. Although we now often think of Edison as having started the film industry, those studios were also the locus for innovation. The newly named Thomas Edison Film Festival alludes to the cinemas origins even as it offers a window onto new experiments in imagining other ways of making, resisting tyranny, and celebrating new inclusive ecologies.

Craig J. Saper recently published a new edition of Readies for Bob Browns Machine (2020), a collection of modernist avant-garde short stories originally published in 1931. That collections introduction and annotations draws on Sapers research for The Amazing Adventures of Bob Brown (2016) including a chapter on how Brown wrote the magazine stories that became the plots for the first serialized movies What Happened to Mary made by Edison Studios in 1912.


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