Black film scholar, critic, and curator, Albert Johnson is hardly a household name–but he should be. In 1965, at the height of the civil rights era, Johnson offered this dissection of the representation of African-Americans in Hollywood cinema of the time.
If you had happened to attend the December 8, 1929, screening of Fox Movietone Follies (David Butler and Marcel Silver, 1929) at the opening of the Moulin Rouge cinema in Paris, you would certainly remember the raucous audience that surrounded you. If reports are to be believed, you might have been among the patrons outraged by the poorly written French subtitles—“deplorable” French, really. You may have joined others that night or the following weekend in vandalizing chairs and throwing pieces of furniture at the screen, with shouts of “Shut up” or “In French!” But maybe you were there for a romantic rendezvous, in which case the film and the music and the subtitles mattered a lot less than having your evening marred by unhappy, snobbish viewers. Whatever the hypothetical situation, imagining yourself as a willing participant in Parisian film culture from the era of early sound cinema to around 1950 is nearly inevitable while reading Eric Smoodin’s Paris in the Dark: Going to the Movies in the City of Light, 1930–1950.
Paramount was so nervous about the on-location production of Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1956) that dailies filmed in the South of France were flown first to London for processing at the Technicolor lab and then to Los Angeles. After executives had reviewed the footage, a cable was dispatched back to France: Hitchcock’s shallow-focus closeups were playing to the weaknesses, rather than the strengths, of the studio’s new and expensive wide-screen format, VistaVision. It fell to the local production manager, C. O. “Doc” Erickson, to mediate the request for wider shots and sharper focus, which would also allow the camera to take in more of what they were all there for: the sunlit French Riviera.
As Catherine Russell observes in her new book, Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices, countless moving images are now easily accessible for recycling and remixing. No longer the primary domain of experimental artists, the retrieval and reassembling of audiovisual fragments have become widespread creative practices in contemporary media: “The death of ‘film’ and the rise of digital media,” she notes, “have effectively enabled and produced a new critical language that we are only really learning to speak.”