‘Let’s All Go to the Lobby’: How Concessions Shape Cinema

Figure 1. Frame from Let’s All Go to the Lobby (1957), an animated advert played before screenings or during intermission in the United States (credit: Filmack Studios).

The thick waft of buttered popcorn; the over-sized cupholder stuffed with empty sweet packages; the stale soft-drink puddles you can’t avoid stepping in – and who can forget that endless chorus of chewing and slurping?

The consumption of food and beverages are, to say the least, heavily embedded in the cinema-going experience – yet this is seldom acknowledged by film critics and theorists. In Anne Bower’s 22-chapter Reel Food (2012), which explores how acts of consumption are involved in constructing national, political and sexual identities through film, only one chapter is devoted to the exploration of food as an essential aspect of the cinema-viewing experience. And yet, as writer James Lyons observes, the consumption of food is one of the most important means by which audiences “embellish and enhance the experience of film watching” – and, perhaps above all else, a crucial source of income for exhibitors.

In this post, I aim to survey how a careful consideration of the relationship between acts of consumption and cinema might challenge the prevailing theoretical assumptions in the study of film aesthetics, history and politics.

Food in Film Criticism

First of all, it is worth noting that our ordinary critical language typically associates food with cinema as a ‘low-brow’ or ‘escapist’ medium. The terms ‘brain candy’, ‘visual feast’ and ‘popcorn film’, for example, are used to dismiss films that do not warrant much serious reflection, not least academic attention. In perhaps one of the earliest critical uses of the term, The Daily Times described Venom (1982) as a “spine-tingling brain candy” to complement its value as an artefact of entertainment while admitting to the suspension of disbelief required to swallow its premise.

The prevalence of these food idioms in our casual critical language allows viewers to create an ‘ironic’ detachment that justifies the enjoyment of a film they didn’t take too seriously. Like the junk food they reference, popular cinema is situated as an essentially harmless hedonic and sensory experience, as opposed to a strictly rational or intellectual one. This discourse, as I shall further explore, likely finds it origins in early film theory and exhibition.

Figure 2. A street popcorn vendor in 1910s Illinois (credit: Kirn Vintage Stock / Corbis)

Concessions and Class in Early Cinema

Throughout its history, the film industry has long tried to legitimate itself as an artistic and culturally-valuable medium, often adopting conventions and practises from the more established disciplines of literature, fine art and theatre. From the early 20th century, many film exhibition venues in major cities across the world were designed to resemble opera houses and theatres, and further attempted to draw upon associations with the ‘upper-class’ spaces and institutions of continental Europe from the preceding centuries.

In the 1913 program for the New Gallery Kinema in London’s Regent Square, for example, imported beers and afternoon teas were advertised to wealthy patrons, while the June 1934 program for Edinburgh’s New Picture House drew attention to the four-course lunch, smoke room and dining halls available in the venue. The consumption of certain foods and beverages hence elevated cinema into a higher cultural domain, emboldening the growing industry with more ‘genteel’ food rituals and symbolism.

On the other hand, early theatres in the United States typically distanced themselves from the association of public eating spaces with the more ‘profane’ carnival and burlesque industries. The admission of confectionery could risk spoiling the cinema’s theatrical rugs and carpets, and, more notably prior to the advent of sound cinema in 1927, would distract the audience away from the screen – and, worse yet, disturb the wealthier patrons.

Nevertheless, as the film industry began to trade intertitles for dialogue, literacy no longer provided a barrier for working class audiences, while the Great Depression brought even greater interest in cheap entertainment and distraction. Cinemas slowly give up their former high cultural aspirations when they realised that they would yield greater profit from opening up to wider audiences. Although food vendors rented spaces in or outside theatre lobbies during this time, theatre owners eventually decided to cut the middle man and include food consumption in their marketing and exhibition practises.

Figure 3. A movie theatre snack bar in 1940s North Carolina (credit: Voyageur).

The Emergence of Popcorn

As wartime sugar and chocolate rationing provoked exhibitors to look for alternative sources of revenue, a perfect solution was discovered in popcorn. Contrary to the prior assumptions of film exhibitors, this would prove crucial to the survival of the cinema industry: a theatre chain in Dallas is said to have installed popcorn machines in all but their five ‘best’ theatres, only for those five to close within the following two years due to falling profits. Overseas servicemen brought popcorn around the world as a nostalgic ‘luxury’, making way for American popcorn manufacturers to break into European markets after the war – something that has never really changed to this day.

Although it is difficult to gather accurate data, Time magazine reported in 2009 that concessions make up to 20% of a film theatre’s revenue and 40% of its profits in the United States, since a large proportion of ticket sales goes back to the film studios, as well as funding staff costs and theatre maintenance. This data is loosely confirmed by private research and interviews with theatre owners, though some factors will inevitably vary in different locations – popcorn itself can gather 85-90% profit for every unit sold, with added salt motivating the additional purchase of soft-drinks.

This provides an unexpected incentive: films with uncomplicated plots and narrative structure might actually yield proportionately greater profit for film theatres, even despite lower admission prices, as the audience are more likely willing to leave their seats to buy more food mid-way through the film – this no doubt goes some way as to explain why, as explored previously, food vocabulary is utilised in modern film criticism as such. Regardless, as Epstein has concluded cinema theatres are as much in the fast-food and advertisement industries as film distribution – a thought that might greatly disturb prevailing theoretical understanding of cinema.

Figure 4. Showcase Cinema De Lux, Southampton. Tickets and concessions are sold at the same desk in most modern cinemas (credit: Rosie Tapping).

Food for ‘Alternative’ Markets

Although popcorn and fast food quickly became deeply embedded in the cinema experience after WWII, its absence was – and continues to be – offered as a hallmark of sophistication and originality. Post-war arthouse and independent cinemas across Europe and the United States began offering pastries and coffees in smaller, café-styled venues, as an alternative to the more infantile associations of sweets and refined sugar. As Lyons observes, popcorn in particular has remained “a peculiarly emblematic commodity” in the mobilization of cultural distinctions throughout cinema history; a totem for the ‘escapist’ associations that film exhibitors either attempt to capitalise on or distance themselves from. Today, individual cinema chains and film festivals continue to privately reconstruct cinema experiences through providing alternative and unique food-screen paradigms: the British Everyman cinemas, for example, claim that they are “redefining cinema” by swapping soft drinks for red wine and pizza in their “innovative lifestyle approach” to film exhibition, and the States-based Film Food Festival helps its audiences simultaneously taste what they see on the screen. These theatres and programmes, and others like them, thereby depend on the discourses associations that encourage the denigration of popular cinema as ‘junk’ entertainment to differentiate their services as unique, ‘event’-oriented experiences.

Figure 5. A screening of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (2013) in the Food Film Festival 2018 (credit: Emily Hawkes and Noah Fecks).

On the other hand, the Planet Hollywood chain and its countless imitators somewhat invert this process, embellishing the family restaurant experience with mounted props, signatures and iconography from cinema history. Although this perhaps strays too far from my focus on film exhibition, it is no small matter that entire businesses are modelled on the premise that cinematic artefacts, sanctified by their participation in popular culture, can somehow enhance, or otherwise transform, the more profane activity of food consumption.

Conclusion

If it is true that acts of consumption are heavily involved in how films are experienced, distributed, assessed and situated in particular socio-political contexts, then it appears that cinema cannot be simply described as a matter of sight and sound (sorry, BFI!); but also, of smell, touch and taste –far from compromising its integrity, however, I would argue that this privileges cinema with comparatively unique opportunities as an immersive and engaging public institution. Much might be said on this topic, of course, but I intend here to provide – if you forgive the pun – an appetiser for further research.

Research

‘About Everyman’, everymancinema.com. Available at: https://www.everymancinema.com/about-everyman

‘About the Food Film Festival’, thefoodfilmfestival.com. Available at: https://www.thefoodfilmfestival.com/the-festival

Avery, T., ‘Popcorn: A “Pop” History’, pbs.com, 2013. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/popcorn-history/

Bower, A. L., ‘Watching Food: The Production of Food, Film and Values’, Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 1-13.

Butler, S., ‘A History of Popcorn’, History.com, 2018. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/a-history-of-popcorn

‘Capsule Reviews’, Daily Times, 1982, p.16.

Epstein, E. J., ‘The Popcorn Palace Economy’, Slate, 2006. Available at: https://slate.com/culture/2006/01/the-thirsty-moviegoer-fuels-the-movie-business.html

Geiling, N., ‘Why Do We Eat Popcorn at the Movies?’, Smithsonian.com, 2013. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-do-we-eat-popcorn-at-the-movies-475063/

Lobb, A, ‘Why does that popcorn cost so much?’ CNNMoney, 2002. Available at: https://money.cnn.com/2002/03/08/smbusiness/q_movies/

Lyons, J., ‘What about the Popcorn? Food and the Film-Watching Experience?’, in Bower, A. L. (ed.), Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 311-333.

Tuttle, B., ‘Movie Theatres Make 85% Profit at Concession Stands’, Time, 2009. Available at: http://business.time.com/2009/12/07/movie-theaters-make-85-profit-at-concession-stands/

Journeys Onscreen: Theory, Ethics and Aesthetics

This collection concerns the importance of journey narratives to cinema. It charts the importance of journeying as a motif of transformation and as component of a world subject to flows of migration, globalization, and the redrawing of boundaries across the history of the last century and more. It considers space as a dynamic aspect of cinema and location as a key part of what makes each film unique.

As well as the introduction, I contributed the chapter ‘Sic transit: the serial killer road movie’: This identifies a specific form of road movie. It traces how serial killers are frequently defined by an association with mobility, where in their elusiveness and the generalized threat they pose to the social order, or their affinity to a modern world characterized by transience, anonymity and nomadism. These films, diverse amongst themselves, stage an encounter between two subjects of modern mythology, the serial killer and the road. The chapter considers two case studies, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Sightseers, to identify how the different contexts of American independent cinema and British farce confer different values on mobility, with the first having an essential and horrific meaning regarding to the void created by our intimacy with machine technologies within a modern, post-industrial life, and the latter pertaining to the comic inadequacy of the romance of the road in British culture. More than this, it seeks to establish a general characteristic of mobility with regards to characterizing particular kinds of people, that is, of establishing a simultaneous position of nearness and distance, or of being at odds with a frame of reference which however still determines its meaning – a position which has importance both socially, for how we consider the relationship of outsiders to every day life, and artistically, for how we are carried along with characters with whom we do not identify sympathetically.

https://edinburghuniversitypress.com/book-journeys-on-screen.html

The University of Southampton Student Film Festival

The University of Southampton Student Film Festival is a student-led festival showcasing the best films that our students have to offer. Running since 2016, every year the event gets bigger and better! This year we had an incredible 33 films submitted, with 15 being chosen for the shortlist and shown at the festival, including comedies, dramas, romance, and documentaries. Following the showcase of all the films, is the awards ceremony, celebrating the screenwriting, acting, editing, directing and sound talents present in the films.

The Film Festival is a great evening to celebrate non-professional filmmaking, and the talent within the University, giving the opportunity for young filmmakers to exhibit their work. Moreover, the Festival strives to represent the diverse and multiple perspectives of expression existing at the University.  We therefore welcome all stories, in all languages and all styles, representing all cultures, backgrounds and conflicts.

We would like to thank everyone who submitted a film this year and everyone who came to the event, including the film department’s own Huw Jones, Corey Schultz and Michael Williams. Also, a big congratulations to our winners this year; including Leo Barton, Liam Beazley, Curtis Allen, Bella Norris, Chandler Horsefield, Ben Hughes, Elliot Morris and Red O’Sullivan!

Check out the pictures to see for yourself what a great night it was. Here’s to many more University of Southampton Student Film Festivals!

The use of improvisation in the film ‘The Escape’

The Escape, which was released in 2018 in the UK, tells the story of a woman who seems to have it all – a nice house, a handsome husband and two wonderful children. However, this life isn’t what Tara (Gemma Arterton) wants anymore and she starts to lose herself while caring for everyone else. The film illustrates how Tara is driven to the edge and escapes to Paris, away from her family. Described by Barbican as a ‘perceptive, deeply compassionate portrait of a woman on the rocky road to becoming herself’, The Escape also demonstrates the use and value of improvisation.

This film was shot, edited and made for Gemma Arterton, who worked with the director, Dominic Savage, from the beginning of production. Dominic Savage has stated that the way that he worked, namely asking questions about who the characters are and their motives rather than having a direct script, mean that “You end up with a whole load of material that’s representative of the journey you’ve been on and the choices you’ve made and it gives you complete freedom in the editing room. It’s organic, all the way through”. For us scholars, it is also interesting to study these kinds of films because we can have a gain an increased insight into the process of film-making and also can archive them for any future use.

When watching The Escape, the originality is clear. It is brutally honest and human, and this was not only because the main actors (Gemma Arterton and Dominic Copper) had worked together before in the films Tamara Drewe and A Tuttle’s Tale, but also because they were given the freedom to express how they imagined the characters to be. In this way, there were no rules that they had to abide by, but rather they could show the reality of the lives of these two characters, portraying their journeys in their own way.

The audience sees Tara in oppressive close-ups throughput the film as seen below, such as Tara peeling and scrubbing the vegetables, picking up the children’s mess, or offering drinks to friends at a barbecue Mark has offered, or many times making love seemingly just for her husband’s benefit.  There are always toys strewn on the floor or cereal spilt on the kitchen table. The sex scenes are determinedly unromantic. “I am not happy. I can’t do this anymore,” is her conclusion to her current situation at home since she feels that she has lost herself and finds no comfort and happiness in her mundane, everyday life. Arterton gives a typically nuanced and sensitive performance as the wife and mother. I argue that without the freedom to express Tara’s emotions and thoughts in terms of how Gemma Arterton felt they needed to be portrayed, the film would not have as much credibility and originality. It would not have ended up with the positive response from the audience.

It is a film that touches every person that watches it and the essential stillness of Arterton’s work is a revelation. Arterton, as expressed by Hollywood Reporter Sheri Linden, has a performance that is deeply internalized and often silent, and because there is limited dialogue compared to other films. This provides the space for improvisation through physical performance, and through the way that there was lots of improvisation through the writing of Mike Leigh’s script before filming began, and also the way that the characters just simply interact with each other. Arterton’s face, regarded in somewhat overused close-up, is the movie’s central landscape, and signals with every gesture and glance that Tara’s discontent is no simple matter. Without the need to be initially bound by a script, Arterton and Cooper were free to express their characters as they saw fit and how they felt they needed to be shown. For me, it wouldn’t have worked any other way while they were questioning whether it is ever right for a mother to leave her children.

Wise Cracking Women

War Nurse (Edgar Selwyn, 1930)

Anita Loos

Clara Bow

 

THE HIDDEN MINOTAUR IN J. A. BAYONA´S TRILOGY

Ángeles Martínez-García and Antonio Gomez-Aguilar, University of Seville.  Visiting Scholars at the University of Southampton. July, 2018.

The Spanish director J. A. Bayona´s cinema belongs to that group of productions that has taken the Spanish cinema outside its borders in the new millennium. His three films have beaten box office records and are the reason why their director is known as “universal”. Both The Orphanage (2007), The Impossible (2012) and A Monster Calls (2016) become part of an “improvised trilogy”, baptized by Bayona himself, as they all have a deep symbolic triangle in common: mother – son – death. In all of them the main characters have to face the truth of suffering and this will lead them to a process of personal transformation that will connect with the most intimate spectator´s self. The three main characters of Bayona’s films have something in common: they all start a hard journey that involves self-knowledge and self-improvement. That is the reason why these three films can be related to the myth of the labyrinth, as this is a metaphor of a “path to knowledge”: All of them have lost their most valuable possessions, that is to say, their closest relatives – a mother, a son, an entire family – and through the search process they all go through a “path to knowledge” as they learn a lot from their suffering. Laura (The Orphanage, 2007) has lost her child; Lucas (The Impossible, 2012) has lost his entire family; Conor (A Monster Calls, 2016) is about to lose his mother.

Figure 1. A frame of A Monster Calls. Conor is one of the main characters in Bayona’s films that has to face a hard future.

We have found several identical structures in the myth of the labyrinth and Bayona’s films, as they both refer to a profound change in certain characters after a hard journey:

  • Theseus: An active subject; he starts the self-knowledge journey.
  • Labyrinth: A spiritual and/or physical journey that someone goes through, with an initial loss and full of problems.
  • Minotaur: It features in the centre of the labyrinth and in the most important moment, when Theseus faces himself and his problems. It means a turning point in the journey and since that moment Theseus / the traveller will suffer a profound change.
  • Ariadne: A key character. Without her, Theseus could not have found the exit of the labyrinth despite having beaten the Minotaur.

On the basis of these similarities, we have prepared this figure:

REPRESENTATIONAL STRUCTURES The Orphanage (2007) The Impossible (2012) A monster calls (2016)
Theseus Laura (the mother) Lucas (the son) Conor (the son)
Labyrinth Searching for the lost son (death is not expected) Searching for the lost family (death is possible) Accept sickness and loss (certain death)
Minotaur Facing the truth: her son is dead Facing the truth: the whole family may be dead Facing the truth: the mother will certainly be dead
Ariadne Her son Mary (the mother) The tree
Table 1. Content analysis of Bayona’s films.

There is always a main character (Theseus) in Bayona’s films that has to face a terrible fact (Minotaur) after going through a hard physical and/or mental journey (labyrinth). Different Ariadnes come along with them along this profound personal change. In these three films we can found ordinary characters that turn into heroes as they have to face “giants”, that is to say, big challenges in their lives.

This similarities are remarkable because spectators don’t usually watch films with the idea in mind that there is a much more profound meaning in their stories than is usually discovered. We all should take into account that there might be a lot more “labyrinths” in films, which are similar to those ones that we go through in our own lives.

If you want further information about this case study, you can find it in the paper: “El minotauro escondido en la trilogía de J. A. Bayona.” In the journal Arte, Individuo y Sociedad 29(3) (2017), 555-569. ISSN: 1131-5598. http://dx.doi.org/10.5209/ARIS.56031, pp. 555-569.

Ángeles Martínez-García (angelesmartinez@us.es) is a professor at the University of Seville, Faculty of Communication, with more than ten years of experience in university education. Her goal is to meet standards through students´ engagement. She teaches on Film Studies and Film Image and she is developing current research on myths and cinema, as well as on the analysis of film image.

Antonio Gomez-Aguilar (agomez16@us.es) is a professor with more than ten years of experience in university education and vocational training. He has been working on analysing the Andalusian Audiovisual Sector. He teaches on Studies, Technology and Communication. He is developing current research on a new television concept, as well as on technology of communication.

MYTHOLOGEMS IN FICTION TV SERIES: SONS OF ANARCHY (2008 – 2014)

Ángeles Martínez-García and Antonio Gomez-Aguilar, University of Seville.  Visiting Scholars at the University of Southampton. July, 2018.

Why do people feel so engaged with cinema? One of the main reasons is that cinema often feeds from ancestral stories that can really hit home. Ancient stories can be found everywhere, although we cannot always see them at first glance. We have chosen a TV series, Sons of Anarchy, (2008-2014), in order to explore if there is a mythologema (that is the word used by K. Kerenyi to call the smallest unit in a myth) inside. This American drama TV series created by Kurt Sutter received excellent feedback from the public. It focuses on the story of a band called SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original) and its crimes and dirty business. One of its most important members is Gemma Teller, a woman who is obsessed with power.

When we approach this TV series, we realise that its story is very similar to a true story: of the Roman Empress Agrippina and the turbid relationship with her son Nero. Figure 1 shows Agrippina’s family tree.

Figure 1. Family tree

Agrippina the Younger was an example of getting power at the expense of everything. She killed her own husband and the legitimate heir so that her son, Nero, could become Emperor. Something similar happens in Gemma Teller’s story, a main character in Sons of Anarchy TV series, whose soaring ambition makes her commit atrocities in order to keep her influence over her son. She is a killer, an extortionist and an overprotective mother and grandmother. Gemma wants her son Jax to be the leader of SAMCRO and the moment she achieves it is one of the most important in the TV series. It is very similar in the true story: the moment that Nero is crowned by his mother is crucial (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Sculpture of Nero being crowned by his mother. This is meaningful moment in their relationship.

Source: Carlos Delgado; CC-BY-SA

In this case, we find that the TV series reconstructs a specific mythologema: the contempt of the paternal / maternal figure towards the son, which has been expressed many times through the myths of Tantalus, Saturn devouring his children, Hera and Medea, among others. The main topic in the TV series is a mother’s obsession with his son and her final matricide. There are certain parallels between the true story and the fictional one depicted in the drama TV series, as it is represented in the table below.

HISTORICAL CHARACTER TV SERIES CHARACTER
Agrippina the Younger Gemma Teller
Nero (Agrippina’s son) Jax Teller (Gemma Teller’s son)
Claudio (Agrippina’s third husband) Clay Morrow (Gemma Teller’s second husband)
Enobardo + Pasieno Crispo (Agrippina’s first and second husbands) John Teller (Gemma Teller’s first husband)
Claudia Octavia (Nero’s first wife) Wendy Case (Jax’ s first wife)
Popea Sabina (Nero’s second wife) Tara Knowles (Jax’ s second wife)

Table 1. Parallels between the true story of Agrippina and the fictional story of Gemma Teller.

This table shows that there is a deeper meaning in this case study, as usually happens in other audiovisual products. In unravelling the architecture of the myth, we find out that the existential concerns of the human being find in the art, in this case the cinema, an appropriate channel to update and adapt to contemporaneity. There are also a lot of parallels between the two sons depicted in the two stories: both of them kill their mothers (and none of them offer resistance to death) and both of them kill themselves. Both Agrippina and Gemma go beyond Ethics and are an example of veiled power inside a patriarchal system. Eventually, the same stories once and again…

If you want further information about this case study, you can find it in the book Hernández de Santaolalla, V. y Cobo Durán, S. (comps.) (2017): Sons of Anarchy: Estudio ideológico, narrativo y mitológico. Barcelona, Editorial Laertes, pp. 159-170. ISBN 978-84-16783-33-5.

Ángeles Martínez-García (angelesmartinez@us.es) is a professor at the University of Seville, Faculty of Communication, with more than ten years of experience in university education. Her goal is to meet standards through students´ engagement. She teaches on Film Studies and Film Image and she is developing current research on myths and cinema, as well as on the analysis of film image.

Antonio Gomez-Aguilar (agomez16@us.es) is a professor with more than ten years of experience in university education and vocational training. He has been working on analysing the Andalusian Audiovisual Sector. He teaches on Studies, Technology and Communication. He is developing current research on a new television concept, as well as on technology of communication.

 

The Guns of Loos

90 years ago, on 9 February 1928, the remarkable First World War drama, The Guns of Loos, received its press screening in London. Trade journal, The Bioscope, declared the film to be ‘as convincing a picture of modern warfare as has yet been shown on the screen’.

Coinciding with this anniversary, and as part of the University of Southampton’s Great War: Unknown War centenary events, the film was screened again at Turner Sims, accompanied by world renowned composer and pianist Stephen Horne, performing his original score, with percussionist Martin Pyne. I had the pleasure of introducing the film.

This British silent film portrays events surrounding the calamitous 1915 Battle of Loos, and features spectacular battle scenes and high drama on all fronts, as a munitions strike endangers supplies for soldiers at the front.

The film focuses on two soldiers, John Grimlaw (Henry Victor) and Clive (Donald McArdle), who find their mental and physical fortitude tested on the battlefield. The men are also fighting to win the love and respect of a Red Cross nurse, Diana, played by Madeleine Carroll, here making her screen debut. The ensuing events expose the impact of the war on all involved.

Two qualities were prominent in the film’s promotion: spectacle and authenticity, with some of the events based on director Sinclair Hill’s own war experience. Four guns were loaned to the production by the War Office including actually used in the Battle itself. Of the 250 men reported to have taken part in the re-enactment – filmed in West Thurrock – many were unemployed ex-soldiers supplied by the Ex-Service Men’s Association. Much was made of the appearance of Daniel Laidlaw, the almost mythical ‘Piper of Loos’, who played himself in the film. Laidlaw had won the VC and the Croix de Guerre for playing his regiment ‘over the top’, and Horne’s score includes an actual recording of Laidlaw playing his pipes, adding an eerie and poignant note to this moment in the film.

To literally magnify the film’s impact, on some screens in Britain, the film was screened using the Magnascope process, where a special lens was placed in front of the projector to suddenly enlarge the image across the cinema auditorium, immersing the audience into the spectacle.

When shown a print of the film, David Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions at the time of the Battle, was reported to have exclaimed to its director: ‘In wartime this film would have been worth a division’. While the film might have had propaganda value, its 1928 audience, looking back on the war through the lens of the 1926 General Strike, would have been well aware of its topicality. While men had been dying at the Front in 1915, many were ill or dying at home due to poverty and poor housing conditions. War injuries were visible and commonplace in the 1920s, meanwhile, and awareness was growing of ‘shell shock’ – Piper Laidlaw even endorsed the nerve tonic ‘Phosferine’ during the film’s release. The film tells us as much about the post-war context as about the war itself.

The manager of Stoll Studios, which made the film was clear on the film’s ambition: ‘with the advance of the art of cinematography we may expect to see something which will not only vie with foreign productions, but which will outstrip them, in story value, in acting, in direction and in photography’.

On 11 February, the large audience at Turner Sims were clearly moved by the powerful live score which really brought to life the film’s remarkable imagery and performances. Present in the audience were relatives of men who had fought at the Battle, who offered their own insight into the legacy of the battle. Joining me in a Q&A session afterwards were the Film department’s Dr Michael Hammond, an expert on cinema and WWI, plus the musicians. The many questions explored the film’s reception and the extraordinary effect of the music, with several audience members conveying the impact of viewing what was evidently the first silent film they had seen with live music.

Through performances such as this, The Guns of Loos can be appreciated as a classic that we should all know about.

The Great War: Unknown War’s ‘Silent Film Fortnight’ continues at Turner Sims, and promises to be an illuminating and highly engaging exploration of both the events of the war and the experience of cinema itself.

Picture Courtesy of Kevin Appleby

Animation, racial stereotypes, and jazz in the work of Len Lye

The recent critical acclaim and commercial success of the video game Cuphead (2017) has not only drawn new attention to the 1920s and 1930s animated cartoons the game’s visual style is inspired by, but has also provoked new scrutiny of the ‘Racist spectre’ of the imagery it uses. By mimicking the style of animation seen in the work of the Disney and Fleischer studios, among others, the game also evokes racial caricatures based in both appearance and behaviour of characters. As Nicholas Sammond has discussed, American animated cartoons of that period were heavily derived from blackface minstrelsy traditions and relied on a number of racial stereotypes. How should we deal with old films like these, which reflect the values of their time but are today considered derogatory and offensive? For many fans, including the makers of Cuphead, the visual style and appeal of these cartoons can be separated from their social context and still enjoyed. For others these films must be condemned outright if progress and equality are to be achieved.

These debates affect not only popular mainstream cartoons, but also celebrated works of animation artists. In researching the work of Len Lye for a recent publication I found similar concerns arose. The New Zealand artist moved to London in the 1920s and produced a series of animated films, including some for the British Government funded General Post Office (GPO) film unit. His first film Tusalava (1929) draws on Lye’s experience of Maori art in his home country of New Zealand, Aboriginal art from Australia and his time in the South Pacific, when Lye may have had firsthand, though limited, exposure to indigenous arts in Samoa. As Figure 1 suggests, this could be considered an ‘appropriation’ of these other cultures by a white artist working in London.

Figure 1: Tusalava (Len Lye, 1929)

Lye’s second film, known as Experimental Animation or Peanut Vendor adopts a very different technique and style, but may also be considered to rely on derogatory stereotypes. In this 1933 film a stop-motion puppet of a monkey sings the popular jazz hit “The Peanut Vendor”. With his large, bulging eyes, protruding lips, gleaming teeth, enlarged hands and feet, and elongated limbs (see Figure 2), Lye’s monkey protagonist clearly shares similarities with the depiction of African-American stars in animated cartoons, and the carefree and flamboyant attitude he projects has both ethnic and class implications.

Figure 2: Experimental Animation (Len Lye, 1933)

While Lye’s later films became more visually abstract and abandoned this problematic imagery, his use of music derived from African-American and Latin jazz traditions suggests a continuation of the ‘primitivism’ of his earlier work. Lye’s most famous film, A Colour Box from 1935 was very widely seen thanks to its sponsorship from the GPO Film Unit. The film used experimental techniques of painting and scratching directly onto the film strip (see Figure 3) and was accompanied by ‘La Belle Créole’ by Don Baretto and His Cuban Orchestra.

Figure 3: A Colour Box (Len Lye, 1935)

Like Hollywood cartoons of the same period, critical reflection on Lye’s work becomes caught between celebrating their experimentalism and exuberance or condemning the films for their appropriations and stereotypes. Researching their use of jazz offers one way to navigate these binaries and move beyond them. This music was associated with the Harlem Renaissance, which might be understood as a primarily African-American movement, yet Caribbean artists, especially musicians, played an important role in it. For instance, ‘The Peanut Vendor’ started life as ‘El Manicero’ written by Moisés Simons, a Cuban musician of Basque descent, and became a popular hit in Cuba in the 1920s. Don Azpiazú and his Havana Casino Orchestra travelled from Cuba to New York in 1930 and presented the song successfully in its original Spanish language, but the song achieved lasting success when translated into English. It became something of a craze (it was the ‘Gangnam Style’ of its day with an associated dance!) and was recorded by numerous Harlem musical stars, including African-Americans Louis Armstrong in 1930 and Duke Ellington in 1931, as well as the white jazz bandleader Red Nichols, who produced the recording used by Lye.

Born out of a colonial melding of African and Spanish cultures due to the circumstances of the slave trade in the Caribbean, transported to New York where it was absorbed into a primarily African-American movement and Anglicised before becoming a part of widespread American popular culture and then exported internationally, ‘The Peanut Vendor’, and Latin jazz generally, were thus products of a complex international gestation, just like Lye himself. Lye was a white colonial subject, having been born in 1901 when New Zealand was still a colony, before it became a Dominion in 1907. He subsequently lived in Samoa and Australia, before arriving in London. While we may feel uneasy about aspects of Lye’s appropriation of other cultures, we might also see strong parallels in these complex histories, which challenge any easy notion of cultural specificity or authenticity in which an art work wholly and unequivocally expresses the single culture it derives from. Neither Lye’s work nor the jazz it incorporates can be considered to meet such a standard.

As well as adding new insight into Lye’s own work, this approach also suggests a way to negotiate other problematic works of the past. Through detailed research we can fully acknowledge the values of the time that underpin them, recognising their derogatory and offensive implications, while also appreciating the complexities and nuances involved, rather than relying on simplistic binary judgements.

 

Malcolm Cook’s chapter ‘A Primitivism of the Senses: The Role of Music in Len Lye’s Experimental Animation’ appears in Holly Rogers and Jeremy Barham (eds) The Music and Sound of Experimental Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)

Podcast: Film Stardom and the Ancient Past

Dr Michael Williams is an Associate Professor and Head of Film Studies at the University of Southampton.

Figure 1: Gloria Swanson’s Venus Image, Pictureplay, September 1922

Figure 2: Regina Cannon, ‘Who Wants New Faces?’, Picture Play, April 1934, 29.

Figure 3: Ruth Waterbury, ‘Olympus Moves to Hollywood’, Photoplay, April 1928, 34–36, 92

Figure 4: Michael’s upcoming publication

Many thanks go to the Media History Digital Library