Showing posts with label Archive. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Archive. Show all posts

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Roger Leatherwood -- The Phantom Archivist and The Phantom Archives: The Amateur Online Archive of Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

The Phantom Archivist and The Phantom Archives: The Amateur Online Archive of Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
by Roger Leatherwood
Bright Lights Film Journal

Personal Archives in the Absence of a Corporate One

Prior to about 1980, Hollywood seemed perversely uninterested in its own history, inadvertently or intentionally neglecting its production materials (not to mention old film elements) that often were left rotting behind studio vault walls and taking up valuable real estate and given away or maybe dumped in the bay some foggy night. Since the advent of home video and the ever-increasing value of catalog titles, new digital (expensive to license, cheap to deliver) formats and the promise of the long tail, studios have increasingly strived to make their films and TV shows available to as wide an audience as possible for as long as possible, including offering merchandise that depicts the characters, graphics, and designs on any and all appropriate items from toys to smartphone cases. This constant upkeep of the presence of the brand of a filmed property in the culture keeps it in the public's memory, perhaps motivating sequels, spin-offs, and other ancillary revenue. And all this has to be archived and kept careful track of.

In some rare instances, producers have maintained archives, private or set up as museum spaces to display props, costumes, and other ephemera.1 But examples of industrial archival curation are sparse, and while the films themselves may enjoy an afterlife in repertory houses or at museum screenings, physical archives are seldom open and, unless they involve Stanley Kubrick or some other storied career, don't go on the road.2

Legacy production materials of motion pictures from draft scripts to set designs to production stills not intended for the public eye often end up forgotten, if they aren't purloined from under the noses of archivists who never notice them missing. The majority of productions dating from before the 1980s suffer from almost nonexistent archival profiles, and have no cultural presence. As a result they remain invisible to cultural memory. In the absence of digital or other marketing engagements now common to recent cross-platform franchise properties, marketing ephemera surrounding the releases ("collateral" to use the marketing term) gets fetishized as the proxy for favorite films, and authentic original posters for such films as King Kong (1933) to Star Wars (1977) go for thousands of dollars on auction sites,3 signifiers of the original and authentic industrial marketing impulse and of the cultural moment in which these were the only legitimate proxy outside of actual viewership.

Ari Kahan's website devoted to Phantom of the Paradise (1974), The Swan Archives (,4 has curated a collection of marketing materials that reanimates the era of this forgotten film's release. Launched in 2006 with the results of 30 years of collecting posters, stills, and other materials, the site functions not only as a resource for the film's fan community but also as its only surviving archive that creates and even defines a new audience for the film. Made up of over 400 pictures of objects, screengrabs, and detailed narratives of the film's genesis, production, marketing, and editing variants adding up to over 75,000 words, as explications of the film's themes, subtexts, and historical context it presents a comprehensive, exhaustive, and passionately rendered archive of the history and reception of the film and a film of its type in the mid-'70s cultural landscape, all in the absence of any attempts by the corporate rightsholders to do so.

Objects, Their Meanings, and the Importance of Timing

Working online, within view but beyond the traditional reach of normal gatekeepers of intellectual property, Kahan illustrates a new mode of archival behavior and engagement possible in digital environments that revivifies obsolete (in this case, intellectual) property and curates and recontextualizes it. At the same time, Kahan's efforts reflect a rather conservative and closed approach to how an archive is built and functions, in large part by taking pains to protect the assets from promiscuous sharing as well as the context in which they're viewed. By dint of his existence in a landscape that is relatively unexplored, Kahan engages the tension between how audiences and corporate rightsholders control, negotiate, and create new meanings surrounding their properties. His site allows audiences to engage with artifacts outside traditional archival walls; investigates how archival activity affects digital, personal, and other casual engagements with film texts; and points the way in which such sites create new narratives around the texts themselves.

Phantom of the Paradise, written and directed by Brian De Palma and starring Paul Williams, William Finley, and Jessica Harper, was released by 20th Century-Fox in 1974. Appearing amid the rich cultural tapestry that also included The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, The Towering Inferno, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it was largely unsuccessful in finding a wide audience and was relegated to relative obscurity on the second half of double bills before being remarketed to secondary markets with a revamped ad campaign six months later.

A quirky, stylized, and fleet-footed if unwieldy blend of horror and fantasy taking place in a rock-and-roll setting, Phantom of the Paradise attracted the attention of horror film and science fiction fans rather than a teenage rock music audience. Its plot borrows predominantly from the 1943 and 1962 film versions of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera5 as well as the German legend of Faust (the music mogul Swan played by Williams sells his soul for success). By virtue of its pop sensibilities, its fanciful critique of corporate greed, and its stylized filmmaking techniques (a harbinger of the Grand Guignol style Brian De Palma would develop to greater effect in Carrie [1976] and Scarface [1983]), the film slowly built a cult following. As a meta-narrative about popular music as well as a satire of celebrity culture that parodies the very elements that audiences might enjoy about it (flashy rock production numbers, fan worship), the film likely alienated the audiences it expected to attract, until a revised ad campaign repositioned the film as a horror/thriller as opposed to a musical (the Style C poster tagline is "He's been maimed and framed, beaten, robbed, and mutilated. But they still can't keep him from the woman he loves"). Moderately more successful, it attracted enough attention to be written up in various science fiction and film magazines.

To Read the Rest

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Robert Farrow: The Wicker Man -- Games of truth, anthropology, and the death of ‘man’

The Wicker Man: Games of truth, anthropology, and the death of ‘man’
by Robert Farrow

The Wicker Man, a cult classic of 1970s British cinema, portrays the investigation of an authoritarian police officer (played by Edward Woodward) into the mysterious disappearance of a young girl in the remote Scottish island of Summerisle. It becomes apparent that the islanders observe various ancient pagan traditions, and Sgt. Howie—a committed Christian—becomes increasingly suspicious of them. Eventually, he comes to suspect that she is somewhere imprisoned, earmarked as a human sacrifice for the Mayday festival of Beltane.

As the mystery unfolds, Howie comes to realizes the awful truth: the missing girl was a mystery fabricated in order to lure him to Summerisle, and it is in fact he who is to be burnt alive in the Wicker Man as an offering to the renewed cult of the old gods. This sinister ending has ensured this film a place in the annals of horror despite its divergence from the tropes of most horror films of the 1970s. The Wicker Man presents no bogeymen, no vampires, and no sinister music; its ending is all the more shocking, in fact, for the twee charm of the villagers and the folk-music score, which lead the audience into a false state of complacency that mirrors Sgt. Howie’s own vulnerability. And in a further departure from other examples of the genre, the antagonists are in no way demonized.

So, if The Wicker Man breaks so many of the genre rules, why is it such an unsettling film? One answer is illuminated by the complex matrices of truth, power, and knowledge made familiar by the French historian and philosopher, Michel Foucault: The Wicker Man presents us with an alarm call to wake us from “anthropological sleep,” and to tear down and burn our own false conceptions of “man.”

Foucault, a noted critic of the social sciences, rejected all positive notions of objectivity and human nature. For Foucault, we exist trapped within a kind of postmodern labyrinth (or “archive”), where truths are relative to the societies and practices that develop them. This is not a facile cultural relativism. Instead, we are invited to understand truths as problematized, colored by the contexts and subjects that produce them. The power structures that (so to speak) restrain us are also what makes our freedom possible, conditioning our thought at a collective, unconscious level.

Foucault’s own diagnosis of the present took the form of investigations into (often obscure) historical documents that aimed at exposing the implicit “truths” that underlie social practices and norms, thereby supporting his position as a thinker of social and historical relativity. As his work developed, it became clear that the driving force behind his work was an interest in how senses of identity are formed when the self is essentially a product of certain power/knowledge relationships, discourses, and games of truth.

Foucault’s early works—and The Wicker Man—offer this message: identity is best understood as an amorphous, shifting fiction, an “anthropology” that is to be exposed. When the full import of this becomes understood, the effect is rather more unsettling than the fraternity gorefests that typify many later horror films.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Michael Atkinson: Archival Trouble -- The fiction-free science fiction of Adam Curtis

Archival Trouble: The fiction-free science fiction of Adam Curtis
by Michael Atkinson
Moving Image Source


Curtis's brand of deep politics isn't theorist Peter Dale Scott's—he's concerned less with deliberate conspiracy than with the cascade of sociopolitical dominoes, beginning somewhere mysteriously decades ago, tumbling in a semi-secret dialectical train of disaster since, and culminating in flat-out catastrophe, be it 9/11 or the world economic meltdown or merely the Reagan-era state of rampaging consumerist narcissism. Formally, Curtis manufactures his flowcharts with the simplest means available: archival footage, talking heads, calm but ominous narration, associative montage, a pervasive sense of doomsday. All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is paradigmatic: Curtis begins, as his Richard Brautigan-quoting title suggests, with the familiar suspicion that the mechanization of our lives is winding inexorably toward a dystopian nightmare in which the matrix of microprocessors and A.I.'s will end up commanding us, not vice versa.

But right away it's clear that Curtis isn't hypothesizing about a terrifying future, but unearthing the hidden patterns that have created the present moment. The villains are not machines. Curtis trips backward, as is his wont, to the '50s and the rise of Ayn Rand, whose Objectivist creed in turn gave fitful birth to a spate of influential ideologies, all of which decided that both nature and human society were essentially self-sustaining, equilibrium-seeking logical mechanisms, and could be managed thus. "This is the story," Curtis intones, "of the rise of the dream of the self-organizing system, and the strange machine fantasy of nature that underpins it." The tales he tells to illustrate this harrowing and almost completely overlooked social saga all intertwine, and run from the "spaceship Earth" ideas of Buckminster Fuller, the communes that followed, the pessimistic forecasts of the Club of Rome, the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, the genesis of the wholly fabricated Tutsi-Hutu dichotomy that turned Rwanda into a killing field more than once, the career of Dian Fossey, the late-century rollercoaster of economic feast and famine, and the work of theorist/geneticist George Price, who believed that humans were ultimately the slaves of their own genetic imperatives, and who demonstrated mathematically that both altruism and genocide were therefore rational acts, from "a gene's eye view" of things.

There's more, all of it reflecting back upon now; Curtis is nothing if not a staunch proselytizer for the idea of the past never being quite past. All Watched Over is more than a counter-story. Like all of Curtis's work it is approximately half well-circulated history and half "deep" background—that is, storylines and historical angles that have been pervasively and deliberately neglected by the gatekeepers of knowledge and information. The film feels something like a Craig Baldwin delusion-farce turned chillingly, menacingly factual, and the facts accrete into an interrogation of psychotic hubris. The Frankenstein monster constructed by the scientists and demagogues and politicians in All Watched Over is the last half-century or so of life on Earth, which in its ultimate tally amounts to a scoresheet of unimaginable injustice, mountains of bodies, and untold environmental ruin.

Curtis is in reality telling just one story, again and again in various threads and tangents and in dazzling three- or four-hour chunks, reaching back to the immediate postwar years and then forward to the present over and over, limning an infinitely complex genogram of our present existence. Ironically, for a history-rewriting filmmaker/producer boxing so much information into evenings of television, Curtis is fierce about the disastrous effects brought about by the artificial and intellectualized imposition of order. He began in his present mode with 1992's Pandora's Box, a massive autopsy on the worldwide cataclysms that unrolled as a result of every kind of postwar effort to systematize, organize, compel, and codify humanity, from Soviet over-industrialization to game-theory Cold War strategies to Keynesian economics to nuclear-power utopianism. Politically, this is a rocket targeted not at the Right per se, but upward, at the power elite, whose perpetual folly in trying to maximize profit and control leads ceaselessly to societal breakdown—a condition very often beside the point for the elite in question, once they've stood to benefit. The Century of the Self (2002) goes all attack-ad on this dynamic, specifically homing in on propagandist/marketing mahatma Edward Bernays, and how he used Freudian psychoanalytic insights to initiate the gold rush of institutionalized thought control—advertising, propaganda, public relations—that could be said to absolutely dominate 20th-century public discourse.

Curtis's vision seemed wholly formed at first, despite the fact that he's obviously digging up unknown connections with each new project. But it took the spiral mindquake of 9/11 for Curtis's reverse-engineered prophecies to gain a global profile. The Power of Nightmares (2004) follows the gunpowder trails from the mid-century (uniting Muslim Brotherhood messiah Sayyid Qutb and neocon pope-king Leo Strauss as complementary agents of desolation) to the attacks of 2001, and then maintains that, just as the farcical depiction of the USSR as a global spider kingdom of evil influence is destroyed by direct testimony from CIA agents and a lying Donald Rumsfeld in old news footage, the sudden postulation of Al Qaeda as a terrifying, organized worldwide threat was a manufactured myth used by Western governments and agencies to broaden and tighten their grip on international power systems and the profit to be gained therein.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

To watch Adam Curtis's documentaries online:

Pandora's Box: A Fable From the Age of Science (1992)

The Living Dead: Three Films About the Power of the Past (1995)

The Century of the Self (2002)

The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2004)

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007)

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011)