Sunday, 6 September 2009

Anonymity and Recognition

I just came across a really good article on recognition in film. So I am 'book
marking it publicly here.

The title is: '"The Men Who Came Back": Anonymity and Recognition in Local British Roll of Honour Films (1914-1918)', Scope, December 2000, and it's by Michael Hammond, University of Southampton, UK.

Here's how it begins:

There are six examples of Roll of Honour films held at the Imperial War Museum and the National Film and Television Archive in London (See Appendix One). These are locally produced films of photographs of men who had been killed, wounded, taken prisoner or were still serving at the front. They were produced in varying quality. Some were quickly made on a rostrum with a rough black background with hand-written nameplates the only form of identification. Others were produced with more care, the borders flat against a deep black background and the names printed with information about their deaths, wounds or predicaments. Some cut the figure out of the photograph and placed them on a black background, the edges softened to give the image an eternal spiritual quality. In each case these films stressed the relationship between the cinema exhibitor and the local community that practical patriotism worked to achieve (See Appendix Two). They publicly acknowledged the role of the community in the war effort and the cinema theatre provided the public space for the recognition of the individual sacrifice of its members.

Recently, an example of these films from the town of Milnrow in Lancashire appeared in a Channel Four documentary series about British culture between the two world wars made in 1996 called The Long Summer. This Milnrow film opens the first in a series of six documentaries and is meant to be a powerful evocation of a nation in mourning. It stands as an indicator of the prevalence of bereavement at this time. The narrator, Alan Bennet, explains that it was produced and exhibited by the manager of the Empire Cinema. Here the photographs, paradoxically still images projected by an animating machine, arrest for a brief moment the momentum of modernity. They are a visual pause prior to the frenetic pace of the jazz age. Their poses suggest a wide-eyed innocence and vitality lost, frozen in the pre-moment of their entry into eternity. The backgrounds look back to a nineteenth century mode of pictorial representation, of landscapes and props which suggest, in these faded images, the worn cloth on the furniture in stately houses, the musty smell of flat scenery in an abandoned theatre. At the end of the twentieth century they represent a memory of the war as tragedy and these young faces are its victims. The pictures, or portraits, are shown with a reverent commentary - "The years of the long summer would be dominated by the memory of men like these" - and are accompanied by the funereal chords of a brass choir. In the representational harness of the documentary these men have already never existed. Their moment, and the films' originally intended purpose, are erased. They exist only to represent the bereavement of a nation. Apart from this brief reference these films have received scant scholarly attention.

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