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Scholar, conference explore birth of cinema
STANFORD -- Hitherto it had touched him on the intellectual side alone, but now his imagination also was engaged, or rather enslaved; and as he lay and tossed in the gross darkness of the night and the curtained room, Mr. Enfield's tale went by before his mind in a scroll of lighted pictures.
Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was first published in 1886, a full nine years before the debut of cinema -- a "scroll of lighted pictures" -- as a medium of mass entertainment.
It is, however, representative of the literature that reflects Victorian society and culture, which was a natural breeding ground for the birth of film, according to Joss Lutz Marsh, assistant professor of English and primary organizer of an April 28-29 conference, at the historic Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, marking the centenary of film.
Participants in "1895: The Culture That Made Cinema," will explore the questions: Why were the movies born when they were born? What was it about 19th-century culture that made the birth inevitable? and How much was early film as much Victorian as modern?
The conference will feature a series of rare film screenings and lectures by noted experts including Tom Gunning, perhaps the most accomplished scholar in the field, Marsh said.
"We're taking a different tack to the birth of cinema," Marsh said. "Much of the academic work in this area has focused on who did what first, who invented which bit of technology first, and so on.
"When you think about it, when you look at the imagery in much of the literature of the late 19th century . . . it's almost as though people were dreaming of cinema before cinema was invented," said Marsh, who is also a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.
Technological, cultural changes combine
People in Europe and the United States were just beginning to adapt to urban life in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, and moving pictures were a natural reflection to what F. Scott Fitzgerald called "restless flickers on [the] urban eye." People were becoming accustomed to seeing the world flash by in frames through the windows of rapidly moving railroad cars, a cinema-like experience.
Narrative paintings were in vogue, and late 19th-century melodrama incorporated sophisticated staging and lighting techniques, making the dream of ultimate realism seem possible. Also, photography had reached its moment of cultural impact with the launch of the Kodak camera.
"For the first time, regular people could record their own lives," Marsh said.
"These societal changes, these technologies all flipped directly into cinema," she said. "Inventing it was really rather simple -- once celluloid film was in place, all you had to do was figure out to put sprocket holes in the sides of the film."
Marsh said that the Victorian culture really invented the whole concept of mass entertainment, and that the conference might help dispel some common misperceptions about what kind of people lived in the late 19th century.
"Some people like to think of this anniversary as a watershed, where there was a 'before film,' and an 'after film,' " Marsh said. "In fact, the people then were both pleasantly and unpleasantly similar to ourselves -- they were unsettled, aspiring, romantic, inventive and obsessed with machines; they also were greedy, violent, sensation hungry and sex obsessed."
Marsh has been working on organizing the conference, which is sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Center, a consortium of the humanities departments at Stanford and the Stanford Alumni Association, ever since joining the center as a fellow last fall, in addition to other writing and research projects.
"However, I've been thinking about putting this conference on for years," she said. The fellowship and the assistance of the Alumni Association made it possible, she said.
"I knew that one of the requirements of being a Humanities Center fellow was to make some sort of contribution to the Stanford community," she said. "Normally, that means doing something like teaching a class -- but I do that all the time; I love to teach.
"I thought this was the best contribution I could make to the Stanford community, in the broadest and best sense of the word," Marsh said. "I didn't want this to be a lot of academic people talking to one another in a closed setting; I wanted the opportunity to show the outside world what kind of work we are doing here in the humanities."
Conference has three sessions
The event to be held at the Stanford Theater (221 University Ave., Palo Alto) is broken into three sessions. The cost is $8 per session, or $20 for the entire series ($7 per session, $18 for all three for Alumni Association members). Each session is designed to stand alone, for the benefit of people unable to attend the full program, Marsh said.
(Faculty, students and staff with Stanford ID will be admitted free starting at 6:45 p.m. Friday, April 28, space permitting.)
Session I starts at 7 p.m. Friday, April 28, with introductory remarks by Marsh, followed by a lecture, "19th-Century Photography and the Archaeology of Film," by Tom Gunning, associate professor of radio, television and film, Northwestern University. Gunning is considered perhaps the most distinguished scholar in the fields of early film, photography and the culture of modernity.
Following Gunning will be Lynn Kirby, independent filmmaker and media consultant, discussing "The Railway Journey and the Movies."
From 9 to 10:45 p.m., there will be screenings of films including Daydreams, a pre-Revolutionary Russian short feature on exclusive loan from the Library of Congress, and a program of rare Edison kinetoscope shorts, courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Russian film will include commentary from Latvian scholar Yuri Tsivian, author of Early Cinema in Russia and Its Reception. Reinhart Lutz, professor of film studies, University of the Pacific, will introduce the Edison shorts.
The evening closes with a short program on "Magical Méliès," including rare hand-colored prints and original script material by the pioneer in trick cinematography, with commentary by Melissa Goldman, an advanced graduate student in Stanford's Department of Comparative Literature.
The second session opens at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, April 29, with the talk "The Victorian City: Spectacle and Mediascape," by Martin Zerlang, director of the Research Program on Urbanity and Aesthetics, University of Copenhagen, followed by "The Novel Picture Show: From Illustrated Fiction Through Photography to Film," by Garrett Stewart, the James O. Freedman Professor of Letters, University of Iowa.
At 11:15 a.m., Zerlang will introduce The Four Devils, a pioneering Danish feature from 1911. The final lecture of the session will be by Ralf Remshardt, theater historian and assistant professor of drama, University of Florida, speaking on "Waiting in the Wings: Melodrama Dreams of Film."
The third session takes place Saturday afternoon, starting with a 1:30 p.m. lecture on Buster Keaton (the legendary silent film comedian was born the same year as the movies, 1895) by Charles Wolfe, chairman of the Film Studies Program at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Russell Merritt, silent film historian and documentary consultant, will follow with a talk on "D.W. Griffith Reads Victorian Narrative Painting."
The final talk, at 3:15 p.m., concerns "Hearing Is Believing, Too: Sound and Music in the Cinema, 1895-1995," by Anahid Kassabian, film and media studies scholar and critic. At 4:15 p.m., the event concludes with a question-and-answer session moderated by Henry Breitrose, professor of communication at Stanford.
Film that inspired Intolerance to be screened
The conference will be followed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday with a special screening of Cabria, a 1912 Italian epic that inspired D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, introduced by Linda Campani, director of the Stanford Program in Florence. Cabria will be shown with live organ accompaniment.
"We're going to be showing some extremely rare materials," Marsh said. "I'm also very excited about the lineup of speakers -- this was a cast of characters that was chosen very carefully."
Marsh is no stranger to the world of cinema -- she refers to herself as the "academic black sheep" of a three-generation film family that includes her father, Terence Marsh, a production designer who won Oscars for Dr. Zhivago and Oliver, and who also has worked on films ranging from Lawrence of Arabia to the recent Clear and Present Danger and The Shawshank Redemption.
Her sister, Gina Marsh, is a documentary filmmaker currently working on a film about Dr. Oliver Sacks; her brother-in- law is an editor; her grandmother is an actress and her great- grandparents, stage actors. Marsh initially had no interest in a film career, but a long conversation with a film journal editor in Oxford in 1981 led to a reviewing position, and she later decided to continue to explore the worlds of film and literature via academia.
Marsh said the involvement of the Stanford Alumni Association was pivotal in getting the conference off the ground. "They have made dreaming on a large scale possible," she said of their involvement.
"This is one of the first occasions David Packard has agreed to open the doors of the Stanford Theater for this type of an event, and we're very grateful to him for that," she added.
Pre-registration is recommended; for registration materials, call the Stanford Alumni Association at 723-0689.
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