Matthew Paris :: Xiccarph :: View topic - Digital Editing and The National Heritage
Digital Editing and The National Heritage
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Matthew Paris
 

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 9:23 pm - Digital Editing and The National Heritage
Around 1995 a series of Internet tools were made available to a variety of companies which made the video production and distributing of silent movies possible. They were marketed to an audience that had never seen them. Since silent movies had been largely abounded as a media form around 1929, the general public had no access to the films that had once changed the cultural history of the United States and Europe.
Unless they went to New York to view those works in the sub-cellars of the Museum of Modern Art, or had access to some even more recondite personal collections, the entire body of these centrally influential works including the old newsreels were entombed for them like the treasures of King Tut. In 1995, given the new profit margins available through use of the Internet, Amazon began to feature the films for mail order distribution, Kino began to issue them digitally in volume. Libraries accustomed to having more contemporary video collections began to buy them as part of their general media collections.
Many of these films were advertised as “digitally remastered” by computer technologies. This might have meant that each of the frames was transferred into digital information; each frame was edited to fill in with identical information about static elements in the frame from other frames. It could also have meant that something more than the primitive and erratic soundtracks added to these films, could have enhanced the affect of the current audience.
It could have also meant new and better digitalized musical scores, rather than the miserable if authentic ones, could have been added. Almost always beyond the Chaplin films, silent had to endure dreadful music of pastiche and talentless spinning of wheels. Most of the Kino versions have excellent modern synthesized scores. They work with instruments and composers the silent film makers would have been very happy to have access to. Until 1995, any release of a silent was often cavalier about music. I recently saw a Canadian version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in which the music was Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, repeated over and over again. It was bizarre if par for the course.
Only Chaplin of all the auters was a musician who controlled the musical content of his films. The other auters hired hacks, with usually horrendous results. Modern composers like David Israel using computer instruments or London’s Carl Davis have made careers in this new area, producing much better scores than these movies ever had in their own time and world.
It goes without saying that computers have the capacity to of enhance or change the silent much more than anyone has done. Nobody has morphed the extant voices of the actors, the accents of most of whom we have in their talkies, to provide dialogue in movies where actors intoning the same lines with exaggerated gestures so the audience can lip read them. This is an arguable enhancement.
Silent films nearly always had dialogue, were almost always shot as if they were talkies that would been seen but not heard. Sound tracks of cannons and bells were always used by silent when they could get them. Computer composers with digital sound can do all of these things.
Computer technology has evolved tremendously since 1995, if there are still things it cannot do with these movies. It can transfer visual information about a piece of furniture that does not move in a frame to other frames; it cannot follow people around in them. It can fix visual “noise” in any static part of a scene; it cannot yet handle people moving around in those scenes. Et we can see that dealing with the matter is not outside the range of computer technology. In a decade, if companies decided make use of it, they will be able to do all of it easily enough.
Where the options are more iffy is in more radical surgery. Take a famous Buster Keaton movie long lost but recently discovered rotting away and lacking the twenty seconds of so of its climax. In this film Keaton tries to dive into a pool, misses the pool and plummets into the ground leaving a hole. In the next scene he is shown coming out of the hole forty years later with a Chinese family he has created.
At present the video release tells us about this scene in its titles. Could it be restored by computer technology? We have long shots of the poor and its female denizens, Keaton on the high diving board, and still shots of Keaton with his Chinese family. We also have a very similar scene in another Keaton film- he very often repeated ideas- in which he falls through the Earth and sits next to an Indian guru.
I don’t know how many shots if any we have of Keaton diving off a high board but since we have him on the board and a point of view shot of people watching him on the board extant, that could be left out of the sequence, using the long shots as point of view shots for what we do not see.
The Internet offers two main intriguing sites to take up an interest in Silent movies. One is called the “Silents Majority”. It has a huge database containing detailed information on every extant silent, every silent actor, director or producer. It also has a fine bibliography for each subject and excellent links to other sites.
The material itself is sometimes skewed, not by the site but the inclination of its sources in the movie business to make facts and truth a function of its optimal business posture; one cannot expect this site to be as critical as the more cautious authors in its bibliographies.
The other site, is oddly called Taylorology; it is a gigantic collection of materials about the world of William Desmond Taylor, a silent movie director murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1922. This site is filled with first hand materials, some of which are very frank, honest and always hard to come by. Both sites obviously regard Silents as a national legacy.
The motion of commercial produce versus national heritage is a large and interesting one we do not often talk about. A product’s value is only its utility at the moment or its ability to be to be sold for a profit. A natural heritage implies a value in things that are behind commerce into which individuals or groups should invest time and labor. Not to talk about them does not mean that thee issues aren’t arguable.
In the computer world some middle ground between heritage and commerce is going to be prevailing answer to these issues. About twenty years ago there was a brisk business in the West and Asia in Hong Kong copies of novels sold all over the world. Nobody could get at the mainland China source of these editions and, as we knew from our own present economy, mainland Chinese products, given the wages they don’t pay, can undersell any competitor.
Given the comparable global character of the Internet to that market, the inability of nations to enforce copyright or ownership under these circumstances, and the movement of speed of modems and size of hard drives toward downloading in real time from any Web Site on the planet, somebody is going to provide different and better version of silent films to the public along with many other materials this world previously thought it had locked up and stabilized under national laws of property.
Most of what we see in these releases thus far tend to be merely the transfer of the old films with their decay and all, to digital language? Yet the computer end of the new silent industry is an world of buffs and enthusiasts, not financial MBAs. When they talk of offering a film to the public they call it “liberating” it from some tomb or cellar.
They have a large sense of what they are doing. They know that they are rescuing for us all not the products of a business but part of our national heritage.
They don’t have money. Yet we can see that one of the advantages of the Internet generally is that it is often a world with more than profit on its mind. Commerce and enthusiasm are not mutually exclusive. One doesn’t have to be cynical to make money. The distribution of silent on the Internet shows who the marriage of idealism and commerce can bring us riches cynicism and business cannot.
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