THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


The Actualities

local film in the 20th century

by Ann Kremen

published November 26, 2013


The projector flicks on and the image on the screen comes into focus. The screen is filled with men, wearing bowler hats and page-boy caps, shabby jackets over vests, and protruding neckties. The men mug at the camera as they walk past it out of a run-down brick archway, behind them smokestacks spout grey clouds of coal-dust. The image is in black and white, there is no sound, and the camera doesn’t move. Women join the crowd, clutching woolen shawls around their shoulders, and young men and boys, more likely to smile and wave at the audience. After 43 seconds a new shot appears; a crowd again, but this time downtown. Men and women stand on the sides of the road, waiting to cross in front of a continuous stream of trolley cars and horse-drawn carts and carriages. Women in skirts skimming the pavement, men in top hats. In the next shot, a boy stands centered amid a group of men, cut off at the shoulders and knees. The boy is dressed all in white and looks grim. He is lifted, displayed for the cameraman by a showman, who then produces admission passes for the screening that evening and distributes them throughout the crowd. Similar shots follow, always overflowing with people, crowds milling and moving. 

The audience watches rapt, packed into the dimly lit tent, one side of which is taken over by a massive screen. They have seen films like this for several years, and the spectacle of moving images is in itself no longer enough to keep them coming back—there are only so many variations on Arrival of a Train at a Station (1895), or Panormaic View of the Champs Elysees (1902) to be seen before even these marvels become rote. But now what they are seeing on the big screen for the first time is themselves.

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It is almost impossible to imagine going to a movie theater and seeing yourself on the screen. This is the promise traveling filmmakers working in fairgrounds and meeting halls at the turn of the 20th Century made to their audiences. In cinema’s early years, films were typically shown as part of larger spectacles at communal gatherings. Showmen would travel with fairs around to towns and cities, setting up tents from which to screen films as staples in variety shows, sometimes in conjunction with live acts. These first films foregrounded the newness of the cinematic medium, highlighting the movie camera’s ability to show the movement of life, to represent foreign places as though they were present, or to trick the eye. Around the turn of the 20th century, two showman-producers in Northern England, Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon, developed a new attraction to add to their spectacular repertoires: the local film. Where the dominant genres of early film, actualities and trick films, proffered a spectacle of otherness through depictions of magical or mystical landscapes and ways of seeing the world, local films produced the opposite effect, making the normal and everyday into a fantastic spectacle. 

Local films were also a sure way to draw a crowd. By filming crowds leaving work, or in the center of the town during the busiest time of day, Mitchell and Kenyon ensured that large numbers of people appeared in their films, and these crowds constituted a ready-made audience, easily lured back to the showings with the promise of seeing themselves on screen. The primary motivation for these filmmakers was commercial. They filmed in visible locations, advertising that the film would be screened locally and at times even on the same day. For many of the audience-participants of local films, this would have been their first, in some cases their only, opportunity to become the subject of cinema. This was the irresistible lure that kept bodies frozen in front of the lens and audiences lined up for the box office.

This practice created a body of place-specific local films, whose defining characteristic is the immediate connection—geographically, temporally, and socially—between what the people were shown on film and the audience. It was also a body of films, which, although they now provide an incredibly rich and telling historical document, were originally produced not with an eye towards the future, but instead towards the cash register.

Local film practices moved out of the fairgrounds and into movie theaters with mainstream Hollywood fare. As the techniques of local filmmaking emerged in different contexts, different producers within the genre found different motivations for producing them. For Charlie Silveus, a film buff who ran the movie theater in his hometown of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, the possibility of producing his own films proved too irresistible to pass up. In 1914, he purchased a 16mm camera and spent the next 15 years filming and screening “local views,” essentially, home movies for the entire town. Although his local films did draw viewers to the theater, Silveus was motivated less by profit than by the desire to explore the wonders and possibilities opened up by cinema, and to create films that reflected his community in new and surprising ways. 

H. Lee Waters stands at the intersection of these two local filmic practices. A vagabond filmmaker, Waters traveled throughout the segregated South of the depression era, making local films of towns in the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Virginia. As a body of place-specific films, Waters’s fascinating views capture a side of American life rarely seen on-screen; the simultaneous communities that existed in the same physical spaces but were prohibited from coming into contact. Waters’s films also reflect the dual impulses of local film producers; to make a profit, and to represent a community like a modern home movie. 

H. Lee Waters returns throughout his 1941 movie of Kannapolis, North Carolina to images of children, even as he gets pulled around the town in his attempt to film it in its entirety. Waters’s attention to children was a crowd-pleaser: Parents and relatives could easily be cajoled into paying to see a movie in which their kid was the star.

In a long sequence at the school in the first half of Kannapolis, children are lined up by age to perform the Pledge of Allegiance. The camera slowly pans over their faces. Moving from medium to long shots, it’s not hard to imagine that we are seeing the faces of every child in Kannapolis, except, of course, that all of the faces are white. A cut brings us to an adolescent boy and girl, uncomfortably holding two sides of a heart-shaped cut-out emblazoned with the words “Be my Valentine.” They look at each other, look at the camera, the girl giggles and shyly ducks behind the cardboard. The shot dissolves into one of another couple, who look even younger, holding the same sign. In the background their classmates horse around and are quieted by a schoolteacher. These children-pairs follow one after another, each dissolving into the next. The final couple, laughing, edge away from each other, and the sign slips from their hands.

A nearly identical sequence appears in Part 2 of the Kannapolis film. In a medium shot, the camera slowly pans across a row of adolescents staged for its perusal. After several shots of students, the cardboard heart appears again, but this time the couple act as though they could be real sweethearts. The girl grins knowingly at the boy, who puts his arm around her shoulders and pulls her into an embrace. This time when she hides her face behind the cardboard figure, it is not out of demure embarrassment, but because she’s overcome by a spasm of joyous laughter. In the series of shots that follow, the boys consistently hold their “sweethearts” close, the adolescents faces centered above the heart instead of using it as an unwieldy means of extending the space between them. 

These sequences illustrate not only the awkward performativity of appearing on camera, but also the kinds of tropes that local filmmakers employed to draw crowds to their shows. Whether the film was made for black or white audiences, Waters emphasizes children’s faces. One can imagine a parent’s exclamation of identification—“That’s my girl”—or the the half-jokes the young couples must have been subjected to in the theater. 

These are responses typical of home movies. In home movies, we perform for cameras held by our parents, siblings, or relatives, and we watch these movies expecting to see our loved ones and ourselves. We laugh or groan when we recognize familiar figures, talk amongst ourselves, become embarrassed, and are moved in ways that would be unthinkable in front of a Hollywood screen. Home movies are not films (with all the pretention and smugness with which that term can be endowed)—they are not serious dramas, riveting examples of cinematic mastery, narrative absorption, and unblinking reverence.  Home movies are fun, or embarrassing, or sad.  They are memory texts, overburdened by the specific context in which they were made.  But, mostly, home movies are boring.  

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We overvalue and undermine an experience of the local, of our immediate community.  All attempts to produce localized social groupings, whether to grow food or produce other commodities, try to reproduce social formations which were dissolving at exactly the same time that local films emerged as cultural objects. Films that are today termed “local,” usually independently produced, low-budget narrative or documentary movies, do not feature the local with the immediacy or simultaneity found in earlier instances of the form. In the blockbuster’s economy of the visual, local films are disinteresting precisely because they show us what we think we already know; they show us ourselves, our real selves, and our real community and geography, rather than an idealization of those things.