A Whale Of A Tale!: Ricardo Pitts-Wiley Brings Mixed Magic to LA

Last February, I announced here the release of Reading in a Participatory Culture, a print book, and Flows of Reading, a d-book extension, both focused around work my teams (first at MIT and then at USC) have done exploring how we might help educators and students learn about literary works through actively remixing them. Our central case study has been the work of playwright-actor-educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater, who was successful at getting incarcerated youth to read and engage with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick by having them re-imagine and re-write it for the 21st century. You can read more about this project here. And you can check out the Flows of Reading d-book for free here. 
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a chance to learn more about Pitts-Wiley and his work first hand. I’ve been able to bring Ricardo for a residency at USC this fall, which will start with a public event at the Los Angeles Public Library on September 26. Ricardo is going to be recruiting a mixed race cast of high school and college aged actors from across the Los Angeles area and producing a staged reading of his play, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which will be performed as part of a USC Visions and Voices event on Oct. 11th. You can get full details of both events below. I hope to see some of you there. We are already hearing from all kinds of artists here in Southern California who have sought creative inspiration from Melville’s novel and used it as a springboard for their own work. But you don’t have to love the great white whale to benefit from our approach to teaching traditional literary works in a digital culture, and we encourage teachers and educators of all kinds to explore how they might apply our model to thinking about many other cultural texts.
For those who live on the East Coast, our team will also be speaking and doing workshops at the National Writing Project’s national conference in Boston on Nov. 21.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 7:15 PM
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Thu, Sep 26, 7:15 PM [ALOUD]
Remixing Moby Dick: Media Studies Meets the Great White Whale 
Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Over a multi-year collaboration, playwright and director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, and media expert Henry Jenkins have developed a new approach for teaching Moby-Dick in the age of YouTube and hip-hop. They will explore how “learning through remixing” can speak to contemporary youth, why Melville might be understood as the master mash-up artist of the 19th century, and what might have happened if Captain Ahab had been a 21st century gang leader.

* Part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Public Library’s month-long citywide initiative “What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?”

 

Henry Jenkins is Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has written and edited more than fifteen books on media and popular culture, including Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. His other published works reflect the wide range of his research interests, touching on democracy and new media, the “wow factor” of popular culture, science-fiction fan communities, and the early history of film comedy. His most recent book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom was written with Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Erin Reilly, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.

Wyn Kelley teaches in the Literature Section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is author of Melville’s City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York and of Herman Melville: An Introduction. She also co-author Reading in a Participatory Culture: Re-Mixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom with Henry Jenkins and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. She is former Associate Editor of the Melville Society journal Leviathan, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville. A founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, she has collaborated with the New Bedford Whaling Museum on lecture series, conferences, exhibits, and a scholarly archive. She serves as Associate Director ofMEL (Melville Electronic Library), an NEH-supported interactive digital archive for reading, editing, and visualizing Melville’s texts.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is the co-founder of the Mixed Magic Theatre, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic images and ideas on the stage. While serving as Mixed Magic Theatre’s director, Pitts-Wiley gained national and international acclaim for his page-to-stage adaptation of Moby Dick, titled Moby Dick: Then and Now. This production, which was presented at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, is the centerpiece of a national teachers study guide and is featured in the book, Reading in A Participatory Culture. In addition to his work as an adapter of classic literature Pitts-Wiley is also the composer of over 150 songs and the author of 12 plays with music including:Waiting for Bessie SmithCelebrations: An African Odyssey, andThe Spirit Warrior’s Dream.

Comics, Comics, Comics…

A while back, I announced that alternative comics creator C. Tyler was coming to USC to give a talk about her life and work. Tyler was part of the group of women who contributed to the important Twisted Sisters anthology series; she worked closely with Aline Kominsky-Crumb (not to mention Aline’s husband, Robert) and has been married to Justin Green (another key figure in the underground comics movement) for several decades. She has always produced bracingly honest, beautifully crafted, autobiographical stories, often centering around her experiences of low-paying jobs and the challenges of motherhood, but deeply embedded in a sense of family and gender politics. Tyler has justly gotten new acclaim and interest as a result of You’ll Never Know, a three volume series of graphic novels focused on her father and mother, who were World War II veterans, and what they passed down to subsequent generations.

People who attended her talk at USC found it a remarkable experience: she was so fresh and authentic and down to earth about herself and her art; she shared enormous insights into her tools, her raw materials, and her process, and she was so generous in engaging with our students, many of whom were young women who want to make their own creative contributions to the world. The program flew by with never a dull moment. So, I am very proud to finally be able to share the video of this event with my readers.

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On other fronts, I’ve wanted for a while to do a shout-out to the wonderful work being done on a new web comic series, My So-Called Secret Identity.

Here’s some of the background about the project they provide online:

My So-Called Secret Identity is what happened when internationally-acclaimed Batman scholar and popular culture expert, Dr Will Brooker, decided to stop criticising mainstream comics for their representation of women, and show how it could be done differently; how it could be done better. Working with professional illustrator Susan Shore and PhD in superhero art, Dr Sarah Zaidan, Brooker assembled a team to build a new universe, close enough to the familiar capes-and-cowls mythos to offer critical comment, but distinct enough to strike out in a whole new direction and offer a story unlike any other superhero title. The costume designs and character sketches for My So-Called Secret Identity were created by established names and fan favourites, from Lea Hernandez to Hanie Mohd. These very different artists offered very different takes on the characters and their styles, but they had one thing in common. In a deliberate reversal of mainstream industry conventions, almost all the creative team behind MSCSI are female.

And here’s a bit about the series’ main character:

All her life, Cat’s been taught to be little, learned to keep herself small, tried to avoid attention. Don’t be too full of yourself. Don’t show off. And most of all, don’t let people know how smart you are, because they don’t like it. But Cat really is someone special. Cat is the smartest person in Gloria City. She remembers everything she reads; she knows how everything connects. And she’s getting tired of pretending, of hiding, of acting dumb to save other people’s feelings.

My So-Called Secret Identity is, to put it in technical terms, wonderful. You can tell from the first page how much thought has gone into this story, the development of its protagonist, the visual treatment of the material, and the way to share this tale with readers. Brooker brings to this project a life-time of thinking deeply about the genre conventions of the superhero comic, but he also brings with it a sensitivity to the many different ways where the world strips young women of their self-esteem and teaches them that they should not be so “confident” in the ways they speak about themselves and their work.

Cat, she of many names and many identities, she of great power and intelligence, is struggling to figure out who she is and where she belongs. She is working to piece together her mission and to come to grips with her power.

Susan Shore and Sarah Zaidan’s visual style is warm and soft, standing in contrast with the garish look we associate with superhero comics, and there is a strong sense of place here as Cat shares with us some of her favorite nooks and crannies in Gloria City. This is one of the strongest first books in a new comics series I have read in a while and I can’t wait to see more. The creators are raising funds as they go,so if you like what you see, make a contribution.

cat_cover_text

 

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I also wanted to give a shout-out to a new blog, started by William Proctor, a comics scholar at the Center for Research in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland, who was nice enough to play host to me this summer when I was visiting his city. His blog, Infinite Earths, intends to bring together a community of academics, fans, and artists, who want to talk seriously about comics, especially British comics, and so far, it has lived up to any expectations. So far, he has published an autobiographical essay by the above-mentioned Will Brooker discussing his childhood fascination with some of the ground-breaking Vertico titles and the first part of an extended rumination by Bryan Talbot, one of my favorite British comics creators, about the thinking that went into his now classic A Tale of One Bad Rat, as well as Proctor’s own notes about a recent Talbot lecture on the history of anthropomorphic animals in comics. I have already promised Procotor an interview about my own current comics research, but regardless, I plan to keep close eye on this blog in the months ahead.

 

Before and After Mickey: An Interview with Donald Crafton (Part One)

When I was in graduate school, I was lucky enough to be a teaching assistant to Donald Crafton. At the time, Crafton had recently published two important books on the history of animation — Before Mickey (which explored the role of the cartoon in silent cinema) and Emil Cohl, Caricature, and Film, which dealt with one of the great animation pioneers from Europe. Taken together, the two books made a significant contribution to opening up the space of animation as a major field for scholarly research.

Now, several decades later, Crafton has released a new book, Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making. As the book’s title suggests, Crafton’s latest project expands the time line of his earlier work, allowing us to understand more fully how he might apply his analytic approach to think about sound era animation, especially the works of Walt Disney, but also a range of his contemporaries. Second, as the title suggests, Crafton’s focus here is on what performance studies approaches might tell us about the study of animation and vice-versa. The result is contemporary genre criticism at its very best — drawing on a broad corpus of works, combining history and analysis in imaginative ways, providing new ways to look at films we thought we knew well, and in the process, rejiggering the cannon to focus our attention on people and projects that have largely faded from view. As always, the writing is a pleasure to read and there is a sense here of someone bringing a career’s worth of classroom insights into a form which can be shared with a larger public. I know because I had a chance to take Crafton’s seminar in animation at the University of Wisconsin back in the day and came away with an appreciation of the work involved in plowing through multitudes of animated shorts and features to develop a deep appreciation of how the form evolved over time.

In this interview, Crafton offers us a guided tour of a diverse range of examples of classic studio-era animated works, helping us to see the core differences in how they think about the animation process — especially the construction of character and the figuration of the cartoon body. Along the way, he offers us some insights into the ideological work that cartoons have performed and the ways contemporary popular culture, including games and comics, still lives under “the shadow of a mouse.” Enjoy!

Your earlier work Before Mickey recounted the first few decades of animation, while The Shadow of a Mouse takes us into the 1930s. What do you see as the major transitions (beyond the obvious one, sound) that take place in animation between these two periods?

 

The big change was in the performativity of 1920s and 1930s cartoons. I mean that just about everyone at the time understood that the basic concept of the films as performances was changing. Unlike in mainstream cinema, which accommodated the transition to sound over the thirties’ early years and settled back into a modified “classical Hollywood” style, American animated cinema became transformed fundamentally. The earlier cartoons tended to incorporate characters that pre-existed in comic strips, like Krazy Kat, or that were simulacra of comics characters, like Farmer Al Falfa and Felix the Cat. I call these performances figurative because the characters are formulaic, caricatures, refer to characters outside the films, or behave as conventional stock characters. The films consisted of interchangeable gags—what you call “accordion” structures in What Made Pistachios Nuts?, Henry.

In the 1930s, though, this freewheeling approach began giving way to more complex cinema structures in which character depth, gags, pictorial space, and emotional engagement were unified. There was a classicism analogous to what had developed in mainstream non-animated filmmaking in the late ‘teens. This was something new in cartooning.

 

Studio animators often spoke of the “personality” of animated characters. What did they mean by that term and what strategies did they use to give drawn figures “personalities”

 

“Personality animation”  was a phrase that emerged mainly from Disney’s shop. I think the term embodied animation captures better what the animators were aiming for. The embodied character has distinctive features of expression and patterns of idiosyncratic movement—“personality”—but also develops individuality over the course of multiple film appearances through repetition and variation. He or she can think and act spontaneously, that is, have their own agency aside from the animator’s influence.

A good example is Popeye. He was imported from the comics too (“The Thimble Theatre”), and the cartoons had plenty of anarchistic gags, and his early performances were highly figurative. Eventually, however, Popeye came to have a complex character built around making the right ethical decision to change the outcome of the plot. Audiences came to learn of his quirks, idiosyncratic behaviors and surprising attitudes—like his dislike of children, but his paternal affection for baby Swee’Pea. But they also started appreciating his moral authority and the degree to which his lower-class “swab” character was capable of sophisticated ideas. Not to mention his fistic prowess. So his personality is just one aspect of the character’s role in the stories. Not that these Popeye stories were always coherent; sometimes the narratives were pretty choppy.

Comparing a relatively fully embodied Popeye performance from the mid-to-late 1930s to figurative Ko-Ko the clown from the mid-1920s says it all about the evolution of personality outside Disney. Betty Boop’s performances, in 1930-33, were transitional, as in Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle, from 1932, which is chockfull of eye-popping, show-stopping effects, but still tells a story—although it’s a simple and rather perfunctory one. All three examples, I hardly need to mention, come from the same studio: the Fleischer brothers.

Historian Mark Langer has proposed that there was a geographical distinction between the two attitudes toward performativity (without using the word). He sees a more figurative New York Style in contrast to the embodiment trending West Coast Style. He characterized the filmmakers in the big NYC studios (Fleischer, Sullivan, Terry, Van Beuren) who worked mainly in a high-contrast black-and-white comic-strip style as continuing their graphic media connections to comics and popular illustration. The movement in such films was rubbery and gag-filled (redolent of the animators’ love affair with vaudeville). These films also were surreal and fantastic.

Disney, once they settled in L.A. (the Silver Lake area specifically), exemplified the West Coast style, which evolved into the embodied performance approach. Although his roots were in Kansas City, not New York, he and his partner Ub Iwerks had begun drawing in this comics style in their 1920s silents and early sound films. But Disney wanted product differentiation and so began emphasizing storytelling, character development, and less “cartoony” constructions. The pictorial space of his films became more rational, often observing proper Renaissance perspective, lighting, and color for creating convincing depth. This was necessary to support a character-based approach to performance.

These beings in the Silly Symphonies, let’s say the ones in Father Noah’s Ark, moved more gravitationally and less rubbery. Sometimes, as with the dancing porkers in The Three Little Pigs, they moved with choreographic grace.

Most important, the Disney studio tried to transform the older style characters from caricatures and comic types (often inspired by minstrels) to individuals with uniqueness and psychological depth. There might have been some surreal fantasy, but it was kept in check within the story.

 

The most influential force on the emerging West Coast style was the Russian acting theorist Konstantin Stanislavsky, whose ideas about how the stage actor must “inhabit” the fictional body to bring life to it was a model for Disney animators as well as for other “live-action” film directors in the 1930s. Eventually these ideas would give rise to “The Method.” If you ask me, the 1950s Method acting of Dean, Brando, Monroe etc. is kind of cartoony. But that’s another blog.

 

After the talkies came in, there had to be a new attitude towards sound, as you say. Early 30s animation for commercial reasons had to be anchored in music performance. Hence the references to “tunes,” “symphonies,” “melodies” etc. in the 1930s series titles were tie‑ins with the music publishing industry. We should think of these films as intermedial because often they were structured around and animated to a pre-existing track, usually the instrumental version of a public domain melody in the case of Disney, or of a currently popular song in the cases of Fleischer and the Schlesinger studio (Warner Bros.). So the structure of the music interacted with the gags to create a new sensation.

 

These are the major transformations, to give a long answer to your short question, but all the different aspects boil down to changes in the underlying performances presented on screen. As for Disney, there was never any doubt about his motives: he wanted his films to be like Hollywood shorts and then features so he could rent them for more revenue, and he felt that cartoons had to have the look and feel of a big studio production if they were to compete.

 

A specialist in film history and visual culture, Donald Crafton earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, his master’s degree from the University of Iowa, and a master’s and doctorate from Yale University. He was the founding director of the Yale Film Study Center, and served as director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Crafton chaired the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at Notre Dame from 1997 to 2002 and 2008-2010, and the Department of Music from 2004-2007.

Crafton’s research interests are in film history and visual culture. His most recent publications are Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making in Animation (2013) and The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (California, 1999). He was named Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2000 and was the recipient of an NEH Fellowship for 2003-04. The World Festival of Animation presented him in 2004 with an award for his contributions to animation theory. He received the University of Notre Dame’s Presidential Award in 2007.

Scrapbooks and Army Surplus: C. Tyler’s You’ll Never Know

For those of you who live in the Los Angeles area, I wanted to call attention to a special event I am hosting at the USC campus on the evening of Jan. 31, featuring noted underground cartoonist C. Tyler. Here’s the details.

And for those of you who do not live in Los Angeles, I will still encourage you to check out her remarkable three part graphic novel series, You’ll Never Know, published by Fantagraphic Books, and just completed at the end of last year. I plan to write an extended essay about this book as part of my new Comics…and Stuff project. Below is an abstract I wrote describing why I find this graphic novel so rich and interesting:

“And like I said, I knew he had been to war. Mom told me. He didn’t tell me. It’s not something He wanted to talk about EVER. He had buried Europe 1944-45 under tons of mental concrete. Exactly what happened — the details we never knew. Of what value would this information be anymore? That’s what he figured. And with no evidence around the house — well, why not forget it. Except for this one scrapbook album of army pictures, carefully mounted photos with no dates or information. I never knew what they recorded specifically. No text. Maybe that’s what intrigued me: a parallel world where my Dad looked like he was having fun.” — C. Tyler

One night, the underground cartoonist C. Tyler received a phone call from her usually taciturn 90 year old father, a World War II veteran, who suddenly wants to dump on her memories of long-ago experiences which up until that moment fell into “the category of ‘leave it the hell alone’ or ‘it’s none of your goddamn business.’” This phone call triggers an extended artistic practice as Tyler tried to capture her father’s memories first with a video camera and later through the panels of a trilogy of graphic novels, which in the process expand to tell the story not only of her father but of several generations of her family’s history.  If the father is stingy with the personal memories he is willing to share, even within the privacy of the family, his daughter fits within an exhibitionist streak in graphic storytelling which was partially initiated by the pioneering work of her husband, underground cartoonist Justin Green: she uses comics as a vehicle to work through personal issues and break down the culture of silence that informed her childhood. Ultimately, the books are designed as a tribute to the “greatest generation,” but they also speak with empathy about what happens when you bottle up so many powerful emotions, allowing them to come out only through actions and not through words and images.

The published books are shaped like a scrapbook album and when she tells her father’s story, she adopts a panel structure that reproduces the pages of a scrapbook, complete with rubber stamped page numbers and dates on each panel.  She adopts a much broader array of styles, some realistic, some cartoonish, some iconic. Sometimes, she uses the printed book like a scrapbook, incorporating a yellowed news clipping documenting the childhood death of her sister, or wartime letters from her father to the woman whom he would marry. She incorporates maps, charts, graphs, designed to explain aspects of her family’s experience, though often used in a less than naturalistic manner, as when she offers a diagram on blue print paper of the surgery her father would undergo in his struggles against cancer.

Ultimately, the finished product, You’ll Never Know, a Graphic Memoir, is, as Tyler told one interviewer, about “the stuff that gets passed down to the next generation,” with stuff here meant to describe material culture (including what she describes as “O.D. anomalies” (for “Olive Drab”) stored away in the basement or the buckets of acids and corrosives that she has to convince her pack-rat father to dispose of when he wants to move across the country, or the tools and nails shown in a detailed drawing of her father’s work area) but stuff also refers to the emotional baggage, equally toxic, which her repressed and sometimes overbearing father passed down to her generation. The two are brought together powerfully in a scene involving a box of old photographs and birth announcements which finally provokes her mother to talk for the first time about the death of her sister. Throughout the book, we learn about the characters through their interactions over stuff, such as the time when her father, jealous of the attention his wife is receiving, walls up several hundred carefully addressed Christmas cards behind a dry wall he is constructing, or a powerful story about what happens to the father’s old army jacket.

This video shares a segment from her interview with her father and shows how she has been able to convert this raw material into a rich autobiographical comic.

C. Tyler’s work on the graphic novel has brought her into closer contact with many veterans — not only of the Second World War but more recent armed conflicts. Tyler has been helping veterans to learn how to produce comics as a vehicle for sharing some of their memories and working through some of their emotions in the aftershock of their time under fire. Here’s a video about her work.

The Affordances of Technology for Media History Research (Part Two)

The Media History Digital Library seeks to bring together communities of scholars and fans. How do you see the relationship between scholarly research and fandom in your own work?

 

Eric Hoyt

 

The title of Henry’s blog where we are having this discussion—“Confessions of an Aca-Fan”—speaks to the way that personal passion and scholarly inquiry shape one another.

I am certainly an aca-fan of both historic and contemporary Hollywood. I tend to pursue research questions related to law, culture, and industry, rather than film style or aesthetics. But the whole reason I focus on the film and media industries—rather than, say, the corrugated box industry—comes from a deep love and fascination with films and television programs.

As a Film & Media Studies academic, I also feel grateful to study an area of culture that holds such broad popular interest. I think it’s a shame if we don’t connect with that broader public. We miss an opportunity to share our research. We also miss out on a chance to learn.

Something that many scholars already know but bears repeating is that many of the materials on the MHDL only exist because of fans. From the 1910s forward, fans purchased magazines, such as Motion Picture Story and Photoplay, to extend and deepen the movie-going experience. Most libraries in the early-20th century considered these magazines to be mere ephemera and did not keep them. So many of these magazines only exist today because fans bothered to keep them. I am grateful to fans and collectors for keeping these documents of film history and supporting the MHDL in its endeavor to make them freely available online.

 

Andy Myers:

As Eric mentioned, many of these publications are, in multiple ways, inextricable from the context of fan culture. Fans have not only collected and preserved these publications — their interest and investment in film culture actually provided the necessary market demand for these magazines to exist in the first place. Fan magazines like Photoplay were in constant dialogue with their audience and thus can provide scholars key texts in the history of fan discourse. For me, the eclectic fan letters reprinted in these magazines are one of their most fascinating and entertaining features because they offer so many surprising insights into the breadth of film fan culture.

Kathy Fuller-Seeley:

Various aspects of fandom have always been central to my own work, as the questions that sparked my dissertation research were how did Americans in small towns and rural hinterlands come into contact with motion pictures in everyday life, and how did the growing movie fan culture engage them. I second Eric’s gratitude to fans back in the day who saved fan magazines and ephemera and who compiled scrapbooks and kept diaries. Libraries long turned up their noses at saving such disposable popular culture. We are fortunate that archives like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Northeast Historic Film have amassed robust collections.  Today, individual collectors still hold the most fascinating moviegoing ephemera – real photo postcards of nickelodeon theaters, posters, illustrated song slides, pressbooks, trade journals, theater accounting ledgers, etc. I’m very appreciative of the generosity of many who have shared their archival treasures with me.

 

Now I am wondering how we can collaborate with collectors to make more of these materials available to the public for research purposes, and I am investigating ways of digitizing my own collections online. (you can see my collection of images from the “world premiere” of the 1937 United Artists film Blockade in, of all places, Elkhart, Indiana at http://www2.gsu.edu/~jougms/blocimg.htm   along with a terrific essay by my colleague Greg Smith).

Where do we go from here?

 

Kathy Fuller-Seeley:

 

My Digitized Dream Wishlist includes

  • A full run of Motion Picture Herald
  • A full run of Moving Picture World (which the MHDL is rapidly accruing, hooray!!!)
  • Exhibitors Trade Review
  • Hollywood Reporter
  • Variety (in a more user-friendly data-searching software! It is difficult to read an issue page by page).
  • New York Clipper and New York Dramatic Mirror    (these two are available in part through the Fulton County website, but the database is clunky and its somewhat difficult to search)
  • orphaned New York City newspapers like the Herald and World and Telegraph; I still have no source for John Crosby’s radio and television criticism or Alton Cook’s radio columns. I wish Proquest would make subscriptions to multiple historic newspapers available and reasonably priced for individual researchers! One year, a membership in the Society for American Baseball Research provided access, and that was terrific.

Even better is free to the public, and I am so grateful for the work of the MHDL to make all these fascinating documents available for everyone!

 

Eric Hoyt:

We’ve now digitized over 500,000 pages of media periodicals. By the end of this year, we may surpass one million pages. A question that I’ve been asking myself is—once you’ve aggregated all of that data, what do you do with it? One thing you clearly need to be able to do is swiftly search through the data. I have been collaborating with a great team—which includes Carl Hagenmaier, Wendy Hagenmaier, Joseph Pomp, Andy Myers, Pete Sengstock, Jason Quist, and new collaborators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—on building Lantern, a search engine for the MHDL. Search will be an important tool for researchers and historians. It will also provide a much easier entry point into our collection for users who are passionate about classic movies and television but don’t know where to start looking.

 

In addition to search, though, what else can you do with all that aggregated data? It would take me years to read through every page of text in the MHDL. A computer, on the other hand, reads the data in seconds. This is the basis for full-text search, but it also opens up new possibilities that Humanities scholars interested in quantitative methods and “big data” are only beginning to explore. Google Ngram Viewer, for example, allows you to graph the frequency of words and phrases across a corpus of five million books. Here is a graph I quickly compiled of the terms 16mm, 8mm, and 28mm. This graph immediately suggests a story about the cultural, industrial, and technological importance of these “sub-standard” film stocks across a hundred year span. Now, it would tell you a better story if you could refine the searchable corpus—using the collections of the MHDL, rather than GoogleBooks. And it would tell you the richest story of all if you combined the insights of the graph with specific articles and books about non-theatrical film from the MHDL’s collections.

I see this as the direction where the Humanities and MHDL eventually need to head—combining the familiar practice of “close reading” with strategies of “distant reading” (to use the term coined by Franco Moretti). It’s not about abandoning the established critical tools. But we do need to learn from the data-intensive research that is happening in the sciences. I recently attended a “Humanities Hackathon” workshop hosted by UW-Madison’s Center for the Humanities and the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. I was encouraged by the enthusiasm about using computational methods in Humanities research and legitimate concerns that we perform such analyses in a thoughtful way. I am excited to pursue these new techniques in my own scholarship, as well as to help build the infrastructure and tools that will enable other scholars to join the experiment.

 

 Andy Myers:

 

In the short term, as Eric mentions, our obvious goals are to add much more material, and to make system and interface improvements — such as full text search— which make it easier for users to find relevant material.

As far as long-term goals go, we want to make as much material as possible available to as many people as possible through as many avenues as possible, and we’ve been building lots of momentum. We’re not exactly declaring war on aggregators of public domain material like ProQuest — after all, we recognize that they do add value for many institutions and that these aggregators license more recent, copyrighted content too. However, with our boom in content and the upcoming launch of Lantern, we think that we are reaching a point where we can offer institutions a viable alternative to commercial providers and their high access fees. We firmly believe that our open-access model can provide better-quality material, freely available to everyone, with superior usability, at a fraction of the cost. So I really feel that in terms of growth, to paraphrase Walter White, we’re now in the empire business.

We’d also like to develop good cross-integration with other databases and resources across the web. Our digital assets are starting to be listed in the catalogs of academic libraries as electronic resources, which is a huge step to aiding discovery by researchers. I hope professors and graduate students reading this blog post right now will tell their librarians about the MHDL, and ask them to input MHDL resources into their library catalogs.  Additionally, we hope to eventually add features that will facilitate discovery of material made available by other great projects around the web. Wouldn’t it be great if a full text search on MHDL would not only search our collections, but also pointed users toward results in sites like AmericanRadioHistory.com (which hosts decades of digitized broadcasting periodicals) or the Margaret Herrick Library’s digital collections? We have yet to explore the technical details of such an implementation, but I think that kind of integration is on our distant horizon.

 

Bios

 

Eric Hoyt is Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He co-directs the Media History Digital Library in collaboration with the project’s founder, David Pierce. He is also leading the development of the MHDL’s new search platform, Lantern, which is a co-production with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Communication Arts. His articles on media, law, and culture have appeared in Cinema Journal, Film History, Jump Cut, World Policy Journal, and The International Journal of Learning and Media.

 

Kathy Fuller-Seeley is Professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University. She specializes in the history of film, radio, TV and media audiences. Kathy’s books include Hollywood in the Neighborhood: Historical Case Studies of Local Moviegoing (California, 2008, edited), At the Picture Show: Small Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture (Smithsonian 1997), and Children and the Movies: Media Influence and the Payne Fund Controversy (Cambridge 1996, with G. Jowett and I. Jarvie).  She has a book forthcoming on the history of nickelodeons and is writing a book project about Jack Benny’s radio program and American culture.

 

Andrew Myers is a doctoral student in Critical Studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He serves as the post-processing editor for the Media History Digital Library, which generally entails writing scripts to process images, text, and metadata. He recently received his M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies from UCLA and is also the outgoing co-editor-in-chief of Mediascape, UCLA’s Journal of Film, Television, and Digital Media. His diverse research interests include media industries and production culture, archival film and television history, new media (especially video games), and documentary.

 

 

The Affordances of Digital Technology for Media History Research (Part One)

The Media History Digital Library (MHDL) digitizes out-of-copyright periodicals relating to the histories of film, broadcasting, and recorded sound and makes them widely available for public use. The project promotes media history scholarship, provides educational tools for classroom use, and advocates for greater engagement with the public domain. A non-profit initiative, the MHDL is supported by owners of materials who loan them for scanning, and donors who contribute funds to cover the cost of scanning.

In this discussion, MHDL co-director Eric Hoyt talks with project’s post-processing editor Andy Myers and film historian Kathy Fuller-Seeley, who digitized reels of microfilm in the course of her own research that she donated to the MHDL. Eric, Kathy, and Andy talk about the value of digitizing the historical sources, the challenges involved in the process, and bringing together the communities of fans and scholars.

 

What is the value of digitizing historic trade papers and fan magazines?

 

Kathy Fuller-Seeley: I’m an enthusiastic fan of digitized trade journals, fan magazines and newspapers. Their availability has had a transformative impact on my research, allowing me to dig more deeply into published coverage of all my topics, and also creating new research projects.  I live far from the libraries and archives that hold the original publications, and my relatively young state university can’t/won’t invest in an extensive microfilm library. Far beyond the convenience of not having to squint at scratched microfilm and having rare journals available day or night, I’m enthralled that digitization reveals much more complex views of my research topics.  I’m not just cherry picking one or two articles that I might have stumbled across in print or in someone’s scrapbook, I am encountering masses of coverage that I can analyze and weigh as a whole.

Quick examples from current research projects – digitized Photoplay enabled me to uncover how the mainstream Hollywood publicity machinery constructed star personae for unusual performers such as Shirley Temple, Rin Tin Tin and Marie Dressler, and marketed them to working-and middle-class female fans.  Searchable Variety uncovered for me the innovative ways in which Jack Benny and his agents intertwined his performances and star image across radio, film, live appearances and consumer product advertising to achieve incredible career synergy. Newspaper databases like the Library of Congress’s allowed me to trace the diffusion of the earliest “picture personalities” (Florence Turner the Vitagraph Girl and Florence Lawrence the “Imp Girl”) fame far beyond the original promotional material published in national trade journals and the New York papers to the creation of local fan cultures in rural New England, Utah, Arizona and the Yukon.

In researching film history, digitized trade journals and newspapers enable us to learn more about exhibition practices and circulation of fan culture outside major metropolitan areas (and scholar’s over-reliance on the New York Times). Access to the fan magazines enables close readings of how Hollywood structured knowledge about stars and films for their target audiences. Having access to searchable trade papers can not only shows us what they covered, but also topics they purposely avoided (such as competing non-film promotions like Dish Night giveaways during the Depression). They make new research topics possible, such as the recent work of historians Paul Moore and Richard Abel on intersections of newspaper discourse and moviegoing culture. The NEH is currently sponsoring a series of grants for “digging into the data” to expand our thinking about these research possibilities.

Andy Myers:

Our role in digitizing these publications, as I see it, is about ensuring three things: accessibility, discoverability, and browse-ability.

Enabling access is the first and most obvious benefit of digitizing these resources. For example, two years ago as a student at UCLA I was working on a project on the American anti-Bolshevik films from 1919 and 1920. The secondary sources I was using kept referencing articles in The Moving Picture World (MPW), and I had dozens of such references to track down. Even our fantastic library at UCLA didn’t have anything from MPW from those years, but after some searching I eventually located a microfilm copy at the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles and made a special trip. Now, I’m lucky enough to live and study in Los Angeles, where the archival resources for media history are unparalleled, so I only had to drive a few miles and spend an afternoon. But scholars in other parts of the world would have a much more difficult trial in accessing MPW or other publications, many of which are not even available on microfilm.  Now that the MHDL is making long runs of classic publications like The Moving Picture World available digitally, the kinds of barriers to access scholars have faced even in the recent past are now evaporating.

Simply providing access to information is useless, however, if nobody can find it – that new information has to be easily discoverable. Online catalogs and databases are very good at directing the user to an appropriate resource when the user already knows with some specificity what he or she is looking for. For example, I can read an article that mentions the film The World Aflame (1919), see a footnote to a May 1919 issue of Moving Picture World, and then very easily and quickly navigate to the online resource.

But how do I find that article without a secondary reference, if I only have the film title and the year? Full text search is, of course, essential to ensuring discoverability — and our upcoming Lantern search tool should facilitate that. In addition to search, there are also a couple other considerations for making resources discoverable. One priority is that we curate a user experience that empowers users to intuitively cut through the database, narrowing their research net according to criteria such as year, format (e.g. book or periodical), the type of publication (e.g. trade journal or fan magazine), or specific publication title.

Academics are, of course, well accustomed to advanced catalog and database searches, but most of these repositories are so immense and diverse that browsing is impractical or impossible. So we aim to supplement that random-access database searching paradigm with a sort of microfilm paradigm.

Mediahistoryproject.org’s curated collections on various topics are manageable in size and allow users to easily browse the resources we have available for their research without being overwhelmed with irrelevant matches. And once users open a publication, in addition to being able to use standard search tools, they can also flip through the entire book page-by-page incredibly quickly, the same way that microfilm researchers can.

As I suspect nearly every veteran microfilm researcher would attest, skimming through entire months and years of a publication — rather than simply cherry-picking search hits — will yield incredibly valuable insights into the historical and social contexts of the topic that the researcher is studying, as well as uncover unexpected but closely related contemporary issues. The browse-ability features of the MHDL allow researchers to immerse themselves into the historical moment and buttress their argument with a full array of related evidence. OCR is often imperfect, particularly in cases of creatively typeset headlines and advertisements, so it’s often the case that relevant material can only be discovered through good, old-fashioned skimming. By offering this hybridization of research paradigms, we hope users will be able to pursue whatever approach of searching and/or browsing works best for them and their project.

 

Eric Hoyt:

In their responses to this question, Kathy and Andy both nicely highlight some of the ways that digitization improves the research process for film historians. What I want to emphasize here is that I’m proud not simply about the fact that the MHDL has been digitizing important trade journals and magazines but about how we’ve gone about doing this. First, through coordinating with the Internet Archive, we’re primarily scanning original print editions rather than microfilm. This means color, better images, better OCR data, better everything.

I’ve come to appreciate, though, that scanning microfilm also has its place and benefits. For some oversized and particularly brittle newspapers, microfilm scanning is the only option. We were fortunate that Kathy and Q. David Bowers supplied us with over a dozen DVD-Rs worth of microfilm scans for some of these newspapers, including The Clipper and two years worth of Variety. Andy handled post-processing work on the microfilm scans, and now anyone with an open Internet port around the world can see them.

It’s this collaborative and open access model that I think defines the project. The collections of the MHDL only exist because of collaboration. I’ve collaborated closely with the project’s founder and director David Pierce, digital archivist Wendy Hagenmaier, and others in coordinating the scanning and improving our website. However, collaboration also underlies the entire acquisition and funding structure. The MHDL is supported by collectors and institutions who loan materials for scanning, and donors who cover the costs of digitization. We’ve also begun collaborating with academic groups that want to see more publications pertaining to a certain area go online. Domitor, the International Society for the Study of Early Cinema, raised over $6,000 among its member-base to contribute to the digitization of Moving Picture World and other early cinema publications.

The MHDL is also built upon open access. Most people in the world with an Internet connection have the ability to go to our site and freely read or download as many publications as they want. For users who want access to the underlying source, you can click through to a volume’s Internet Archive page (IA page) and access the uncompressed JPEGs, OCR text, and XML metadata.

We work with materials that belong in the public domain, and this provides the legal foundation for open access. But keeping things open is also a decision on our part. Subscription services, such as ProQuest and the Variety Archives, are walled gardens. Although they offer access to licensed copyrighted material, they also store countless pages worth of digitized public domain periodicals. As I have argued in the International Journal Learning and Media, I think we need to encourage public access and engagement with the public domain and call attention to this shared resource. Through digital technology and collaborative loaning and funding structures, we have the opportunity to offer broad access to public domain texts and enable their reuse across a variety of forms. To extend the earlier metaphor, we can build public parks, rather than walled gardens.

 

 

Bios

 

Eric Hoyt is Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He co-directs the Media History Digital Library in collaboration with the project’s founder, David Pierce. He is also leading the development of the MHDL’s new search platform, Lantern, which is a co-production with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Communication Arts. His articles on media, law, and culture have appeared in Cinema Journal, Film History, Jump Cut, World Policy Journal, and The International Journal of Learning and Media.

 

Kathy Fuller-Seeley is Professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University. She specializes in the history of film, radio, TV and media audiences. Kathy’s books include Hollywood in the Neighborhood: Historical Case Studies of Local Moviegoing (California, 2008, edited), At the Picture Show: Small Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture (Smithsonian 1997), and Children and the Movies: Media Influence and the Payne Fund Controversy (Cambridge 1996, with G. Jowett and I. Jarvie).  She has a book forthcoming on the history of nickelodeons and is writing a book project about Jack Benny’s radio program and American culture.

 

Andrew Myers is a doctoral student in Critical Studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He serves as the post-processing editor for the Media History Digital Library, which generally entails writing scripts to process images, text, and metadata. He recently received his M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies from UCLA and is also the outgoing co-editor-in-chief of Mediascape, UCLA’s Journal of Film, Television, and Digital Media. His diverse research interests include media industries and production culture, archival film and television history, new media (especially video games), and documentary.

 

 

 

My Favorite Things: Raymond Scott

This is the first in an occasional series devoted to things in popular culture which have inspired my passion or captured my imagination. Let me be clear: this is not a series of “guilty pleasures,” a term I hate since I don’t think we should feel guilty for taking pleasure in the culture around us. These posts will feature things that I’ve discovered and have an urge to pass along to my readers, figuring that while they may not be to everyone’s taste, there will certainly be people out there who might not encounter these artists and works otherwise.

The other night, my wife and I watched the dvd of a documentary about the composer-performer-inventor-visionary Raymond Scott, Deconstructing Dad, which had been made by his son. Below is the trailer for the documentary, which will give you some sense of who Scott was and why he might rank fairly high on my list of favorite things. While the film is perhaps a bit more invested than I am in dealing with Scott’s multiple marriages and whether or not he was a decent father, the documentary nevertheless is crammed with his remarkable performances and helped me to place Scott’s work in a much broader context.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Scott and his band recorded a series of highly infectous and playful swing songs with titles such as “New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House,” “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals,” “Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner,” “Bumpy Weather Over Newark,” or “The Girl at the Typewriter.” These whimsical titles barely hint at the playful quality of his music, which managed to be experimental in its style yet accessible in its approach. Here, for example, is Scott and his band performing “Twilight in Turkey” for the Eddie Cantor vehicle, Ali Baba Goes to Town (1938).

And here’s another vintage musical performance of one of my favorites, “War Dance for Wooden Indians.”

If you recognize some of these songs, it is most likely because Carl Stalling was a huge Scott fan and used his music in more than 120 classic Warner Brothers cartoons. I found an interesting fan made video which shows how one of Scott’s best known compositions, “Powerhouse,” surfaced across a surprisingly broad range of cartoons. Scott never wrote music directly for cartoons, but his songs worked so well in this context that they were rediscovered by a whole new generation of animators, starting in the 1990s, who used them for, among other shows, The Simpsons, Duckman, Animaniacs, and most consistently, Ren and Stimpy.

Scott went on to become the bandleader on the classic 1950s era television program, Our Hit Parade, and to become a key experimenter in the early development of electronic music. Deconstructing Dad offers the curious insight that in the 1930s and 1940s, he sought to develop a style of jazz which was highly rehearsed and carefully scored, allowing limited room for improvization, where-as in the 1950s and 1960s, he ceded far more control of his compositions over to his digital tools, foreshadowing John Cage and others in his fascination with chance in composition. Nevertheless, I would argue that you can still hear Scott’s puckish personality at play in at least some of his digital music, especially if you listen to the electronic and jazz stuff side by side.

If you’d like to discover the pleasures of Raymond Scott’s jazz, I’d recommend Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights as a cd which features many of his best-known songs. This was what set the Jenkins family down the path to actively pursuing as much of his work as we can get our hands on.