What is the Archaeology of Cinema?

Material Forms

The cinematographic view is a) created, b) recorded, c) consumed, and d) remembered. Each of these ‘moments’ requires a physical framework of material culture that can be explored archaeologically. The physical embodiment of each stage allows us to create an archaeology of cinema in which a multi-disciplinary investigation is anchored in material culture. Let us consider each in turn.

Locations and Sets

The cinematographic view depends upon the creation of ‘virtual’ places – locations, sets, or, nowadays, electronic representations thereof – which match the stereotypical expectations on which the perceived ‘authenticity’ of the representation depends. We propose archaeological investigation of film locations, and the outdoor sets constructed in them, as one of our material anchors for exploring the cinematographic view. The virtual reality represented may be subdivided into different categories, e.g. urban landscapes, rural landscapes, seascapes, and interiors. A further consideration with regard to locations and sets is the recycling of modified landscapes, studio sets, props, etc in different movies; a famous example is the repeated re-use of the vintage building around which the Bray Studios complex was constructed in Hammer movies. 

Interwar China comes to the mountains of Snowdonia

For his 1958 film, The Inn of Sixth Happiness, director Mark Robson decided to transform the slopes of Moel Dyniewyd into a war-torn Chinese city. These images show the set under construction.

Post-production Suites

The indoor sets created in film studios belong to our Stage 1 above. Here we are concerned with film-studio facilities where post-production takes place – essentially the editing of film to create a ‘movie’. In this case, of course, the material imprint has no direct relationship with the representation. Whereas the location or set is an inherent part of the representation, the post-production suite is merely the place where the representation is reconfigured from ‘rushes’ (raw footage) to ‘movie’ (edited film). Nonetheless, we wish to keep in mind that this process gives rise to a distinctive material imprint, and that this imprint may offer valuable insights of its own. For example, it involves a process of selection, retention, and discard; ‘the cutting-room floor’ is a real space covered in real film.

Picture Palaces  

The cinema is a quiet, dark, desensitised space because audience attention must be focused on the visual and audio bombardment of the movie itself. But this ‘other-worldliness’ of the cinema is often deliberately amplified, to give audiences the sense that they are passing out of their own, humdrum, routine world into an alternative world of exotic locations, dramatic events, and heroic figures. The places where movies are consumed – and therefore the way they are experienced – must be integral to any comprehensive investigation the archaeology of cinema.

The way we were 

The different faces of early cinema audiences

Representations of the Representation 

Cinema generates a vast material culture of ‘representations of the representation’ in the form of magazines, books, souvenirs, costumes, models, masks, fan clubs, re-enactments, and so on. This ‘ephemera’ of cinema embodies the memories, identifications, aspirations, obsessions, values, etc of film audiences. It is the visceral afterglow of the sensory bombardment that is the film itself.

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