Every picture tells a story

The Newsreel, the Daredevil and the Cameraman: character and play in the interwar newsreel, by Dr Sara Beth Levavy. Modern and Contemporary Seminar, Monday 4 November.

With a focus on the pivotal role of the cameraman in the newsreel films of the interwar years, the new Andrew Mellon postdoctoral fellow introduced Monday’s seminar participants to her on-going research project and subject of a PhD from Stanford University. Drawing from a wealth of observations on the function of newsreel as a representation of contemporary vision and experience, Dr Levavy’s paper provided plenty of evidence for the existence of a specific genre that belongs as much to the story of Hollywood as it does to the history of journalism. Clips of engineering triumphs and death-defying antics helped to relay the visual excitement of the extraordinary in the everyday as framed for an American public of the 1920s and 30s: footage which, once circulated in often purpose-built movie houses, would frequently be recycled into feature films by the big corporations.

Pathé News Synopsis Sheet, no. 69, 1928 (Library of Congress, Motion Picture and Recorded Sound Division)

Pathé News Synopsis Sheet, no. 69, 1928 (Library of Congress, Motion Picture and Recorded Sound Division)

Reflecting on a production policy of thrills, spills and modernity in motion, Dr Levavy explained how the industry specialised in the rapid repackaging of ‘news’ to offer what she describes as ‘a meditation on the new’. A key figure in the important illusion of real-time experience was that of the cameraman, who with a fluid position both inside and outside the frame could embody the roles of character and operator, thereby functioning as the human intermediary between audience and screen.  And it really did come as news to much of the  contemporary audience just how closely these crafted characters can be identified with the standard super-hero as personified by crusading journalist Clark Kent, aka Superman. Not only was this trope – combining an incorruptible search for truth with lightening speed and the all-important aerial view – consciously immortalised on celluloid in Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), but there are acres of film depicting cameramen risking life and limb to bring the latest real-life spectacle to a news-hungry public.

For those of us with a passing familiarity with British or European newsreel, there was perhaps an expectation of a certain perspective on some of the grittier reality of this era, if not actual images of war, or indeed propaganda. Responding thoughtfully to such issues, Dr Levavy was careful to point out the deliberate suspension of ideological critique from her study. Partly this is due to a tacit acknowledgement of its established presence in the wider discourse. Chiefly, however, it is because she takes her methodological lead from a body of material constructed precisely to exclude such perspectives; a fact underlined succinctly by her consideration of an alternative title to her PhD, ‘There was always a monkey’. Instead, there are other questions to be asked of a genre that sits between entertainment and reportage. Concerning the standardised exhibition structures, these include the intriguing figure of the cameraman at the heart of a construction that is seen to represent a particular world – but one that only exists within the cinema.