Cinema History

'Scotched': new cinema history and the clutter of phenomena

The ‘Early Cinema in Scotland’ project was shaped by the initial proposition that the major output would not be a monograph that would synthesize the data to produce a coherent argument, but would be a website that would, in some way, reflect the complexity of data: the specificities of localities, contexts, venues and organization. The attraction of the web, whatever its real practical difficulties, is that it is an open assemblage rather than a closed narrative and that it is dynamic, accessible and open to comment and amendment. The danger of the web, of course, is that data accumulate and argument is lost: too much information and not enough meaning. For this reason it is useful to pair the website with the edited collection, Early Cinema in Scotland, written by members of the research team (eds. Caughie, Griffiths, Vélez-Serna; Edinburgh University Press, 2018).

In a classic and eloquent statement of the art and craft of the historian, Lytton Strachey, in the 1918 Preface to his Eminent Victorians, extols the virtues of ignorance as a simplifying art: ‘ignorance is the first requisite of the historian — ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art’ (Strachey, 2003: 1). He proposes, instead, a subtler strategy for the historian:

He will attack his subject in unexpected places; he will fall upon the flank, or the rear; he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity. (Strachey, 2003: 1)

It is a seductive image, and is picked up by E.H. Carr in 1961, in his equally classical statement, What is History? (Carr, 2001). Carr notes Strachey’s ‘mischievous’ recommendation of ignorance and envies the medieval or ancient historian who can be so competent ‘because they are so ignorant of their subject’. The modern historian’, he says

enjoys none of the advantages of this built-in ignorance. He must cultivate this ignorance for himself – the more so the nearer he comes to his own times. He has the dual task of discovering the few significant facts and turning them into facts of history, and of discarding the many insignificant facts as unhistorical. (Carr, 2001: 8-9)

The art of the historian, then, is a narrative art, built on the confidence of discriminating between historical and unhistorical facts, or on knowing which buckets tell the story the ocean.

The difficulty which such classical historiographical positions present is the selectivity of the narrative paradigm, a narrative which explains the past ‘with a placid perfection’, and puts the data into perspective. Cinema history is rich in such narrative paradigms - ‘the modernity thesis’, ‘the cinema of attractions’, ‘the era of transition’, ‘classical cinema’ – and they are indeed valuable framing narratives. Ambitiously, however, what has come to be called ‘New Cinema History’ has set itself the goal of understanding movie-going and the ways in which the experience of cinema is shaped by exhibition and reception. It is, to a greater or lesser extent, a history of audiences, and therefore also a history of social subjectivities, and subjectivities are more likely to be caught up in the local, the partial, the imprecise and the disorderly. Every bucket brings more information and every fact may be historical. As Robert Allen says, it is a landscape of ‘uncertain, untethered pathways and networks.’ (Allen, 2011: 56)

In Tropics of Discourse in 1978, Hayden White traces the notion of historical discourse back to its Latin roots in discurrere, ‘running to and fro’. A discourse, he says, ‘moves ‘to and fro’ between received encodations of experience and the clutter of phenomena which refuse incorporation into conventionalized notions of ‘reality’, ‘truth’ or ‘possibility’.. (White, 1978: 4). For cinema history, ‘new’ or not, the ordered perspectives of the narrative paradigms seem constantly to be threatened or distracted by the clutter of phenomena that refuses incorporation.

While, for example, the modernity thesis - the historical confluence of early cinema, urban modernity and cultural modernization - is undoubtedly seductive, one can hold against it the instance of a cinematograph exhibition given in 1898 in Inverarary by the Duchess of Argyle to an audience of around 800, comprising 300 children and her crofting tenants (Oban Times, 15 January, 1898); or the report of a school treat with moving pictures given in 1903 by the landed gentry of Lyndale House on Skye to the tenants of the estate, at which the children were urged by the Presbyterian minister, in his vote of thanks, to be grateful for the attention shown to them by their superiors (Oban Times, 19 September, 1903). Children, church and gentry: the cinematograph not as a technology of modernity, but as an instrument for ensuring the continuity of the benevolent patronage of feudal landowners and the authority of the Presbyterian church.

Or what are we to do with Violet Domino, a Scottish woman who is recorded in 1924 and 1925 in Ayr, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Scarborough and London, on her way to the colonies and foreign parts? Identified in the trade and local press as the ‘British Mystery Film Girl’, always ‘hiding her identity’ behind a violet mask, a domino, ‘on the screen and in the theatre’, she accompanied the screening of the films she had made in the course of her travels in Western Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, and in the streets of London with commentary and the singing of folk songs in her ‘fine operatic voice’ (The Bioscope, 21 February, 1924 and 11 September, 1924). Is she simply, in Carr’s terms, an insignificant, unhistorical fact, an anecdotal figure to brighten up the data; or is she a historical fact, a performer and filmmaker who points to an empty space between variety, where women performers were commonplace, and cinematography, where women filmmakers were not? Violet’s gothic mask and the pseudonym which still conceals her identity seem to signify that while women might take up roles in the operation of cinemas, from manager to operator or cashier, particularly during World War 1, the woman filmmaker, historically, was still an occult figure.i

In November 1897, a report on the cinematograph in the Campbeltown Courier which was to be first shown in the Victoria Hall later that week reported that scenes

can be seen as well and almost as life-like as if the spectator were looking at the real thing and not at these photos of it. The whole is so wonderful and fascinating that one never tires of looking at it. (Campbeltown Courier, 13 November, 1897)

The report reproduces the familiar image of the ‘innocent’ spectator who can look at these silent, shaky, black and white images in wonder as if they were looking at the ‘real thing’: Lumiéres’ spectators cowering under their seats, or Gorki’s ‘Kingdom of Shadows’. The following week, however, the Campbeltown Courier, reports on the audience, ‘behaving in a most noisy and unseemly manner’ and making comments ‘couched in the most vulgar language’, because the operator was ‘second rate’: ‘His lens was not properly adjusted, while his screen was placed too low, making it impossible for those behind to see.’ (Campbeltown Courier, 20 November, 1897). And this was in 1897, less than a year after films were first exhibited in Scotland. The innocent spectator turns out to be quite knowing: ‘The public is an examiner’, says Benjamin in 1936, ‘but an absent-minded one.’ (Benjamin, 1973: 243)

In pursuing the experience of cinema not just historically but also geographically, not just as an urban experience but as a rural and small town experience, any desire for the ‘received encodations of experience’ or for the plenitude of the historical subject is continually and precisely ‘scotched’ by the ‘clutter of phenomena’. The term ‘scotched’ signifies the mediation of which White speaks, and retains a trace of the resistance, the refusal of incorporation, between the interpretation and the clutter.

Cinema history is no longer Carr’s individual historian, who gets the kinds of facts he or she wants and turns them into a singular act of interpretation. The resources of the web and the particular configurations of digital humanities are transformative. They make it much more difficult to use Strachey’s mischievous ignorance as a first requisite, simplifying and clarifying the data, with a ‘placid perfection’, to make a story out of the ocean. New cinema history is now much more about networking, about collaboration, about buckets full of data, and about navigating repositories which someone else may want to work with to produce a new map. The ‘Early Cinema in Scotland’ project had much less to do with the order of historical narrative or the reassuring plenitudes of national identity than one might have anticipated. Instead, it has to do with networks of information, with geographies of local experience which break up the national map, with disobedient audiences and untidy subjects, and with the clutter of phenomena that gets in the way of the narrative, exceeds identity, and snags the singular interpretation.

i For another woman filmmaker (perhaps the other) of the early period in the UK see Jessica Borthwick at the Women and Silent British Cinema website here. Accessed, 12.08.2020


Allen, R.C. (2011), ‘Reimagining the history of the experience of cinema in a post-moviegoing age’, in Maltby, R., Biltereyst, D., Meers, P. (eds), Explorations in New Cinema History: Approaches and case studies. Oxford: Blackwell.
Benjamin, W., (1973), ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ [first published, 1936], in Arendt, H. (ed.), Zohn, H. (trans.), Illuminations. London: Fontana/Collins, 1973.
Carr, E.H. (2001), What is History? [first published, 1961]. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Caughie, J., Griffths, T., Vélez-Serna, M. (eds) (2018) Early Cinema in Scotland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Strachey, L. (2003), Eminent Victorians [first published, 1918]. London: Continuum.
White, H. (1978) Tropics of Discourse. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.