Technology/Transformation | What We Did On Our Summer Holidays

Credit: Dara Birnbaum

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Sam Moore

The past, the future, and found footage cinema

It began with an actress, a colour, and an obsession. In his continued rewatching and recutting of the 1931 film East of Borneo, the artist Joseph Cornell created Rose Hobart (1936), named for the film’s lead actress, and one of the earliest examples of found footage cinema. In this context, found footage means something different than horror films like The Blair Witch Project  (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007). In Cornell’s film, the found footage is pre-existing material – he apparently found a 16mm print of East of Borneo by chance, giving the term a playful and literal dimension that seems fitting for this specific strand of experimental cinema.

Rose Hobart, which rearranges footage of Hobart in East of Borneo while interspersing it with images from an eclipse, also places the film in a different context. By removing the dialogue, and changing the film from black and white to a blue tint, Cornell’s version of East of Borneo feels more like early silent cinema. By making these changes he creates a literal blueprint for what would eventually become found footage cinema – taking material from any number of sources, and turning it into something else. This can be as simple as what Cornell does, or bringing together more disparate threads, as in Bruce Conner’s A MOVIE (1958). Conner uses newsreels, film clips, and softcore porn as a way to explore visual association, the limits of narrative, and a dissonant relationship between sound and vision; the film’s score becomes more triumphant as the images become more morbid. These films challenge the idea that any piece of art is fixed or finished, refusing to allow simple objectivity to dictate what is or isn’t available to be seen. Found films that reframe the narratives of characters as being inherently queer, for example, challenge the ideas that how a character was originally written is the only way to see them; Cecilia Barriga’s The Meeting of Two Queens (1991) takes footage from assorted Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo films and uses them as a way to tell the story of two queens who fall in love.

This decades-old practice of finding queerness where it might not have originally, explicitly existed is one of the ways in which found footage has strong echoes with how pop culture is consumed and deconstructed in the 21st century, as we watch, critique, discuss, and (re)imagine films in a way that’s becoming increasingly Online. Something like Rose Hobart, or even Meeting of Two Queens can be read as a kind of fan fiction, as if Dietrich and Garbo were in a slash fiction archive, refusing the heterosexual history forced on them by straight films and audiences. Queens highlights some of the classic ways of creating romantic tension – fleeting gesture, a glance that lingers for a moment too long – which are also common tropes in the writing of fanfic. While our exploration of archives has changed – from pilfering silent films and newsreel footage in the mid-20th century, to fans scouring the internet for information, rumour, theories – the ways we respond to and use them remain the same. There’s truth to a YouTube comment on an upload of Rose Hobart: “one could argue [it’s] the first ‘fanvid.’”, and that’s one of the things that highlights the unexpected staying power of this strange sub-genre, as it straddles a fine line between fascination, lust, and the desire for the world and its culture to be made in our own image. “Fanvids,” from Rose Hobart on for almost a century, are rooted in the idea that one specific viewer’s interpretation of what they’ve seen might have more merit than whatever the original creators intended.

The practice has evolved with time and technology; arguably it’s easier than ever to make something found and appropriative with easy access to video editing software, and countless hours of footage at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection. With its wide availability, and the ubiquity of fancams – which get made for everything from K-pop bands and reality TV, to Succession and politicians – it can be easy to ignore the potential and power of found footage cinema. The ubiquity of these small, highly personal edits, can make them seem invisible, just another thing you’ll scroll past on Twitter or Instagram. But in reality they capture the possibility made available by found cinema, and the possibility afforded by the ease of access to the technology needed to make it.

The pieces that might be called the “classics” of the genre understand the relationship between the footage that’s been found, the context with which it was made, and the door this opens for its reinvention. Dara Birnbaum’s Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978) opens with a repetition of Linda Carter spinning around, catching her in the moment before she becomes the titular heroine. It’s this spin that defines the narrative of the piece, from the Diana/Wonder Woman transformation to the way in which it and the accompanying explosion move her through time and space. Carter’s sudden and spontaneous movements in Technology/Transformation are a mirror of Birnbaum’s process of moving sporadically through fragments of the original show; Wonder Woman becomes a symbol not only of femininity, but of being found and (re)used over and over again.  The film focuses heavily on gesture – the spin, the movement of her wrists as she deflects bullets, the repetition of her run as if she were a character from Baywatch – with a musical interlude that reframes the power and agency of Wonder Woman into the context of 1970s music and culture, recutting parts of the theme tune into a lurid disco song. These ideas, in both sound and vision, are a microcosm of what found footage tries to do; it’s what makes the repetition of her movements so powerful, using a visual language to say look, look closer, look again, look at it in a different way.

The history and future of found footage feels like an exercise in the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same. From Joseph Cornell, to fancams on Twitter, to the endless desire to pillage our own, ever-changing archives and histories in order to cast them in a new light, these films feel like a perfect microcosm for how we understand media in the internet age; the age-old obsession with gesture: it dominates Technology/Transformation, Meeting of Two Queens, and other, contemporary found footage films, such as Michael Robinson’s The Dark, Krystle (2013). Robinson makes something strange, and purgatorial, and queer out of the soap opera Dynasty (1981-1989) by zeroing in on the minute, repeated details of characters Alexis and Krystle, showing endless echoes of their closeups, sideways glances, and the way they sip champagne. This constant focus on the minutiae of these two women, keeping them trapped together in a way that’s eternal and obsessive turns their dynamic into something queer. This reframing of iconic characters in their own, strangely intimate world has echoes of The Meeting of Two Queens. Like Barriga’s film, The Dark, Krystle explores the limits, repetitions, and transcendence of simple gestures done countless times. These ideas echo through the fanvids and fanfics that follow in these cinematic footsteps,  showing that this act of finding and remaking something is a gesture in itself, one as old as film itself: the impulse to cut, print, and (re)create.