I’m trying to suggest that there is another way of navigating this history — through the lens of film stock’s raw ingredients.
DR PANSY DUNCAN
The ‘silver screen’ is now synonymous with the romanticism and perceived glamour of the film industry as a whole. But the phrase had an altogether more utilitarian beginning, describing the actual silver content embedded in the projection screen’s highly reflective surface. Silver screens were excellent for use with the lowpower projector lamps and black and white films of the period in which they were invented.
Dr Pansy Duncan of Massey’s School of English and Media Studies works in the area of film aesthetics, studying the sensational and emotional effects of film and the stylistic and formal strategies that sustain them. Her research shows how the materials used in the production of film — silver, for example — are not simply passive ingredients or technological necessities, but rather come to shape what we see and experience on screen.
She is working on a book, A Natural History of Film Form, which shows how the raw materials of film, including cellulose, silver and gelatin, informed the emergence and evolution of popular Euro-American film aesthetics. It is, in effect, an alternative film history, told via the materials used in film making and their effect on audiences. ‘I’m trying to look askew at a familiar set of narratives about the emergence of cinema’s key aesthetic forms,’ she says of her research for the book.
‘Conventional histories of film aesthetics are stories of individual artists, directors or producers, while in critical theory, evolving aesthetic regimes are driven by industrial, cultural or economic changes. I’m trying to suggest that there is another way of navigating this history — through the lens of film stock’s raw ingredients.’
The image is itself comprised of and shaped by the material that supports it — where the term ‘material’ is understood not just as, say, a technology or a media platform, but as the animal, vegetable and mineral matter that feeds this technology.
DR PANSY DUNCAN
Silver is a key example of where this approach can work. ‘Silver has an aura of magic about it, because it’s embedded in circuits of sentimental social exchange, where you give jewellery and wear it as an ornament,’ Dr Duncan explains. ‘Certainly, at an industrial level, silver is the active ingredient in photographic film stock, one of cinema’s basic material supports, but it also had effects on film form and film culture. On the one hand, its sheer expense drove the emerging film industry’s adherence to the logic of the market while on the other, it was deployed rhetorically in trade journals to help furnish cinema with an aura of magic and mystery. So silver both underpins film’s adherence to commercial mandates and sustains the illusion that it transcends these mandates.’
Dr Duncan is also interested in the environmental aspects of harnessing and using natural materials integral to the film industry, and how these relate to the aesthetic aspect of film — essentially, how it looks and feels. ‘I became interested in work people in media and film studies were doing on media’s embeddedness and effect on the natural environment, and its reliance on natural resources. But I felt they were quite dismissive of media’s aesthetic or visual register, which they tend to dismiss as “eyewash”. My book is trying to show that the image is itself comprised of and shaped by the material that supports it — where the term “material” is understood not just as, say, a technology or a media platform, but as the animal, vegetable and mineral matter that feeds this technology.
‘I’m also situating these raw ingredients in modern industrial capitalism’s instrumentalisation of nature, and laminating each one of them to particular capitalist processes like commodification, production or distribution,’ she says. ‘For example, cellulose, a wood-based plastic which made up film stock’s flexible, transparent support, seems to embody the promise of the modern industrial production line — a promise of infinite plasticity.’
Dr Duncan says her work has implications for how we view human culture and history as a whole, taking a wider view than simply the ‘when and where’ of events. ‘Human culture isn’t driven exclusively by human beings; it’s also shaped by non-human matter.’