Employing more than two hundred remarkable clips from films produced between 1890 (Thomas Edison, Monkeyshines #1) and 1948 (B. F. Skinner, Project Orcon), Martin Reinhart, along with codirectors Manu Luksch and Thomas Tode, traces a history of connectivity, illustrating the fantasies, hopes, and fears of the first generations to employ the telephone, radio, telegraph, and cinema. Part communications theory, part cinema history, part science fiction, Dreams Rewired deftly explores the benefits and consequences of being plugged in more and more. •Availability: Theatrical premiere New York City, Film Forum, December 16. For local listings in the US and Canada, click here. •Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Where did you find all of that amazing footage, and what criteria did you use in choosing it?
MR: From the very beginning it was clear that we wanted a diverse view on this thing, so we were eager to find material from all over. Our scope included America, Great Britain, a lot of French material, a lot of German material, and a lot of Russian material. For a number of reasons, mainly accessibility, we were not able to get Asian stuff, Japan for example, but we really would have loved to do that. The intent was to have a very multiperspective view on things and not the usual Euro-centric, Western view.
We conducted research for eight years. It was not simple, because there would be one little scene in a whole feature movie, and the name of the movie would not necessarily point to that scene. So we spent a lot of time in archives just talking to people, because the people working there see a lot of things over the years. And once you start to dig, you get deeper and deeper, and you develop a weird seventh sense for where there might be something.
DT: Would you say to the archivist, I’m interested in a shot of someone looking at a TV screen, for example?
MR: We would usually say we were looking for visions about media, how media usage has been imagined in the future, and also film where high-tech media was used. There’s one scene in Dreams Rewired where they’re tapping a telephone; someone just puts a phonograph into the telephone line and makes a recording, and people were thrilled just by the idea that this was possible. This was considered high-tech. The footage also reflected the fears that came with these media. We found some material that has not been shown since it was first released. You could tell from the paperwork that came with these movies that they have actually never been reviewed. We have some hundred hours of footage now as our own archive, and there’s certainly enough for three more films.
DT: You seem to imply that along with the possibilities of the new technology—radio, telegraph, telephone, TV—came fears over the erosion of privacy, increased surveillance, and morality. What was it about the new technologies that inspired that fear?
MR: In terms of morality, this is an aspect of class. Early cinema was a kind of working-class thing. It was one of the very few possibilities for a couple to go to the cinema and sit in the dark and hold hands or kiss or whatever. The movies from this time reflect this. The whole idea of the telephone operator was extremely sexually charged. I don’t know how it was in the English-speaking countries, but in Germany and Austria you had to be unmarried in order to work for the post office, because the idea after the First World War was that a woman should never take away a man’s job. If you were married, it was completely clear that your husband would get the job, so the only way to employ women was when they were not married or the husband was unemployed. What that meant was that whenever you picked up the telephone, you had a young, unmarried woman on the other side, in a kind of very intimate situation. There were regulations forbidding these girls to talk privately with the customers, but there were still a lot of fantasies around that. These women were regarded as amoral, so it was this typical double-bind thinking. In Dreams Rewired we have one scene from a movie called The Stenographer’s Friend (Thomas Edison, 1910) where you see this young typist and her new friend is of course the Edison phonograph, because she can now listen to the boss’s voice while he’s away. But the truth also is that young girls working in an office also had erotic implications that men would have control over them, and technology gave the girls back a certain kind of freedom from this boss-secretary relationship.
In America it was perhaps a little more aggressive in terms of what was shown in cinemas content-wise, but in German-speaking countries, questions about morality came from another side; it was not so much Christian concerns as it was the stability of the state. Until World War I, there was no state control over the content of a movie in Germany. Movies were considered to be something like circus programmes, and it was only with the First World War that they found out that movies had an impact on the masses and could be used for propaganda purposes. That was when the state came up with laws looking at the movies to see if they didn’t destabilize the state. There was a very short time after the First World War in the Weimar Republic when there was a gap in censorship, and this was used to produce what you would today call exploitation movies. Suddenly there were different topics like drug addiction, prostitution, homosexuality, dark and hidden parts of society, which could suddenly be thematized in the movies themselves. This raised some moral questions, and it was regulated in a certain way a few years later, but I don’t think that morality in this concern was such a big point.
DT: Did that unregulated period coincide with German Expressionism?
MR: Yes, that’s it.
DT: In Dreams Rewired, you draw a parallel between all of these new technologies—radio, the telegraph, the telephone, ultimately the Internet. You put cinema in that category, but I disagree with that. I think of cinema in a category with books or dance or painting.
MR: Cinema also had a news function. The newsreels were an integrative part of the cinema experience. If you look at cinema post–World War I, it was almost like a TV program. You had news from somewhere—a bridge burned down, or a king visited India, or whatever—and then there was maybe a short with dancers onstage, and then you had a twenty-five-minute feature film from Italy, then the orchestra was playing, then there was a short sound film with the latest hits.
The cinema you are talking about is actually an invention of the time after the First World War, when the idea of a silent movie came up. The silent movie is more or less an invention that allowed a better way of distribution. The first movie ever made was of course a sound movie, and there was a huge sound movie industry before the First World War. The reason why silent movies became interesting was that it was much easier to distribute them. You just had to change the intertitles, and it was also common to use main characters from different countries, so that you would have an Italian star with a beauty from Denmark so you could sell the movie to all these countries and they would find their favorite actress in it. This was also the time when the narrative cinema you’re talking about, which is more like literature, came forth, but it was actually a rather short episode. Classic silent movies were between 1922 and 1928 or 1930 or something, but the cinema as a medium was completely different before the First World War. So what you’re saying is kind of true but not. Cinema also was a means of communication and a means of gathering and discussing, but in Dreams Rewired we show that the audience had to be taught how to behave in movie theaters. So you’re right if you think about cinema the way it was in the 1920s, but it was really different before the First World War.
DT: When you say the first movie was a sound movie, which one are you referring to?
MR: Edison invented the phonograph and told his assistant to build a machine that did for the eye what the phonograph did for the ear. This was basically how movies were invented. Of course the first thing that Dickson made was a sound movie, because he synchronized the phonograph’s wax cylinder with the glass cylinder with dancing pictures on it. I’m kind of an expert on early sound film history, and it’s strange that this whole part of cinema has been forgotten for so long. Between 1900 and 1913, there were five hundred sound film cinemas in Germany alone. They produced a sound film per week; the main portion was short clips, like video clips today, but there were also forty-minute pieces. The same was true in France. Gaumont had a huge sound film production. In Dreams Rewired you see this wonderful scene where Alice Guy is directing a sound movie.
Part of what we wanted to do was correct this view on media history, which normally says, It started primitive; in the beginning it was black-and-white and without sound. Then came sound movies, and then came color, and then came television. That’s complete nonsense. All of this—sound film, color film, television—was basically invented in the 1890s, but for different media it took different time to become reality for technological reasons, for market reasons, and for patent reasons. Edison never got a foot on the ground in the sound film industry. He tried twice and failed twice, because once he was too early and the second time he was too late. He was unlucky, because the whole production where they had the sound Kinetoscope burned down and basically ruined his business.
DT: In Self-Portrait as an Empty Room, you talked about a sequence in Blow-up, where David Hemmings is obsessing over a photo he took that reveals a murder, but because he didn’t see it, it’s not in his memory. You go on to say that you can’t show someone else your memory. But isn’t showing someone your memory the basis of a lot of great art? Remembrance of Things Past, Cinema Paradiso, even 400 Blows.
MR: My statement came from the more or less fragile character of memory. If you mention 400 Blows, I think that there is a certain way of autobiographical narration that helps yourself cure your soul. A lot of filmmakers go through this catharsis. Maybe it’s not a catharsis, but they go through this process of reenacting their lives, but I would not say that this actually has to do with showing someone your memory. It’s more or less externalizing your own history. Of course part of your history is also your memories, but this is different from what I meant…what I was talking about was this insecurity about what you actually remember and who you are. I’m more referring to movies like The Element of Crime by Lars von Trier, where there’s this uncanny feeling of there being something I should remember, but I don’t, or Blade Runner, where there is a memory implanted in you and the horror of finding out that that’s actually not your memory. There’s a not very popular novel by Agatha Christie, and it’s terrible. A woman rents a new apartment in a house, and she has very terrifying dreams. She dreams of wallpaper. She describes it in every aspect. One day she rips off the white paint on the wall, and there is this wallpaper behind it, and she finds out that this is actually a place where she grew up. Something in her recognized the place, but she was too small to actually have these images in mind. This is what I’m interested in—that memories are not necessarily images. Looking at a photograph of yourself as a kid might even come between yourself and a certain memory because the photograph seems more real. It’s like an overlay, and you can’t see behind it.
DT: In The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, Doidge talks about Erica Michael and Marcel Just doing a brain scan study to test Marshall McLuhan’s theory that the medium is the message. What they found is that different brain areas are involved in hearing speech and reading it, and different comprehension centers are involved in hearing words and reading them. For instance, listening to an audio book leaves a different set of memories than reading does, and a newscast heard on the TV is processed differently from the same words read in a newspaper, basically proving that McLuhan was right—the medium is the message. Given that fact, How do you think that connectivity has changed us?
MR: I believe that constant connectivity and permanent monitoring will have a deep impact on almost every aspect of our lives and certainly change the way we think about ourselves as individuals and a society.
Like with most media technology that has been introduced in the last 150 years, the users are always in an unbalanced position between almightiness and powerlessness at the same time. As long as our smartphone works, we have the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, but as soon as the battery goes flat, we’re thrown back to the insignificance of our own experience and isolation.
At the moment it seems that we are trading our personal freedom against the possibility to consume and communicate as part of the digital crowd. The gaps within this network of “friends” is shrinking to the point where even those who try to avoid leaving digital traces can be spotted.
But in no way do I want to paint the image of an Orwellian future here. What is more likely to happen is the introduction of a two-class system. I’m expecting that soon there will be services which will allow you to communicate in a secure way just because you pay a higher rate. There might also be a clean, informative, and efficient version of the web, with high-class content preselected by clever algorithms and hardworking human editors.
Considering this, the answer to your question is that the complex of communication/tracking/monitoring will somehow become a lifestyle decision for the ones who can afford it and a curse for the have-nots—just like good food. The way we will be able to control which information about ourselves we broadcast and which information we are able to consume will in the end (and once more) be a question of money.
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