6 Sep 2010

Research Example: Looking for audiences in the archive

By Lisa Stead, University of Exeter

A question I'm repeatedly asked when presenting research about the writing of early female cinema fans is how such examples can be verified as authentic. In reference to my own research, this problem is fairly specific. In an effort to gain a sense of what silent cinema audiences actually thought and felt about the cinema they consumed, I have frequently plundered the film ephemera archive for literary examples of audience participation. By "ephemeral archive" I refer to that which houses books, prints, artefacts and ephemera relating to cinema history and prehistory, as opposed to archival film prints. Fan magazines form a key part of Exeter's ephemeral archive--the Bill Douglas Centre. Fan letters located in the letter and poetry pages of fan magazines offer one of the few access points to the opinions and creative writing of an audience now some 100 years in the past.

These examples challenge the researcher to prove that such letters were written by actual audience--and not by magazine editors--and further challenge what we consider to be 'literary' in the archive, and what types of archives can be considered 'literary'. The problem of authenticity, moreover, is a much larger one in relation to all archival study.

Since the title of the conference specifically addresses what we consider the boundaries of the literary archive, I'm curious as to whether the film ephemera archive is able to cross over into the literary--and whether the problems of authenticating the plethora of individual voices contained within discount the ephemera archive from 'serious' literary study, distinct as it is from the more traditional format of author's papers or manuscript collections.

Women’s fan writing about silent cinema as it appears in British fan magazines presents one of the most interesting generative aspects of film culture as female cultural practice. Fan letters are an example of women’s involvement in creating film culture as a topic to be written about. British women found a platform to express their interpretation of their nationally specific cinematic encounters within the fan magazine as a new form of extra-textual print ephemera shadowing the growth of cinema culture.

Women's fan magazine writing allows the researcher to explore female fan culture beyond the confines of the exhibition site, reading silent cinema as a phenomenon that reached, influenced and fundamentally was used by women in multiple representational spheres. Published fan letters testify to the personal resonance that filmic encounters held for working and lower-middle class British women in the immediate post-war era. Further than this, they challenge the superficiality of leisure experiences, emphasizing the way in which ephemeral traces of women’s engagement with leisure forms insist upon themselves as historically significant traces of a period of cultural transformation for British women.

But, as I'm frequently asked when presenting fan letters in this way, how do we know whether these letters were really written by female cinemagoers, and not penned by editors? As many who have worked in publishing have testified at such events, it is common practice for women's magazine editors to pad the letters pages with false questions, queries and comments from imaginary readers. In the 1930s, this practice apparently often occurred in fan magazines. Further, since film magazines had strong ties to the film industry financially, it would seem likely that editors may be inclined to invent letters singing the praises of particular stars, studios or recent releases... Yet the sheer variety of fan debate and opinion on display within the silent era fan magazines would seem to suggest otherwise.

So what tactics might we employ in an effort to affirm, to some degree, the likelihood of these letters being authentic? Details of editorial practices for specific magazines at this time are near impossible to unearth.

My own methodological inclination has been to approach the material quantatively, analyzing the subject matter of fan writing and reading this against the types of female stars in particular that the magazine officially promoted. This reveals, for example, a volume of letter writing about particular stars who appear nowhere in the 'official' content of the magazine. Such quantative data might suggest, therefore, that these letters are authentic, since a precedent does not exists for the championing of these individual performers within the magazine as a whole.

The question remains of how much weighting to give such letters as an example of female audiences and audience writing. Are they less important academically than the writings of, say, Virginia Woolf upon cinema in the same era? Is the ephemera archive of less scholastic value than the authorial archive? Are published fan letters good enough evidence of actual audiences from an era now unreachable for any kind of retrospective oral history research?

My own feeling is that such traces of fan writing insist upon themselves, exceeding their status as ephemeral by-products of commercialised consumer leisure culture. Attention to lowbrow literary forms assists in the writing of different kinds of women “back into film history” (Hastie 2006, 229) in a manner which gives voice to the diversity of female film culture in this period, moving away from the big names of literary modernism, like Woolf...

Hastie, Amelie. 'The Miscellany of Film History.' Film History. Vol 18: no. 2 (2006): 222-230.

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