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Amateur Cinema

Amateur Cinema: The Rise of North American Moviemaking, 1923-1960

Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    Amateur Cinema
    Book Description:

    From the very beginning of cinema, there have been amateur filmmakers at work. It wasn't until Kodak introduced 16mm film in 1923, however, that amateur moviemaking became a widespread reality, and by the 1950s, over a million Americans had amateur movie cameras. InAmateur Cinema,Charles Tepperman explores the meaning of the "amateur" in film history and modern visual culture.In the middle decades of the twentieth century-the period that saw Hollywood's rise to dominance in the global film industry-a movement of amateur filmmakers created an alternative world of small-scale movie production and circulation. Organized amateur moviemaking was a significant phenomenon that gave rise to dozens of clubs and thousands of participants producing experimental, nonfiction, or short-subject narratives. Rooted in an examination of surviving films, this book traces the contexts of "advanced" amateur cinema and articulates the broad aesthetic and stylistic tendencies of amateur films.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95955-2
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    This book explores the meaning of the ʺamateurʺ in film history and modern visual culture. In the middle decades of the twentieth century—the period that saw Hollywoodʹs rise to dominance in the global film industry—a movement of amateur moviemakers created an alternative world of small-scale movie production and circulation. For Stan Brakhage, whose stature as a giant of American avant-garde filmmaking was already established when he made these remarks, identifying with the ʺamateurʺ might be seen as a way of describing his workʹs aesthetic incompatibility with commercial practices. For earlier amateur filmmakers, however, the ʺvalueʺ and ʺmeaningʺ of...


    • 1 Ciné-Prophecy: The Emergence of Amateur Cinema (1892–1927)
      (pp. 17-43)

      Mag the Hag, a playful send-up of the social-melodrama movie, is one of the oldest surviving amateur films. Produced in 1925 and featuring a group of boarding-school girls in Connecticut, this ʺdripping melodramaʺ recounts the tale of Percy Proudfoot, ʺthe aimless scion of a wealthy city family, [who] finds happiness in the pure love of a simple country girl, much to the chagrin of his aristocratic sister.ʺ Although typical of later amateur films, which borrowed elements from commercial cinema and blended them with clever tricks and rough technique,Mag the Hagis fascinating in its own right. In the film...

    • 2 Ciné-Community: The First Wave of Amateur Film Culture (1928–1945)
      (pp. 44-78)

      The 1930s were the heyday of amateur film culture. This was the heroic period of amateur filmmaking, when ʺthe amateurʺ could be an artist, an aficionado, a documentarian, an educator, or simply a hobbyist making carefully crafted films about his or her own family. As the epigram for this chapter indicates, by the 1930s amateur cinema had become a widespread and popular activity. Building on the foundations established by the Amateur Cinema League, amateur film culture expanded rapidly and continued to advance claims to its social and aesthetic significance. But just as the initial image of the amateur filmmaker that...

    • 3 Ciné-Engagement: Amateurs and Current Events
      (pp. 79-97)

      As the opening epigraph suggests, there is something unlikely about linking amateur moviemaking to social values and, by extension, to the current events that challenge such values.² Despite this assumption, amateur film culture was responsive to major current events, such as the Great Depression and World War II in specific ways, offering predominantly middle-class, home-front views of these events. These were also events that shaped (and then reshaped) the discourse around amateur moviemaking. This was especially the case for World War II, as an amateur network that had grown increasingly international during the 1930s quickly felt the onset of this...

    • 4 Ciné-Technology: Machine Art for a Machine Age
      (pp. 98-132)

      From the electric lights, telephones, and automobiles that transformed experiences of time and space to the factories, typewriters, and automats that gave everyday life newly mechanized dimensions, people in the twentieth century had increasingly frequent and pervasive encounters with machines. Under these conditions, the emergence of devices like amateur movie cameras, which provided a newly mechanized means of individual expression, is not surprising. How better than making movies to renegotiate oneʹs relationship to machines, to adapt their manipulation of time and space to individual ends, and to assert oneʹs agency and experimental knowledge over the constantly expanding terrain of new...

    • 5 Ciné-Sincerity: Postwar Amateur Film Culture (1945–1960)
      (pp. 133-166)

      Between the end of World War II and 1960 amateurs continued to produce striking films, witnessing a growth, if anything, in the popularity of their hobby. But even as writers inMovie Makersnoted with pride both the success of ʺthe general filmʺ—referring to the nascent industry of professional 16mm educational, industrial, and documentary production—and the growing market for home movie equipment, amateur discourse struggled to locate the amateurʹs position in what was no longer a new and wide-open field of small-gauge film production. What had seemed in the 1930s to be an amateur ʺmovement,ʺ spurred by utopian...


    • 6 “Communicating a New Form of Knowledge”: Amateur Chronicles of Family, Community, and Travel
      (pp. 169-192)

      In 1933,Movie Makersorganized the Why I Film contest, which challenged its readers to submit letters explaining why they made amateur films. The winning letter came from Arthur Ewald of Cincinnati, who writes, ʺI make amateur movies because, engaged in the business of life, I have yet—who has not—learned some of its beauties but none of that art which transmutes their evanescence into tangible and communicable forms.ʺ With the movie camera, Ewald continues, ʺit is now within my power to preserve for memory the tangible forms of beauty, and I may relive at will those responses I...

    • 7 “The Amateur Takes Leadership”: Amateur Film, Experimentation, and the Aesthetic Vanguard
      (pp. 193-216)

      In 1928,Photoplaymagazine held the first major amateur movie contest in North America. Writing inMovie Makers, ACL managing director Roy Winton pointed to the contest winnerʹs films as evidence of the importance of amateur work in the development of ʺcinematics,ʺ or a unique film aesthetic: ʺThis is a direct appeal to League members to undertake filming that will be artistically significant. ThePhotoplaycontest films point the way to a very rich development. We, as League members, must be the leaders in it.ʺ¹ The next year,Photoplayheld a second competition that resulted in a surprisingly noncommercial prizewinner:...

    • 8 Mechanical Craftsmanship: Amateurs Making Practical Films
      (pp. 217-240)

      Though written over two decades after Bliss Perryʹs essay ʺThe Amateur Spirit,ʺ Randallʹs remarks suggest that in 1929 critics, artists, and philosophers were still struggling with the question of how to balance the ʺdeeper life of feelingʺ with a modern industrial world. Though Randall, like many thinkers of the moment, believed that industrial design was one place where modern craftsmanship might be found, scholars since the 1930s have also identified motion pictures as a quintessential locus for such a joining together of modern technology, culture, and ʺcreative insight.ʺ But while film scholarship has tended to see moviegoing as an experience...

    • 9 Photoplaying Themselves: Amateur Fiction Films
      (pp. 241-270)

      King Vidorʹs silent filmThe Crowd(1928) presents a cautionary tale for those who wish to rise above the ranks of mass society. At the center of this film is Johnny, both a member of the crowd and someone who aspires to be different. Johnnyʹs ambition, as well as the price he pays for it, is vividly depicted in the film with his participation in an advertising slogan contest. After searching for years for a way to express his unique talents, Johnny is finally rewarded when he wins the contest with a slogan for Sleight of Hand soap. At the...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 271-276)

    This book has presented some of the range and richness of North American amateur movie culture between 1923 and 1960, suggesting a history of amateur motion pictures that was a complex and varied alternative to the history of commercial motion pictures. Amateur filmmaking was engaged in a practical negotiation of personal creativity, everyday life, and modern technology, and it produced a combination of responses to art, mass culture, and motion pictures. It also occupied a middle ground between participation in the crowd of mass-media audiences and more individual or local experiences. Amateurs also developed a vernacular visual language, putting everyday...

  9. APPENDIX 1. Amateur Filmography
    (pp. 277-284)
  10. APPENDIX 2. A Preliminary Directory of Movie Clubs (by location)
    (pp. 285-292)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 293-338)
  12. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 339-348)
  13. Index
    (pp. 349-364)