One of the most wonderful things about working and being in an academic environment, writes Robert Porter, is the continual possibility of a conversation, encounter, engagement or exchange that leaves you slightly out of your depth, where the mind begins to race, but you are not quite sure about where it is racing to and why. For me, this rather exciting and giddy feeling tends to be most obviously pronounced when I’m trying to get my head around a subject or material that is unfamiliar in some way, something that is at the hinterland of my received notions or preoccupations, something that monkeys around with my brain, but in a way that is resonant, thought-provoking and enduring.
These were the feelings and sensations I had when I recently attended a fantastic talk by my colleague and friend Ciara Chambers at The Irish Film Institute. Drawing on her comprehensively researched and brilliantly written new book, Ireland in the Newsreels, Ciara spent an hour giving the rather large and diverse public audience huddled into Cinema 3 of the IFI a real keen sense of some of what she has been researching and writing about over the last few years. Judging by the number of different questions she was asked, and by the numbers of books sold at the end of the talk, I’d say it would be fairly safe to assume that Ciara’s perceptive, clear and accessible remarks and arguments resonated across and through the audience in a whole host of ways.
One of the really interesting things to emerge for me as the talk progressed (and this is something that has been further reinforced as I have started digging into and reading Ireland in the Newsreels) was Ciara’s concern to think about newsreels as a genre and/or particular form, and to show how that form has continued to implicate itself in the visual grammar of more contemporary media, aesthetic or cultural forms that followed from and after it.
For example, Ciara spoke about Norman Whitten’s The Agony of Belfast and what her analysis of this early 1920s film shows is that it establishes a number of persistent and resonant visual tropes that are all too familiar to a late twentieth and early twenty-first century audience. Deprived children playing in the rubble, the rather staged way the subjects in the film address and are addressed by the camera, the juxtaposition of sectarianism or, more generally, the nastiness of political antagonism (for instance, shots of implied displacement and eviction, political murals) with innocence expressed as a desire for normalcy (say, shots of children playing, the city as a shared space). These things resonate with us because we have seen them played out time and again in television news, documentary, fiction films, photography, even painting, sculpture and built form.
Until recently the significance of newsreels was very much lost on me as I tended to think of them as rather funny, quirky, even other-worldly, evocations of a past that remained not just distant, but abstract and unconnected to the here and now (let’s call this the Harry Enfield approach). But Ciara has put me right on that, and she did so without making me feel like I was too much of an idiot. Only very smart, intellectually generous and thoroughly engaging scholars are capable of that. Ciara, I salute you!