Berkeley Film & Media Seminar

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Oliver Gaycken – “A Cinema of Living Facts”

Fri, Mar 10, 2017, 1:00 am to 3:00 am

142 Dwinelle Hall

A Cinema of Living Facts: The Encyclopaedia Cinematographica’s Archives of Movement

A signature achievement of the Institut für den Wissenschaftlichen Film (IWF) was its Encyclopaedia Cinematographica (EC) project, which was active from 1952 until the early 1990s. Divided into three section dedicated to biology, ethnology, and the technical sciences, the EC was conceived as a comprehensive archive of movement whose core principle was to reduce complex phenomena into basic “movement events” (Bewegungsvorgänge). This reduction allowed both for the creation of records that trammeled film’s tendency to contain too much information as well as a systematic organizational grid that made it possible to compare similar processes (e.g. modes of bipedal locomotion, fertility rituals, methods of sifting fine-grain materials, etc.).

This talk will provide an overview of the EC, which by the end of the twentieth century contained over 2000 films. These films represent a strategic departure from the documentary tradition. As Gotthard Wolf, the project’s founding editor, explained, the EC’s filmmaking practices were “documentational” not “documentary.” The EC’s films thus lie on the fringes of more established cinematic modes (wildlife filmmaking, visual anthropology, industrial films), staking out a territory for a documentary cinema that was envisioned early on, as part of what Paula Amad terms “cinema’s inventorial applications,” which however has never really come to be.

The talk will outline both the EC remarkable achievements as well as its curious failure. In other words, the EC was an ambitious, international effort that received significant support, not only in West Germany but also from its partners, including the National Science Foundation in the US. It thus stands as a significant, if neglected, part of cinema history. And yet, its obscurity indicates a failure that is itself part of a longer story of the recurring inability to create a cinematic version of the textual encyclopedia.

As a coda, the talk will turn to one area where the EC has had a notable afterlife, namely, as a source for experimental filmmakers. As André Bazin noted in his appreciation of the science film’s inevitable aesthetic surplus, “For this is the miracle of the science film, its inexhaustible paradox. At the far extreme of inquisitive, utilitarian research, in the most absolute proscription of aesthetic intentions, cinematic beauty develops as an additional, supernatural gift.” The EC biology films provide exemplary instances of this paradoxical aesthetic surplus, which is particularly notable in the work of Gustav Deutsch.

This BFMS lecture is cosponsored by the departments of English and German.