May 31, 2008

a Pathex 9.5 mm fight picture

Upon seeing a copy of Fight Pictures, several people have asked "What's that image on the cover?" Good question. Certainly it is the most obscure illustration of the 50+ I gave the publisher's design team. But they made the right call by putting frames from the Pathex 9.5mm film Boxing Form (1924) on the cover. Talk about an orphan . . .

First, the odd gauge Nine Five has survival and preservation issues that surpass many others. The films came in 20-meter (ca. 65') cartridges or "bobbins," rather than conventional reels. Titles and intertitles were printed on a single frame, which the
Pathe Baby or Pathex projector would hold for viewers to read. Copying such prints without reprinting the flash frame several times leads to a film or video in which every intertitle is on screen just long enough to be detectable. Certainly not long enough to read.

Near the end of my research for
Fight Pictures, I came across an account of a young flapper/journalist/ countess watching the 1927 Dempsey-Tunney fight on a Pathe home movie projector (just a couple weeks after the big fight). Before closing the book on boxing films as theatrical fare, surely I needed to account for the show-at-homes. Was this unusual to see a topical boxing match at home on film in the 1920s? My search lead me to Pathex, the brand name that the French manufacturer Pathe used for its marketing of 9.5mm film in the U.S.

Thanks to archivist Bill O'Farrell's tips and Jerry Wagner's great, I found an early Pathex release in its 1925 catalog entitled Boxing Form. What was it? Listed as E-3 (the 'E' list being sport subjects), the blurb on the item was rather vague in describing the content.

Northeast Historic Film had an unpreserved copy. Kindly, Rob Nanovich made a scan from a strip of the film. Then a second high-resolution scan, for publication in the book.

(Charles Gilbert Collection, Northeast Historic Film).

The film turned out to feature Gene Tunney (not yet champion) and Jim Corbett (star of the 1894 Edison kinetoscope and the first filmed prizefight in 1897). But that's all I could discern from the scan. The book went to press a year ago.

Boxing Form (1924),
with the flash-frame intertitles "stretch printed" using iMovie.

Now, however, NHF has gotten the movielet transferred to video.
Seeing the choppy series of short scenes -- Corbett and Tunney spar, re-create famous punches in boxing history, sometimes in slow-motion; Jack Dempsey trains with lightweights; Tunney trains -- it's clear that this 3-minute novelty was a cut-down of a longer film. The opening credits tell us that it was a Grantland Rice 'Sportlight' film called On Guard. I've discovered nothing about this longer short film, but popular sports writer Rice's syndicated Sportlight newspaper column led to a deal with Pathe Exchange, Inc. to 'brand' a series of sports films. These were widely distributed theatrically in the 20s. And their reduction prints on 9.5mm made it to Pathex catalogs fairly rapidly after the 35mm first release.

Pathe's attempt to market 9.5mm film in the U.S. lasted about a decade after being introduced for Christmas 1922. Few American households adopted it, particularly after Kodak launched its 8mm format in 1932. At most, a few hundred copies of Boxing Form went out to homes with Pathex projectors.

Among those viewers and collectors who still care about boxing, films of celebrated prizefi
ghters are highly sought after. There's not a big wow factor in this little movie, but seeing Messrs. Dempsey, Tunney and Corbett in these obscure settings will pique the fight film fans' interest. I find the super-slo-mo footage matching the 19th-century champion Corbett with the up-and-coming Tunney odd. By choosing to film the men sparring on a New York rooftop in the open air, the 1924 filmmaker (credited as John L. Hawkinson, about whom I've found nothing but a couple of society notices from the 1930s) was replicating the way such things were done in 1895.

Be sure to check out this odd slow-motion sequence referencing the wild Jack Dempsey - Luis Firpo title fight of 1923.

Presumably, Corbett had this moment in mind.

from Chicago Tribune, Sept. 15.

Not quite like the famous George Bellows painting, depicting a later moment in the fight.

Dempsey and Firpo (1924).

In turn, the Bellows image had an interesting afterlife, as described by the Web exhibition American Treasures of the Library of Congress:

On September 14, 1923, boxers Jack Dempsey and Luis Firpo fought at the Polo Grounds in New York. American artist George Bellows captures the moment Firpo sent his opponent over the ropes and into the press box below. The image quickly became an American classic. During Word War II, the U.S. Armed Forces commissioned a photographic facsimile of the print for distribution to soldiers in camps and hospitals.

Bellows has included his self-portrait in the lower left corner of the print.

[The use of the Bellows print as U.S. morale-boosting is interesting, perhaps ironic, because it is the American Dempsey who is getting knocked out of the ring and the Argentinian -- which is not to say protofascist -- Firpo who is displaying might. Or perhaps Uncle Sam was thinking a new generation of American troops would associate Jack Dempsey with the (unfair) tag of slacker/draft-dodger he got right after WWI.]

This news photo seems to indicate that Bellows' perspective, framed 90 degrees away, was a fairly accurate representation.

May 30, 2008

"Orphans of the Cinema" FOUND!

New York detective work from Walking Off the Big Apple answers the question to yesterday's posting.

The WNYC-FM program "Soundcheck" broadcast Keith Carradine's live performance of his song "Orphans of the Cinema," December 11, 2006. Listen to the recording here.

May 28, 2008

"Orphans of the Cinema" [?]

In December 2006, the actor Keith Carradine (Dexter, Deadwood, Will Rogers, Nashville and a hundred others) played a musical gig at Joe's Pub in New York. I did not see the show, but heard him sing live on a WNYC-FM program. He performed a protest song he had written.

Carradine entitled his song "Orphans of the Cinema." I'm not sure why, having not listened closely enough to the lyrics the one time I heard it sung. To date, I've found no indication of it having been published, recorded and discussed -- save for a brief mention in the annual alumni newsletter of the Ojai Valley School in California. "Alumni Profile: Keith Carradine (U67)," Family Tree (2007): 10-11.

There at least we have the first verse of this multi-versed song, about which I'd like to know more.

Deep into the witching hour
The glitter city sleeps;
The orphans of the cinema
Are wandering the streets,
Sunken eyes beseeching,
A withered hand is reaching
For the traces of humanity that linger.

There's no orphan film related to any of this (so far as we know), but I am curious about the metaphor as imagined by this film actor/singer/songwriter from a notable Hollywood family. Brother David Carradine famously played an orphan, Kwai Chang Caine, in the TV series Kung Fu -- and Keith played the teenage "Grasshopper" Caine in flashback sequences. But that's hardly an explanation.

May 26, 2008

p.s.: Design from the Heider film?

The floor at Clark Street / Brooklyn Heights Station, (first subway stop in Brooklyn when leaving Manhattan on a west side train, e.g., the 2 or the 3 train).

Photo by

May 24, 2008

∆ • More Perceptions of Heiderfilme • ∆

Today a pleasantly lengthy conversation with educational historian Craig Kridel, about uses of film in American education, led to another connection within the Heider & Heider films discussed in my previous two posts.

Jerome Bruner discusses the Fritz Heider animated film in his book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (1986) – one of more than 25 Bruner books, by the way. In the mid- and late 1960s, Jerome S. Bruner was a key architect of a landmark project in the history of modern American education, the federally-funded “Man: A Course of Study” (MACOS). He, as Director of Harvard’s Center for Cognitive Studies, collaborated with Harvard anthropologist Irven DeVore and filmmaker-ethnographer Asen Balicki to create a year-long curriculum for school children. Considered highly innovative and effective, MACOS integrated film into its work, using Balicki’s series of films documenting a Netsilik Inuit community. Enter Karl Gustav Heider, Harvard PhD ’66, who was commissioned to make an ethnographic film series for another chapter in MACOS. He returned to Indonesia to shoot film stemming from his lengthy field work on the Grand Valley Dani. By the time he got back to the U.S., conservative politicos had pulled the plug on MACOS funding. Too much cultural relativism and Godless perspective on Man as Animal for cold-war kids, it seems.

An excellent introduction to the fortunes of “Man A Course of Study,” I hear, is the National Film Board of Canada’s documentary Through These Eyes (2004). I want to see this and the actual MACOS materials, as well as their derivative educational and ethnographic films. The project’s impact, as written about in the literature of anthropology and education, was considerable, but documentary film historiography has had little say about MACOS.

Meanwhile, both Bruner and Heider carry on. Karl, as we know, continues to write and participate in his field, even as he very recently retired as Carolina Distinguished Professor at the (original) USC. Jerry (as I’ve heard he is called) Bruner, Harvard PhD ’41, is a Senior Research Fellow and Research Professor of Psychology at the NYU School of Law.

Be further humbled by perusing this list.

Books by Jerome S. Bruner
In Search of Pedagogy (2006)
Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life (2002)
Minding the Law (with Anthony Amsterdam, 2000)
The Culture of Education (1996)
Acts of Meaning (1990)
Interaction in Human Development (with Marc Bornstein, 1989)
Making Sense: The Child’s Construction of the World (with Helen Haste, 1987)
Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (1986)
A Study of Thinking (1986)
Child's Talk: Learning to Use Language (1983)
In Search of Mind: Essays in Autobiography (1983)
Under Five in Britain (1980)
On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (1979)
Human Growth and Development (with Alison Garton, 1978)
The Process of Education (1977)
Play: Its Role in Development and Evolution (with Jolly & Sylva, 1976)
Patterns of Growth (1974)
Beyond the Information Given: Studies in the Psychology of Knowing (1973)
The Relevance of Education (1971)
Toward a Theory of Instruction (1968)
Processes of Cognitive Growth: Infancy (1968)
Studies in Cognitive Growth (with others, 1966)
Man; A Course of Study (1965)
A Study of Thinking (with Jacqueline Goodnow & George Austin, 1956)
Perception and Personality (with David Krech, 1950)
Mandate from the People (1944)
Public Thinking on Post-war Problems (1943)

May 20, 2008

∆ • Perceptions of the Heider-Simmel Film • ∆

Here's a follow-up to the Karl Heider event of May 1st, and my digression about his father Fritz Heider (1896-1989), a prominent psychologist who once created a little film of a big idea. As Laura Kissel reported in her comment (below), a 16mm print of the untitled work now sits on her desk in Columbia. (I guess the print is being retired, as it is now 65 years old.) And there's a good backstory, as well as a telling tale of the unexpected ways in which orphan films can serve noble ends.

In 1944, professors of psychology Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel published an article: "An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior,"
American Journal of Psychology 57.2 (April 1944): 243-59. There they describe how the piece was made:

The film, one frame of which is shown in Fig. 1, was produced by a trick-film method. The geometrical figures were cut from cardboard and placed on a horizontal translucent-glass plate illuminated from above. A mirror below the plate threw the image into the camera. After each exposure the figures which were to be shown in motion were moved a short distance, then another exposure was made, and so on. (p. 245)
The study is now widely cited as a classic experiment in cognitive psychology. It's even made its mark on media studies. One scholar uses it when addressing how viewers cognitively make sense of edited film sequences. Are these abilities cultivated as we are "thoroughly schooled in the grammar of cinema"? Or "are they endemic to our way of perceiving the world?" asks J. Yellowlees Douglas. In "Gaps, Maps and Perception" she describes how Heider and his student Marianne Simmel "projected an animated film featuring a small moving triangle, a small moving circle, a large moving square, and an empty rectangle to viewing subjects who unanimously described their movements in animate, causal, or intentional terms." ["Gaps, Maps and Perception: What Hypertext Readers (Don't) Do," Perforations 3, 2.3 (199?), citing Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (Harvard U Press, 1985), 18.]

More specifically, in 1943, Heider and Simmel projected the film (a silent, 16mm, b/w animation) for 114 undergraduate women at Smith College. The students were divided into three groups, each of which saw the film twice.

The first group was told simply "Write down what happened in the picture."

The second "was instructed to interpret the movements of the figures as actions of persons." After the screening, the viewers wrote answers to ten questions. Nine followed the example of the first: "What kind of a person is the big triangle?" (Answers included aggressive, warlike, irritable, dumb, stupid, ugly, shy, sly and quick to take offense.) The final item on the questionnaire was quite cinematic: "Tell the story of the movie in a few sentences[!]." Said movie lasted only 2 1/2 minutes, by the way. Tough to write coverage for that.

"In the third experiment," H&S reported, "the same picture was shown in reverse." So 44 of the women saw the film projected backwards! Presumably without being told that the projector was running in reverse. More on this in a moment.

While Laura Kissel and Karl Heider have located a 16mm print, she points out that digitized versions of it appear on the web now. Yale visual anthropologist Karen Nakamura showed a digitized version during her May 1st tribute to Karl's work. The animation still does its work, and on viewers other than college sophomores. Or so the reactions to Karen's screening seem to indicate.

On the oracular YouTube, it's tagged "Social Illusion" by 18-year-old uploader and college student TressaJT. In 2007, she added a soundtrack of her roommate narrating the action while watching the movie for the first time. Smart. Tressa's summary of the experiment reads:

This film by researchers Heider & Simmel (1944) simply portrays geometric objects moving around a 2D plane, but people will usually describe the film in anthropomorphic terms, i.e., as as [sic] the social interactions of three human-like characters who posses [sic] personalities, emotions, and intentions.
A more "advanced" application of the film appears on [!]. Educators at Carnegie Mellon University created this as a user-friendly site to teach concepts in psychology. It's both surprising and gratifying that the project "re-purposing" this orphan film is funded by National Science Foundation grants for "Cognitive and Social Design of Assistive Robots" and other research in human-robot interaction.

Sara Kiesler, a professor of computer science and the site's author, constructs a lesson asking "Under what conditions do we attribute humanlikeness to nonhumans?" Part of her answer is "Social Context Cues." Here is Kiesler's description of the movie.

Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel made a silent animation on motion-picture film (1944) in which two triangles and a circle move against and around each other and a diagram of a house. Virtually all people (except for autistic kids) make up a social plot in which the big triangle is seen as an aggressor. Speed or slow the animation, or run it backward, and the illusion of humanlikeness disappears.

Curiously, her last sentence misstates the findings of the 1944 experiment. Heider and Simmel reported that "all but two" viewers of the reversed projection "interpreted the movements as human actions." Kiesler's references to things not in the original study -- autistic kids, speeding or slowing the film -- suggest that she might be conflating later studies with the one for which our dear film was made. This glitch aside, Kiesler's lessons in anthropomorphism are quite useful and very clearly laid out. The elemental movie works well in this webspace.

One mystery remains about the film vs. the streaming video. On both of the above websites, the video's duration is 75 seconds. That indicates 45 feet of 16mm film transferred at 24 frames per second. If slowed to 18fps (common on classroom projectors) it would still last only 100 seconds, according to Kodak's handy film calculator. But the 1944 publication says the film ran "about 2
1/2 min."

Either (a) Heider and Simmel meant that their movie lasted a total of 2
1/2 minutes when run twice, or (b) some original footage is missing from what we see on the web. The former seems more likely. Perhaps we will learn more when Documentary Educational Resources (which distributes Karl Heider's ethnographic films) transfers the 16mm print arriving from Columbia.

For those who can't wait, there are "remakes" (in color) available on the web. Here's a Flash animation
replicating the form of the original film. The UCLA Communication Studies department created this for Cogweb, an online research tool for "the study of human cognition" in "communication and the arts."

For further information about this long-lived film and its creator/s one can consult Fritz Heider,
The Life of a Psychologist: An Autobiography (U of Kansas Press, 1983) and Fritz Heider: The Notebooks 6 vols., ed. Marijana Benesh-Weiner (Spring-Verlag, 1989).

Other versions:

Der Film zu einem Experiment von Heider

Zeichentrickfilm (2min, 21 sec.) [I thought this might be the uncut original at 2 1/2 minutes, but the 2:21 label is not accurate. This version runs only 47 seconds.]

∆ Another derivative remake is this QuickTime by Emre Yilmaz, posted on Prof. Michael J. Black's Brown University site.

∆ Same as above, but with Swedish commentary.

∆ In 1993, one study showed children (3 to 5 years old) four videos. One was the original Heider and Simmel film, the other three were reworkings of it, "altered with a digital special-effects generator." Diane S. Berry and Ken Springer, "Structure, Motion, and Preschoolers' Perceptions of Social Causality," Ecological Psychology 5.4 (1993): 273-78.

∆ Elisabetta Zibetti, Elizabeth Hamilton and Charles Tijus, "Contextual Categorization in Interpreting Perceived Events as Actions," Cognitive Science (under revision). Their abstract reads in part:

The goal of the first experiment was to collect the shortest segments, called 'primitives,' from participants viewing Heider and Simmel's 1944 animated film. Participants were asked to segment the film [David Bordwell's cognitive film studies influence? Emphasis added.] and to describe the action segments. In the second, we modified the physical characteristics of the geometric figures in the film and collected verbalizations for the primitive segments that were either scrambled, in the original-order, or embedded in the full-length film. The results show that . . . participants construct very different stories about objects when these are made to vary only in shape and size.

Here Mr./Ms. Square, Circle and Triangle show up in a 1996 text book.

Vicki Bruce, Patrick R. Green and Mark A. Georgeson, Visual Perception: Physiology, Psychology and Ecology 3rd ed. (Psychology Press, 1996), 318.

Ashley Buia, Narreh Ghazarian, Annie Kimbell, Amanda Vinsant and David Yoselevsky," Attribution & Emotional Intelligence: Intrepretations of the Heider-Simmel Film" (2006).
Below: Their poster summarizing an experiment with a short version the Heider film, conducted by 5 students at Clark University (under Prof. James D. Laird). They showed a one-minute version of the video (at both 'fast' and 'slow' speeds) to 39 undergraduates.