Forty-five years after they vanished from American theaters, newsreels have remained a distinctly overlooked genre of non-fiction film. Raymond Fielding’s book, American Newsreel, 1911-1967, remains the only dedicated survey of newsreels in the United States. While Luke McKernan has published extensively on newsreels in England, the American newsreel is still awaiting its 21st century close-up.
This paucity may reflect the uneasy position of news media in film and media studies and/or the relative difficulty of accessing this material outside of the UCLA Film & TV Archive and its enormous Hearst Metrotone News Collection, the University of South Carolina’s Fox Movietone News Collection,, and the Library of Congress’ holdings of Fox Movietone News, News of the Day, Paramount News, Universal Newsreel, and German, Italian, and Japanese newsreels.
Newsreels are, of course, becoming increasingly available online, from the archives listed above to the extensive British Pathe and British Movietone sites to the growing availability of selected newsreel segments through the Internet Archive and YouTube. The newsreel segment to the left—chosen to reflect Syria’s prominence in the daily news of March 2012 and half a century ago—is from Universal-International News and streamed from YouTube.
When audiences originally viewed this kind of material in movie houses, though—in first-run cinemas, art houses, or in newsreel theaters—these fragmentary segments were not split up for quick consumption but part of longer newsreel programs typically comprised of both “hard” news and soft focus events such as fashion shows and sports. These now subdivided segments were part of a contextual, narrative flow. While complete newsreels remain intact at archives such as UCLA, this is rarely the case online. These fragments thus provide access to individuated, digital surrogates but not the original experience of viewing these multi-story films. This atomization also reinforces the importance of cataloging and tagging such films, certainly a hit or miss prospect on YouTube where films are rarely given extensive contextual information or even named according to their original titles. Thus, as we venture online looking for film, film history, and filmic representations of history, it is important to appreciate this global access but to be mindful of these material alterations and limitations. The question to be asked is not only what is gained through instant, online access to newsreels but what, in their ongoing segmentation, may have been lost.
Flow, Access, and Context
A very intriguing post, Ross. The fragmentary flow resulting in the viewing of individual clips instead of the entire reel and its relation to access is an area of research that is begging for further exploration. As you rightly point out, seeing only fragments of these reels instead of viewing them in their entirety results in a major loss of context. I am curious as to what other stories were juxtaposed with the one you highlighted. For example, were there any similarities or parallels to other stories currently in the news at the moment? While we get a brief taste of other stories, the sequence is cut off mid-flow. This results in what almost seems like an even more jarring fragmentation effect. Rather than a clean cut between stories, this example alludes to what is specifically lost when these texts are reduced to this form.
Do you know if UCLA or other archives are planning on making an effort at making these materials more readily available in their entirety? With streaming becoming far smoother than it was in the past, it seems entirely possible to create wider access to these materials. And if that is accomplished, should these texts be curated and historically contextualized or presented in their raw form? You've identified a truly interesting area of film history that, as you pointed out, is far under-researched and contextualized. I would be very interested to see more research performed in this area.
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