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October 13, 2016

You Only Live Once: Production Takes from a Film in the Making + Noël Burch's Correction Please, or How We Got into Pictures

Correction Please

Though known as a major film theorist, Noël Burch has also made a number of incisive films. Two of the best-known are collaborations with Thom Andersen (Red Hollywood, 1996) and Allan Sekula (The Forgotten Space, 2010), but one of Burch’s most remarkable productions, Correction Please, or How We Got into Pictures, has become virtually impossible to see today.

Correction Please is a formally adventurous and rigorously philosophical essay on the nature of early cinema, made under the auspices of the Arts Council of Great Britain in the late 1970s. It emerged in the era of works like Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) and Anthony McCall and Andrew Tyndall’s Argument (1978), two other instances of filmmaking-as-film-theory to which Burch’s otherwise singular project might be compared. The topic of Correction Please is the development of narrative cinematic language from film’s inception to the period of sound—what Burch has dubbed “the gestation of the Institutional Mode”—investigated through a series of tautly structured segments, including ten archival examples of so-called “primitive” films made prior to 1906, animated diagrams explicating these early works, quotations from Maxim Gorky, Christian Metz, and Lillian Gish, and, most dramatically, a series of five staged sequences that recapitulate and analyze emblematic formal properties of five different chapters in cinema’s evolution.

Shot with actors on a stunning Art Deco set, these scenes construct a tale of international intrigue, as a young man delivers a secret message to a mysterious and mesmerizing Countess. “For the record,” Burch explains in a series of notes written to accompany the film’s first screenings, “I should indicate that while true pastiche is never intended, the periods alluded to in the five sequences staged by me are: the mature primitive years (ca. 1905), Griffith’s middle period at Biograph (ca. 1910), the more mature films which Reginald Barker made for Thomas Ince (ca. 1915), Fritz Lang’s Mabuse diptych (1922)—a crucial moment in the elaboration of the visual and symbolic structures of the Cinema Institution—and, finally, the era of ‘canned theatre,’ insofar as it is that of so many films made between 1929 and today.”

Despite its overtly didactic intent, Correction Please resists easy categorization as an educational documentary, presenting its arguments in an elliptical and evocative manner. “This film does not claim to ‘explain’ the evolution of cinema,” Burch writes. “Rather it is an attempt to suggest a few strands of reflection on that development and to favor the growth of a scientifically grounded, non-normative pedagogy. It is hoped that the viewer/user will undertake his or her own reading of the elements presented here, develop his or her own conclusions, perhaps without wishing or needing to engage with all of the various themes proposed.”

Reviewing Correction Please in 1981, Thomas Elsaesser describes how the very title of the work indicates its ambitions. Burch’s film, he writes, “offers an alternative way of looking at the origins of cinema...What matters is ‘how we’ (meaning the spectators, Western culture) ‘got into pictures.’” By doing so, Elsaesser explains, Burch enacts what “might be called, in Michel Foucault’s sense, an archaeology of film viewing,” showing how the technical shifts in the production and even exhibition of cinema created new ways to address spectators and position them as subjects vis-à-vis the narrative and the spaces in which it unfolds. Burch’s ideas, here and elsewhere, proved highly influential on Tom Gunning’s notion of the “cinema of attractions,” but with some important differences. Both Burch and Gunning stress the alterity of early film production, investigating it on the terms of its own peculiarities rather than as a fumbling towards contemporary storytelling, yet Burch is more interested in, as Elsaesser puts it, the “elaborate game of showing and withholding, of tromp l’oeil and impossible points of view, of hidden observers and strange machines. If one cares to look, there is always another pair of eyes, a multiplication of glances, a dispersal of attention across the whole surface of the image—as yet uncoordinated by the eyeline match or the cut on action...it is a game whose potent logic Fritz Lang was perhaps the first director to grasp and fully exploit.”

In 1937, the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Library mounted a gallery exhibition devoted to the production of Lang’s Hollywood crime picture You Only Live Once, which had been released that same year. The show intended to teach museum-goers how movies were made, and one of the earliest “film study” reels produced by the Film Library was probably related to this effort. Entitled You Only Live Once: Production Takes from a Film in the Making, it shows several raw camera takes, then ultimately a completed sequence from the finished work. Seemingly selected for their poetic potential, each uncut shot allows us to see and hear actors, crew, and director preparing for action, then relaxing upon its conclusion. Liberated from their intended purpose, the fragments become almost oneiric. In one particularly fascinating scene, a hand-held fog machine disperses vapors on the set to create an appropriately noir atmosphere, and moments later a figure creeps through the mist, held at gunpoint by Henry Fonda, until the director yells cut. The image is thus transformed from documentary to fiction in the space of a single take, alerting us to the construction of the film while putting us under its spell. Like Correction Please, Production Takes is a reel whose instructional aims belie its rich enigmas. – Thomas Beard and Ed Halter

Co-presented by Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn. Developed and overseen by Thomas Beard and Ed Halter, the project centers upon a series of weekly events, which are frequently organized in collaboration with an invited artist, critic, or curator. Conceptually, Light Industry draws equal inspiration from the long history of alternative art spaces in New York as well its storied tradition of cinematheques and other intrepid film exhibitors. Through a regular program of screenings, performances, and lectures, its goal is to explore new models for the presentation of cinema. Bringing together the worlds of contemporary art, experimental film, and documentary (to name only a few), Light Industry looks to foster an ongoing dialogue among a wide range of artists and audiences.


Introduction by Thomas Beard
Thursday October 13 at 7pm

You Only Live Once: Production Takes from a Film in the Making

US 1937, 16mm, b/w, 10 min

Print courtesy the Museum of Modern Art.

Correction Please, or How We Got into Pictures

Directed by Noël Burch
UK 1979, 16mm, color, 52 min

Print courtesy the New York Public Library.

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