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Fire in the Studio! Crisis and Failure in the Motion Picture Industry

Fire in the Studio! Crisis and Failure in the Motion Picture Industry
1 Devonshire Place, Munk School of Global Affairs, Room 208N
Time: Mar 10th, 4:15 pm End: Mar 10th, 6:00 pm
Interest Categories: United States Studies, History (FAS), Historical Studies (UTM), Historical and Cultural Studies (UTSC), Cinema, Arts, Culture and Media (UTSC), Art (FAS), Architecture, Landscape, Design, 2000-
Talk by Brian R. Jacobson, University of Toronto

The Centre for the Study of the United States, the Cinema Studies Institute and Innis College present

Fire in the Studio! Crisis and Failure in the Motion Picture Industry

On the morning of December 10, 1929, a fire broke out during a Pathé film production at the Manhattan Studios at 134th Street and Park Avenue, New York. The blaze destroyed the studio, taking the lives of ten employees and performers and leaving more than 20 others injured. Although extreme, it was not unusual. During American cinema's silent period and into the early days of sound, studio fires plagued the industry and its employees. While we tend to be more familiar with the public outcry caused by theater fires dating to cinema's earliest days-epitomized by the Bazar de la charité fire in Paris in 1897-studio fires may have quietly kept pace with their theatrical counterparts. Like fires in film theatres, studio fires were especially risky because of celluloid's flammability, and they were potentially even more extreme because of the sheer quantities of film at hand. Drawing upon architectural history and the history of technology, this presentation uses the 1929 Pathé fire to explore the dangers introduced during the transition to sound cinema in the 1920s. It argues for a historiographical shift away from narratives that emphasize technological progress and aesthetic innovation; in their place, it offers a history of failure and disaster. During the sound transition, film studio designers developed an increasing capacity to master environmental conditions by simulating natural phenomena like sunlight, but that mastery also came with undesirable byproducts, including heat, sparks, and flammability that increased the risk of studio conflagrations. Using a mix of what Rick Altman describes as "crisis historiography" and Paul Virilio terms "techno-analysis," this presentation thus calls for greater attention to the ecological, labor, and gender politics of American cinema's technological progress and its inevitable and uncontainable failures.

Brian R. Jacobson is Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies and History at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Studios Before the System: Architecture, Technology, and the Emergence of Cinematic Space (Columbia University Press, 2015), and articles in Screen (forthcoming), Framework (forthcoming), Film History, History and Technology, Early Popular Visual Culture, Amodern, Media Fields Journal, and anthologies including New Silent Cinema (Routledge, 2015), and The Aesthetics of Home Movies and Amateur Film (forthcoming, Indiana University Press).

This event is free and open to all. Register online. For further information, please contact Stella Kyriakakis at 416-946-8972


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