As you walk up the stairway at the Museum of the Moving Image, you’re greeted with a screen. On the left side is a black-and-white, silent, documentary image of young women dancing outdoors; on the right side is a tinted, silent, documentary image of a woman alone, twirling her dress. Perhaps curious, you approach, sit on a bench, and put on a pair of available headphones. The film on the right, Thomas A. Edison’s Annabelle Serpentine Dance, from 1894, you might recognize by face, if not by name. But playing on the left is a lesser-known work that holds equal entertainment and documentary value: the Bell Telephone Company of Canada’s 1920 film How Business Girls Keep Well.
Film canons and best-of lists are consistently built on a fiction, which is that the people building them have actually seen every movie ever made and can select the best accordingly. But a quick look at a list like the British magazine Sight & Sound’s recently released poll among more than 800 critics for the top 50 films of all time, which consists almost entirely of feature-length fiction works from the United States, Japan, Russia, and a few Western European countries, suggests this isn’t the case. The States alone have produced more than 500,000 “ephemeral films” (a term coined by American archivist Rick Prelinger, who also gave the statistic), short works created to advertise, promote, educate, and even entertain, and made both by corporations and by private individuals.
Caroline Martel’s video installation Industry/Cinema, which opened at the museum in May and whose run was recently extended until October 28, places ephemeral films alongside more familiar ones. Visitors can follow up to seven short juxtapositions of film images, and select which side to listen to by pressing a button on a pair of headphones. Charlie Chaplin works an assembly line while Chicago factory workers labor; HAL 2000 speaks in dialogue with phone-company promo films like those Stanley Kubrick and collaborators studied in order to construct the computer; an announcer tells listeners that telecommunications is transporting them into the future, while a young Jeff Bridges transforms digitally within the electronic world of 1982’s TRON. The overlapping sounds and images show and tell how much the two sets of movies have fed off of each other.
The bulk of the installation’s left-side films have come from telecommunications companies, which the Montréal-born Martel studied while making 2004’s The Phantom of the Operator, her found-footage film about the history of the industry as told through its vanishing female operators. Many operators, like those glimpsed in the installation’s opening, only exist now in the molds their companies made for them. I spoke to Martel on Skype in April as part of research for a previously published Moving Image Source piece. We discussed these women’s stories, as well as how they have led to her stories and her efforts to give space for her audiences to form their own.
How did you get the idea for the installation Industry/Cinema?
It was inspired by the feedback and questions I got from audiences following the many screenings of The Phantom of the Operator around the world. I like this claim that the idea for a work would come from the people. I’m attached to this notion probably all the more because, as an independent documentary filmmaker who has to flirt with the industry, I often hear this discourse that we have to “give the audiences what they want.” The film I just finished, about the early electronic musical instrument the Ondes Martenot, is about a subject that is nearly impossible to fund from broadcasters’ standpoint. But the incentive to make it also came from Q&As, by popular demand, when spectators were begging to understand this music that was part of the Phantom soundtrack.
So to go back to Industry/Cinema, it was audience questions that made me feel like there was something to explore. Many were expressing the feeling that they had already seen some images included in Phantom...They wondered, had I put in excerpts from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Fahrenheit 451? I felt like there was a popular sense of recognition that I should take the chance to verify. I felt like, “What if I look back at my huge collection of 200 telecommunications films and see how it cross-references the films we know?” Whether fiction or important documentaries like Berlin, Symphony of a City.
I have to confess I had never seen Modern Times until three years ago, but when I saw it, I thought, “Wow, Chaplin really copied the wheels in the Western Electric films!” I also saw the restored print of 2001 with my editor while we were finishing Phantom of the Operator, and we were like, “My God, he took so much from all the Bell Labs films!” It was obvious that it was not only industrial films that had copied all those famous films, like advertisements are doing now, but it was also the other way around.
In this installation I focus on industrial films, but as we know, there are educational films, recruitment films, and all these other kinds of ephemeral and/or orphan film genres. They’ve been in the shadow of film history, so the intention of the installation was to bring them out. Are you familiar with Rick Prelinger’s foundational ideas on ephemeral films, and the fact that these films are “in the darker side of the American dreams?”—as he writes on the Our Secret Century CD-ROM series cover? A background idea to Industry/Cinema is that these films are in the shadow of film and media history, in our collective unconscious, ready to be revealed.
Some filmic styles and even specific shots were constantly being repeated in the industrial and traditionally canonized moving images I examined: close-up shots of wheels turning, of horizontal curtains opening, of passersby seen through windows, of traveling shots in computer-generated images of networks. So it made me feel like these images could be seen as iconic. In that sense, you could say Industry/Cinema takes a semiotic approach, bringing out these recurring visual themes, that almost became clichés. But it was also important for me not to force the resonances between the two image regimes. There’s a documentary approach that I care about, which is simply to reveal what was already in the films.
Sponsored filmmaking is a practice that’s important to understand in order to understand moviemaking in a larger picture. For instance, it allowed filmmakers to finance their more personal films while learning their trade. From this perspective, this practice has contributed to the economies of 20th-century filmmaking in a particular way. But it’s also a fascinating body of work unto itself and has a lot of documentary value. It’s really entertaining, and often extremely beautiful.
Do you remember the first time you saw an industrial film?
In terms of ephemeral films in general, it goes back to high school, when our chemistry teacher would suddenly decide we could afford a break from the curriculum. He would pull out his 16mm projector and show us some 1970s-to-1980s Hydro-Québec films about how the North got developed with some major hydroelectric projects. Somehow we never questioned why he would do so. We just enjoyed.
If you talk of industrial films truly made for industry, it was when I started looking for moving images of telephone operators at the Bell Canada historical center in Montréal. When I think of it, it’s likely that the first one I saw was Nell Cox’s Operator!, a sexy recruitment film she shot with Ricky Leacock for AT&T.
How did you start working with industrial films?
I started The Phantom of the Operator project in the final year of my B.A. in Communication Studies at Concordia University, when I wanted to make a film on the history of telephone operators. I did a lot of background research, including interviews with retired operators and current union leaders at Bell Canada. But it was impossible to find moving images of real operators. So Phantom gradually became a film about how the real workers have been invisible, and how their images have instead been constructed through films that were produced by the companies. As I like to say, the final film is maybe the 10th “operation system” of the initial idea I had.
To the extent of your knowledge, are the people appearing in the industrial films as themselves, or are they professional actors playing these roles?
It depends on each film. In the 1910s, for instance, real operators were depicted more or less naturally. I don’t remember having seen any documentary images of solo local switchboard operators, but more ranks of operators from the city, looking like an impressive assembly line of workers in Victorian dresses. I think that the representation of operators using professional actresses really came with talking cinema. I’d say that the companies used models and actresses from the 1940s to the beginning of the 1960s.
But there are exceptions. There’s a film that is excerpted in The Phantom of the Operator with an operator who gleefully says “Your voice is…you!”—that plays on the Hollywood musical comedy tradition, with each operator incarnating a different quality of “The Voice with a Smile.” In this case, I bet that these are real operators who, on their time off, wrote this skit, made the pasteboard décor, and then performed it for the training film. That’s one instance of the operators representing “themselves,” but totally one with this ideal of the Voice with a Smile.
“The Voice with a Smile” was what the operators were called from roughly the late 1910s until the 1960s. This was coined under the presidency of Theodore Vail, the head of AT&T in the States from 1885 to 1887 and then from 1907 to 1919, who was quite wise PR-wise. “The Voice with a Smile” is a hell of a wonderful (and slimy) PR nickname that was aimed at “inspiring” and disciplining the operators to be pleasant and to “look” good in the caller’s mind and imagination. Prior to this, in the 1890s, operators were called “Central,” then the “Business Girls” or the “Hello Girls.”
Operator! is, to me, the last film that was made showing the operators as those sexy happy young girls. And then, in the 1970s, when the documentary ethics momentarily took over corporate filmmaking, it became much more of a realistic people-oriented representation. This also came in conjunction with affirmative-action measures in the United States, which made major American companies comply with racial and sexual diversity in all types of positions. For instance, the other film Nell Cox made was All Kinds of People. There you see real operators who aren’t that young, and some of color, and some males. But, gradually, really, what became sexy was the inside of some new technology… That’s what I could notice by watching at all these films from the mid-1970s on.
This seems to me to be something you address in both Phantom and in Industry/Cinema, which is that the image of the woman, and the qualities attributed to the female employee, gradually shift to being attributed to the machine itself.
Yes. At first the operators were there to facilitate the technology, to allow it to “pass,” be accepted, appreciated, and then adopted. Then gradually the situation got reversed. Technology became sexy, and the operators weren’t that appealing anymore, especially behind their computers.
How did the telecommunications industry evolve in the United States and in Canada?
For the better part of the 20th century, the Bell System, the North American telecommunications company, was the largest corporation in the world. With a tripartite structure encompassing the entire telecommunications production line, it also maintained a privileged relationship with the government and the military industry. A monopoly in most of the United States and Canada, it retained its strategic position up until the dismantling of “Ma Bell,” instigated by antitrust legislation in the late 1970s. While in many European countries the telephone was nationalized, in North America it was actually very much a private enterprise with a public service aura, offering a “universal” service. “One policy, one system, one universal service” was the dictum put forth under Theodore Vail’s reign—to justify all the more AT&T’s “natural monopoly.” I didn’t do research per se about the history of the telephone industry in Europe, but it was not the same bed for corporate intelligentsia to be developed as it was here.
The Bell system has always been a technologically trailblazing communications company—participating in the development of talking pictures, and later on of the microprocessor. But it also has been a pioneer in communications, breaking ground in modern public relations practices since around 1910. As part of its efforts, Bell continuously produced a large quantity of recruitment, information, training, education, industrial, and publicity films, often with high production values, made for both external and internal use.
One of the hypotheses of Phantom is to see how the telecommunications industry was at the forefront of a lot of managerial experimentations. Indeed, again under Theodore Vail, AT&T put forth a kind of corporate paternalism with their employees, by organizing “recreational” activities for them, or allowing them to become stockholders as part of their salary. Of course, this concurred with the rise of unionization of labor in North America—which the Bell System was effective at discouraging as part of its “familial” structure. Industrial psychology was also very much experimented within the manufacturing arm of the Bell System, notably with the pioneering Hawthorne experiments at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works factories in Cicero, Illinois, that begun in 1924. This study, although originally to evaluate the impact of light on workers’ performance, gave way to the discovery that being studied was indeed a factor that impacted positively workers’ productivity. This later gave way to what was called “the Hawthorne Effect.” Another instance of pioneering studies made for the Bell System was by Alvin Toffler in the ’60s, who was hired as a consultant. He recommended the dismantling of “Ma Bell” to the management a decade before the government imposed it. He also predicted how consumption would evolve within the telecommunications industry, for instance with subscribers being able to choose between telephones of different colors instead of the classic black ones. This inspired his 1985 book The Adaptive Corporation.
The influence of the Bell System on 20th-century North American society and culture has thus been far and wide, from the managerial sphere to the popular, from business and technology to the general culture at large.