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Wunderkino 2013 – What You May Have Missed

posted August 18, 2013

Wunderkino is an annual gathering in Bucksport, Maine, of moving-image archivists and sympathetic colleagues who present their own particular interests in the history, culture, and art of film, television, and other moving-image forms.

Attendees consistently report that the event, run by Northeast Historic Film, is valuable and memorable, but it’s a long way to Bucksport, from just about anywhere, so during the next short while we’ll run some articles about presentations there.

Subject matter at Wunderkino confabs is varied and often surprising – the event’s title would otherwise hardly be justified. Often presenters draw on resources held by Northeast Historic Film, and that was the case at this year’s event (July 25-27, 2013) where the theme was Visions of Travel & Mobility. Drawing on NHF holdings, and working with the organization annual William O’Farrell Fellowship for a researcher investigating moving-image history and culture, particularly in amateur and nontheatrical film, Oliver Gaycken discussed a genre of film you may not have known existed: depictions of the latest in forestry science that government agencies and lumber companies made in the mid-20th century.

Oliver Gaycken: Modern Forest Management on Film

At least in the United States, film and modern forestry practices came into being at around the same time. Oliver Gaycken was surprised to find that films depicting the advent of “scientific” forestry care, management, and lumber use were far from the only forestry films being produced in the mid-19th century.

He expected to find a straightforward account of the introduction of modern methods, but instead found a more complex narrative – one that stretched back into the 19th century. He also found an impressive range of kinds of forestry films – today YouTube and other online resources offer instruction on countless skills and tasks; in the mid-20th century, films offered lumberman aspiring to get to the cutting edge of forestry practice not accounts of the nature of the new science, but also hints on how to sharpen saws, twitch logs, and convert them into bowling pins and much more.

Gaycken, a film-studies scholar at the University of Maryland, College Park, titled his presentation, “The Tree in a Test Tube?” Focusing on the decades (1935-) following the period he covers in his book about the earliest (1903-1918) film-and-science connections, Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science (coming from Oxford University Press in 2015), he discussed a set of films held in the archive of Northeast Historic Film (some are available on The Internet Archive). The unsurprising spin that some films put on historical events, emphasizing American developments but offering scant acknowledgment of what sparked them, became apparent to him in the course of his research. He noted anomalies in two films. One provided his presentation’s title: The Tree in a Test Tube, a 1943 film in which the US Department of Agriculture and Forest Service announced, with a hand from comedians Laurel and Hardy, the rise of managed forestry practices that it implied had occurred during the previous decade.

Coming upon the film, Gaycken said, had prompted him to gauge the role that films – promotional, industrial, and government-sponsored – had played in depicting and even catalyzing the transformation of the timber industry during the middle half of the 20th century from local, smaller-scale businesses to larger-scale, scientifically managed industries.

The goals of the new techniques were, as might be expected, to increase sales of forest products and to find uses for materials that until had seemed merely waste. That was the message of a second film, Trees for Tomorrow, which the Educational Film Division of Paramount Pictures produced in 1941 with assistance from the American Forest Products Industries council.

"Trees for Tomorrow" – click on image to access video
Both films presented scientific lumber management as a recent development, but that the Northeast US adoption of the “new” approaches of “modern forest management” had their roots in late-19th-century Europe. There, growers had responded to an impending wood famine by switching from ecosystem-based forestry to the cultivation and harvesting of particular species of tree, aided by herbicides and pesticides. Timber became a “crop” whose harvesting and use combined scientific knowledge with administrative management.

American forest-management modernization arose from those European developments. Its pioneer was Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946). He first cared for 120,000 acres (490 km2) of mountain land at George Washington Vanderbilt III’s Biltmore Estate in North Carolina – an opulent property that Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of New York’s Central Park and the father of American landscape architecture, had designed. (In 1914, Edith Vanderbilt sold almost 90,000 acres of the estate’s forests – known as Pisgah Forest – to the federal government as the initial extent of Pisgah National Forest. In 1968, Congress declared 6,500 of Pisgah The Cradle of Forestry in America.)

On the strength of his accomplishments there, Pinchot became the first chief of the United States Forest Service, a position in which he could steer American forestry. Said Gaycken: “He had a national vision about the future of forests in the US.”

Dietrich Brandis in his forest field camp, Burma, ca. 1857
But Pinchot was of a European lineage. He sought advice from Dietrich Brandis, a German, university-trained forester who devised “scientific management” of forests while stationed in India. A student of Brandis, the German forester Carl Alwin Schenck (1868-1955), took over at the Vanderbilt estate when Pinchot left. Schenck then taught at the first forestry program in England, at Oxford University, before setting up the first American forestry school, again at the Biltmore estate. There, he advocated giving private industry control of forest management.

By the early 1930s, sophisticated chemical procedures were coming into use to create wood products. The Brown Company of Berlin, New Hampshire, for example, “introduced a bevy of products that were based on its purified cellulose process that created something known as Solka,” Gaycken said. That enabled “wood’s manifold uses in an age of better living through chemistry.”

But, as the European history demonstrates, “the involvement of science with forestry was not a mid-twentieth century affair.” What was true, though, was that the “hand of the scientist” had been building both pillars of the modern forestry industry: scientific management and new ways to make use of wood. And, with some flattery of the American scene, the forestry films were there to show it all, there at what Gaycken called “the beginnings of the conjunction of film and science.”

"Trees for Tomorrow" – click on image to access video
Some of the Northeast Historic Film archive’s 1940s forestry films had other kinds of value – as anthropological documents, for example. In From Stump to Ship, an account of long-lumber operations on the Machias River filmed in the late 1920s, Alfred Ames provided “a record of a time and a place,” right down to naming particular people in it, said Gaycken. In that sense, From Stump to Ship and other films preserved “ways of life.”

A 10-minute instructional film, Use and Care of a Bucksaw (1944) typified the “blunt, folksy appeal of the films,” Gaycken said. Authoritative but also approachable, in its messages and visual qualities, Bucksaw offered delightful occupational-safety advice to foresters: “Use a stick; finding a stick may take a few moments longer, but keeping your fingers is worth it.”

But the film has another appeal, Gaycken said: “The detailed tutorial on how to sharpen and maintain the saw blade … is a tour-de-force of macro-cinematography, culminating with the nifty stop-motion animation of the teeth ‘taking shape.’”

Carl A. Schenck (far right) with forestry students in Saxony, 1892
Another film that demonstrated “the unexpected pleasures that a full-spectrum archive can harbor,” said Gaycken, was Timber for Tojo, an amateur production that imitated the industrial mode but “also is crypto-avant-garde in its compilation methods and hand-made intertitles.”

Gaycken found many examples of forestry filmmaking: about mechanical tools; about how to select, fell, and prepare a tree; about taking trees from forests to lumber mills – often by twitching (using horses to extract logs) – and then transforming them into such products as boards, bowling pins, and newspapers.

Also pleasing, Gaycken said, was the sheer variety of forestry films in the Northeast Historic Film archive, including home movies illustrating interactions among foresters and many films about fire suppression – “one of the key issues in twentieth-century forest management.”

Over all, Gaycken said, the films he found had “the virtues of the industrial genre”— “patient attention to detail” and “showcasing of manual and mechanical skill” – and also can serve as reminders of “the unevenness of historical change,” the “overlap and co-existence of the old and the new,” and the way that “thinking in terms of periods and ‘important dates’ obscures.”

Oliver Gaycken
Oliver Gaycken’s book, Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. He researches and teaches about silent-era cinema history and links between scientific and experimental cinema. He has published on the discovery of the ophthalmoscope, the flourishing of the popular science film in France at the turn of the 1910s, the figure of the supercriminal in Louis Feuillade’s serial films, the surrealist fascination with popular scientific images, and arguments for an educative cinema at the turn of the twentieth century.

 Earlier coverage of Wunderkino.

 

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