Thursday, October 31, 2013

Castle Freak: Stuart Gordon at the WCFTR

      The Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater research is a vast resource for all things weird, wild, old, new, and most importantly beautiful.  As I have explored our vault over the last year or so, many collections have stuck out as exceptional in their steadfast dedication to fearlessness in creativity.  One such collection, which also happens to be extremely appropriate for today’s Halloween celebrations, is the films and papers of Stuart Gordon.

      Stuart Gordon, for the uninitiated, started off as an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  While a theater student Gordon formed the Screw Theater troupe, a group founded in the same vein as Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater using theater as a political tool.  Famous (or infamous) productions from this era included The Game Show in which planted actors in the audience were beaten and (seemingly) raped, and Peter Pan an acid-soaked take on the Pan story using the tumultuous political setting of late 60s Chicago as a backdrop.  Both of these productions led to both academic and criminal prosecution, leading Gordon to back away from academia and to found the Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he could engage in the experimental performances that inspired him.  Eventually Gordon moved on to Chicago where he started the Organic Theater Company.  It is with the OTS that Gordon eventually moved into the cinema.

      After success with the Organic Theater Company and early film productions, Gordon turned to an interest of his and his colleagues’ childhood: the stories of fantasy/horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.  In 1985 Gordon released the cult classic “Re-Animator” based on Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator” and starring the lead players of the OTC.  Upon its release the film received excellent reviews, and is now a landmark film in the comedy-gore genre and is credited (along with Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films) with revitalizing the genre.  After the success of Re-Animator Gordon continued with his interest in both Lovecraft (From Beyond 1986) and horror (the truly scary Dolls (1987), however after Dolls Gordon’s work began to receive less attention from studios and Gordon eventually teamed up with Full Moon Productions, a direct to video focused horror and science fiction company.  It is with these lower budget films that Gordon made throughout the 90s where his imagination exploded and his works, though sometimes excruciatingly campy due to standard low-budget traps, reached an elegant form. 

      And it is here in Gordon’s late 1980s through the 1990s period where the WCFTR’s collection shines.  Holding original 35mm prints (all in fantastic condition) of Robot Jox (1988), Daughter of Darkness (1990), The Pit and the Pendulum (1990), Fortress (1992), Castle Freak (1995), Space Truckers (1996), and The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1998), the collection is scary, funny, and ultimately a truly unique body of work.  Of all of these films however, Castle Freak has stood out as a jewel in the collection to myself.

      Castle Freak is based on the Lovecraft short story “The Outsider” and features Gordon regular Jeffrey Combs (star of The Re-Animator, From Beyond, as well as an excellent later appearance in Peter Jackson’s oft-overlooked The Frighteners) stars as John Reilly, whose recent inheritance of a castle from a long lost aunt (who also happens to be a duchess) finds him, his depressed wife, and their blind daughter relocated to an Italian mountain range.  Needless to say, things take a turn for the worse.  The film is absolutely wild and beautifully crafted.  The acting has many pitfalls of low-budget cinema but manages to pull of something that not many other b-horror can manage: a truly scary film.  In essence, the film is about a freak that has been locked up in a dungeon and upon breaking out, goes on a killing spree.  A pretty straightforward plot but an incredibly overlooked gem from the mid-90s, and this was the case with a lot of straight to video horror.   

      This is why I believe the collection at the WCFTR is so important.  To have 35mm prints of these works that have been seriously overlooked in the last twenty years is a true asset.  I believe that as the cult of Stuart Gordon grows (he and Combs currently have a one man show based on the life of Edgar Allen Poe that has received many accolades and will hopefully be turned in to a feature film soon), these films will be in much greater demand.  As often these films rarely featured theatrical releases, owning the prints will be a resource to horror fans for years to come. 

      And now in the spirit of Halloween, let’s conquer brain death.  Here are all of the trailers for the 80s and 90s gems available from the Stuart Gordon Collection:

Castle Freak


Robot Jox

Daughter of Darkness

Space Truckers

From Beyond
And the classic Re-Animator

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

From Beekeepers to Extras and Ectoplasm: My Research into Spirit Photography

Wisconsin Beekeepers Gallery and a “Discovery” 
Wisconsin Historical Images
Wisconsin Historical Images
This semester I am doing a practicum at the Wisconsin Historical Society. I am working in Wisconsin Historical Images, digitizing a collection of photographs of beekeepers in Wisconsin. I will eventually be creating a gallery of these images, similar to galleries already online. I have enjoyed learning more about photo archives, selecting photographs, and digitizing. I look forward to my time in the digital lab where I scan and catalog images, getting a glimpse into life as a beekeeper in WI from the 1880’s to today. I have come across many images that tell fantastic stories about beekeeping, not to mention some beautifully composed photographs.
Wisconsin Historical Images
One particular image stood out to me way back in the selection stage of my project. This photograph was in the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association collection. The image itself has very little to do with beekeeping - no bees or hives visible in the frame - but I knew I had to include it in the gallery. It depicts a man named Harry E. Hill, who was a photographer, beekeeper, and the editor of the American Bee Keeper from the late 19th to early 20th century. Harry Hill is seated at his desk, looking towards a ghostly figure to the left - a slightly transparent skeleton wrapped in an ethereal shroud.
This photograph prompted me to look into the photographic process of making apparitions appear. I had heard about this sort of thing in passing and I knew it had to do with a double exposure, but I had not held an actual photograph like this in my hands before. I started looking up more photos and seeing if there was more information on the subject. 

Turns out there is! I will share some of what I have been learning, but there is much more to cover than can be written in a blog post.
Spiritualism and Spirit Photography
Spiritualism is a religion that was most popular in English speaking countries from the 1840s-1920s. Cataclysmic events such as the American Civil War and World War I resulted in surges of the popularity of the movement, as so many lives were abruptly lost. Believers maintained that spirits of the dead lived on in the spirit world, and could communicate with the living in this world given the right circumstances. This usually involved mediums, mesmerists, seances, and eventually photographs. The medium of photography was developing during this same period. The two combined to make spirit photography, the attempt to capture the supernatural on film. Photographers mostly created images of living people sitting for a portrait with a spirit, called an "extra." Some famous spirit photographers include its inventor William Mumler (fraud discovered after he used recognizable, living Boston residents), William Crookes, and William Hope. Proponents of spiritualism such as Arthur Conan Doyle defended these photographers, even engaging in debates with skeptics.
I’d say I am more of a Scully than a Mulder. I enjoy examining these photographs with a skeptical eye and the knowledge that the photographers and mediums producing them had motives involving financial gain and publicity. Hearing stories about how people still believed that they were seeing their loved ones returned to this world, even when the medium was publicly exposed as a fraud, really made me understand the power of the spiritualist movement. Disproving these manipulative spirit photographs (as well as mediums and seances) fell into the hands of accomplished party-poopers such as the famous stage magician Harry Houdini and psychical researchers such as Harry Price. 
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Examining the history behind these images has made me very interested in the lengths spirit photographers and mediums would go to exploit believers. And the blind faith that spiritualists had that this new technology was revealing spirits. The belief in spiritualism and spirit photography did not completely end in the 1920s of course. Yet, imagining the process of photography as something involving magical seems so ridiculous now that the technology is common knowledge, and many of us carry cameras in our pockets.
However, I suggest the following exercise to relax the lines between fiction and fact:
Take a moment, turn your lights down low, and feel the chill of the last days of October. Flip through some historical spirit photographs. You can feel the ghostly traces of the once living, breathing people, trying to leave their mark on the world through a photograph. The images show the desire for connection to dead loved ones. To speak again, ask questions, and feel a comforting presence from the beyond.  
Remember this feeling when you look at any piece of the archival record - a letter, a bank book, a diary, a scrap of cloth. They are all pieces of history calling out to be noticed, studied, and shared. 

-Lotus Norton-Wisla

L. Norton-Wisla, L. Gildersleeve, S. Barsness, and an extra. Baraboo, WI. 2012. Photo by Dana Gerber.

Image Heavy Websites and Blogs 
Environmental Graffiti: 
Library of Congress ya’ll: 
National Media Museum “G is for Ghosts”: 

More Reading about Spiritualism and Spirit Photography 
“History of Modern Spiritualism” 
“History of Spirit Photography” 
“Beyond the Grave: A Brief History of Spirit Photography” 
Spiritualism and Spirit Photography” From the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University 
Dead Media Archive, NYU Department of Media, Culture, and Communication 
Natale, Simone. "A Short History of Superimposition: From Spirit Photography to Early Cinema." Early Popular Visual Culture 10.2 (2012): 125-45. Print.
Jolly, Martyn. Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography. London: British Library, 2006. Print.
Chéroux, Clément. The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2005. Print.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Why We Do What We Do: A Story about Reference in the Archives

Sometimes our job as current or future archivists is not about the materials we handle, but about the people who are affected by the records we keep. On days when I am frustrated or overwhelmed, I remember an encounter I had with a patron about a year ago and realize there is a reason I love this career path. I wanted to share the story that follows- a real event that happened in the course of my job in the Local History & Genealogy department of a public library- because it is another reminder of why we do what we do. ~ Jill

She walks into the Local History & Genealogy Room as many of them do- timid, unsure. She is about my age, with long blond hair and a pretty smile. Her eyes are uncertain. She talks quickly, with a nervous energy that tells me her story long before her words do. She is here for a reason. They always are. The reference books, the obituaries, the newspapers all pause in anticipation, wondering if they have her story, if they will be what she needs.

Her mother was adopted as a baby, she explains to me breathlessly. They just learned the name of her real grandmother, who had lived in this town. She was born here, had grown up here, went to school here. They are trying to find her, they've just started their search, and would we have her old high school yearbook in our collection? She pauses, out of breath. She said what she needed to and now a bit of fear joins her anxiety. I smile, trying to convey some sort of reassurance in a single glance before answering in the affirmative and going to the yearbooks. I find the one she needs and show her to a table. The room waits, breathless. Thanking me, she pulls out her digital camera and opens the book. I leave her there, giving her privacy. Minutes tick by, quiet but expectant. Nothing but the turning of pages. Then a small sob bubbles into the hushed room, flooding every corner with its pain and relief, asking to be heard. I hear. I turn to see her standing, hunched over the page, her blond, wispy hair falling across the photograph of the grandmother she's never known. I go to her, and she looks up as she hears me approach. She holds the yearbook out to me, her eyes pleading, no longer unsure but still afraid. In a voice as innocent as a child's, she whispers. "This is the first time I've seen my grandmother." Hers are not the first tears shed here, as pieces come together and stories are rediscovered. She is not the first to cry in this room and she will not be the last. This I know. Without words, I put my arms around her and she circles her arms around my shoulders. We stand quietly there in the silence, in a moment of fragile strength, forging a bond that links the past to the present, the living to the dead.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The New York Transit Museum: Education to Archives

In my past life, I was a museum educator. This can sound a bit loftier than it is, but essentially, I taught visiting school groups at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, New York. I had the pleasure (and sometimes displeasure) of leading classes of elementary school children on and off our vintage subway cars in our decommissioned 1930s subway station turned museum. 

I loved hearing their “oohs” and “aahs” as we walked down the stairs to the platform level (because when does that ever happen when you’re racing to catch a train?) and their squeals of glee as we would touch the porcelain painted handholds and rattan seats of yore. 

It’s amazing how touching history can amaze even the tiniest kindergartener. 

My direction changed when I visited the museum’s archives on a project for the education department. I had never been to an archive before and I was filled with a sense of excitement as I took the elevator down to the basement of the MTA. The archivists brought me a few boxes, handed me some white gloves and let me have at it. Needless to say, I left that day with way more photocopies than I needed for my project and a new interest in archives. 

Now, as a first year archives student at UW Madison, I contacted Carey Stumm, the New York Transit Museum archivist, in honor of archives month and the 109th anniversary of the New York City Subway. 

Before coming to the New York Transit Museum in 2009, Carey worked as a librarian in the Digital Collection of the Experience Music Project and as a Research and Cataloging Associate at the Museum of the Moving Image. Her interest in archival material eventually drew Carey to the Transit Museum, “although I've worked with 3-D material, I've always been drawn to the photographs, maps, posters, ephemera and documents. The last museum I worked in I concentrated on a lot of their archival collections. When I saw the job posted for the position at NYTM of archivist I immediately applied.” 

At NYTM, Carey manages two archives spaces, one in Brooklyn and another in lower Manhattan, two archives technicians and several aids and interns. The archive sees between 60 and 70 researchers each month, both internal and external. Internal researches include museum staff as well as MTA contractors, in-house press and product development. The archive sees a diverse group of external researches as the archive boasts a specific, but high demand, collection. Television and film staff working on costume and set design come to the archives for the immense photo collection depicting historic New York, as well as authors, contractors, architects, community development groups and anyone else with an interest in historic New York. 

As for Carey’s favorite collection, she explains, “we received a large collection of 45,000 photographs of (mostly) Brooklyn trolleys a few years ago. It's a collection that I had heard about for years and nobody knew where it was. Tracking it down was an adventure and the organization and documentation of the collection taught us all quite a bit about the history of trolleys in New York. I just wish we had an actual trolley in the collection!” 

Trolley or no trolley, there is a special place in my dusty little archival heart for the New York Transit Museum as the institution that led me to pursue archives.  

-Mary Kate Kwasnik

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Internet Archive from a Media Studies Background

Before coming to UW-Madison for my MLIS degree, I had limited exposure to actual archives. I was coming from the Media Studies field, and my previous institution, the University of Texas at Austin, had little in the way of my research interest, television history. Of course, UT-Austin has some incredible repositories; they just didn’t have what I needed. Lucky for me, there are an increasing number of television collections being digitized and made accessible online. The Prelinger Archives, hosted by the Internet Archive, has already been discussed here. But Internet Archive has other resources as well. They host Duke University’s AdViews collection, which has an incredible amount of television commercials from the 1950s through the 1980s. Here are a couple of my favorites that I came across in my research:

Internet Archive also has great collection of episodes from some classic television shows in the public domain. This episode from The Jack Benny Program proved useful in my thesis research:

These resources ended up being very helpful to me, and in some part, they influenced my decision to pursue a life in archives. It may not be as glamorous as working with the original physical materials, but their accessibility and openness was incredibly important to me and will continue to be so for future scholars.

-Carolina Hernandez

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Do You Suffer from Archive Fever?

Do your eyes glaze over when you read Derrida? Do you have mysterious symptoms you can't account for? Follow this simple flowchart to find out whether you or someone you know has archive fever.*

*This flowchart has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.