ALBERT and DAVID MAYSLES
IBM: A Self Portrait
US, 1964, 16mm, 35 min.
In 1964, Albert Maysles and his brother David were hired by IBM to make a portrait of the company. The intentions were promotional: give “Big Blue” a rounded, human dimension and search, as an opening voiceover tells us, “for the particular character of this company.”
At the time, IBM boasted offices in nearly 100 countries and had recently transitioned into becoming the global leader in new digital technology—by 1964, 70% of the world’s computers were made by IBM. The Maysles, however, chose to look at the people behind the machines, interviewing a wide selection of “IBMers,” ranging from assembly-line workers, to instructors in IBM’s classrooms, to its highest-ranking executives, including a brief tour with an IBM salesman that presages their later work. In sharp contrast to current, more calculated modes of corporate self-presentation, the Maysles evoke an institution through everyday minutiae and the individual psychologies of its workers.
Albert (1926) and David (1932–1987) Maysles were born in Boston, Massachusetts. For three decades, they made documentaries together with lightweight sync-sound cameras in a kind of roamy, observational mode. All the time, facing the problem that every documentary filmmaker faces and none can solve; namely that he is standing in quicksand as he films. There is no floor under his enterprise, no basis for moral certainty. And where other filmmakers in this program try to handle this uncertainty through exaggeration or deconstruction, the Maysles carry on in an assured straight line.
One of the things I don’t like about direct-cinema or this straight line is less the earnestness and often intentional naïvety with which it is undertaken, but more the claim that somehow we are guaranteed truthfulness by virtue of this earnest style. That’s my complaint. That somehow because a film has been made in a certain way—handheld camera, available light, fly on the wall—that somehow it becomes more truthful as a result. I respectfully disagree.
The filmmaker Errol Morris once said, “I believe we have two ideas about how movies are made in our heads. Idealizations. Platonic ideals. One of them is of a movie that is completely uncontrolled, and another is a movie that is completely controlled. The auteur theory vs. cinéma vérité. What does the auteur theory tell us: Everything you see on the screen has been controlled. The casting, the lighting, the framing, the selection of what emulsion to use in the camera, the words that are spoken, the wardrobe, the makeup. Everything that you see has been controlled by some central authority. There is a puppeteer—the director—pulling the strings. Now, the flipside of it is vérité: Everything you see in front of the camera is uncontrolled. The director observes, records, but in no way influences, in no way determines what will happen in front of the camera. And so what people are really talking about is not truth and fiction when they talk about drama and documentary. What they’re talking about is control and lack of control.
“What I think I’ve done, and I guess that’s what makes me perhaps ‘modern,’ is that I draw the line in a different place. The line between the controlled and the uncontrolled is somewhere else.
“Here is yet another thesis. That what is so powerful about film is it makes us wonder where that line is drawn, and it can always be drawn in different places. So, for example, you can have films that have real people as actors that are unrehearsed, which have an element of, if you like, the spontaneous. You can have feature films that verge on vérité. Movies like The Battle of Algiers, which have vérité elements in them. And you can imagine constructed documentaries, which are highly controlled.“
Albert Maysles lives in New York City, where he runs the Maysles Documentary Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the production and exhibition of documentary films.
THE FIELD GUIDE TO
[…] Sponsored films are as old as film itself. From the earliest years of cinema, motion pictures have been produced to record, orient, train, sell, and persuade. Though it is estimated that 300,000 industrial and institutional films have been made in the United States—far more than any other type of motion picture—the film type is little known. Almost every major company, national business association, and educational institution produced or commissioned titles intended for staff, customers, or the public. Today these films are valuable both as documentation of past places, events, and practices and as examples of changing styles of rhetoric.Although it is tempting to characterize sponsored films as specimens of extinct media,it is more accurate to see them as part of a continuum that today includes video and the Internet, the media of choice for corporate and institutional communications. Some of the earliest sponsored films were set in American factories and documented how products were made on a grand scale. American Mutoscope & Biograph Company’s Westinghouse Works series, filmed at the Westinghouse plant outside Pittsburgh, and Selig Polyscope Company’s Stockyards Series, made for Armour and Company,showcased the innovative mass production technologies used by corporate giants. The didactic value of pioneering industrial films was not lost on forward-looking nonprofits, and by the beginning of the teens advocacy groups were also turning to film to disseminate their message.
Though definitions of industrial and institutional film have been debated since as early as the 1920s, the more practical approach is to look for shared criteria. Sponsorship heads the list. Sponsorship is the common thread that links films funded by for-profit and nonprofit entities, and it runs through both works made for internal viewing (such as training films) and titles targeting customers, business partners, and the public. Sponsorship also implies the packaging of information from a particular corporate or institutional perspective. Finally, sponsorship denotes direct institutional support, generally through funding, though occasionally through donated services or other nonfinancial assistance. Sponsored films encompass advertisements, public service announcements, special event productions, cartoons, newsreels and documentaries, training films, organizational profiles, corporate reports, works showcasing manufacturing processes and products, and of course, polemics made to win over audiences to the funders’ point of view.
The timeline of the development of sponsored films begins before the invention of the motion picture with the experiments of visual education pioneers. Beginning in 1891, the charismatic John H. Patterson, head of National Cash Register Company and a passionate believer in the educational power of images, assembled a corporate library of 68,000 glass lantern slides documenting business activities. Almost every imaginable interaction between worker, manager, salesman, and customer was visualized and arranged into expository sequences for employee training. Public lecture programs were also developed on topics in which Patterson had an interest, including health, welfare, and municipal reform.
Meanwhile, cinema had already proved itself as a medium with broad outreach potential. By 1897, short advertisements such as Admiral Cigarette were being shown outdoors in New York City. In the initial years of the motion picture, the same production companies made both theatrical and sponsored films. Indeed, sponsored films were often packaged as narratives to make their message more accessible to audiences.
The proliferation of sponsors and subjects led to an increase in the number of production companies specializing in nontheatrical films. Arthur Edwin Krows recounts the early history in a series published in Educational Screen from September 1938 to June 1944. Although Krows’s recollections can be inaccurate in their detail, his essays are an invaluable look back at the pioneering companies. He tells how entrepreneurs like Carlyle Ellis and Watterson Rothacker tried to build production empires, which never quite achieved their promise, and how others started more quietly and survived much longer. Reid H. Ray Film Industries survived under various names for six decades, until the 1970s; the Jam Handy Organization, founded around 1917, stayed in business through four wars and massive industrial modernization.
It would, however, be a mistake to characterize the history of sponsored film solely in terms of large firms. It was also an arena for small innovators—On Film Inc., Centron Productions, the Eames Studio, and a host of others. Some companies, such as the Western Union Telegraph Company and the Hills Bros. Coffee Company, became so committed to using film to document and promote their operations that they created inhouse production units.
The late 1940s and 1950s were the golden age of the sponsored film. During World War II, film producers, like most other American companies, put peacetime production on hold and went to work for the war effort. After the enforced break, the industry exploded. In the postwar boom, production companies and 16mm distribution outlets proliferated, thanks in part to the availability of war-surplus 16mm equipment. The sheer profusion and variety of titles produced from 1946 to 1980 renders it difficult to map the most significant works. Production companies existed in most regions of the United States. Some, especially those in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Kansas City, and Chicago, served national accounts. Others, less well known today, focused on regional businesses and nonprofit groups. Though generalizations are risky, the New York producers of the 1950s and 1960s seem to have enjoyed a creative efflorescence, moving into innovative, sometimes even experimental, filmmaking. Los Angeles producers capitalized on local access to high–end production services and created some big-budget productions, a few with major stars.
Detroit’s venerable Jam Handy Organization turned out thousands of films over its 60-year history, most of them guided by Jamison Handy’s principles of visual instruction. (It was said that during these years more film stock may have been exposed in Detroit than in Hollywood!) The Calvin Company, Kansas City’s high-rise motion picture factory, quoted production prices by the minute, pioneered many efficient filmmaking methods, and sent films throughout the Great Plains and the Southwest. A handful of Chicago firms handled national associations with headquarters in the Windy City and exploited local talent.
Many distribution channels connected sponsors with viewers. In the early teens the Bureau of Commercial Economics in Washington, D.C., began exhibiting and distributing industrial films. By 1914, the YMCA Motion Picture Bureau started bringing educational films, often sponsored, to clubs, church groups, and other organizations. The YMCA Bureau evolved into Association Films, a for-profit enterprise that circulated sponsored films, charging sponsors according to the number of viewers reported. Modern Talking Picture Service was organized in 1935 and led the field for some 40 years, ultimately absorbing Association Films. By the mid-1930s, nontheatrical exhibition of sponsored films likely surpassed their theatrical use.
Several technical innovations fueled the popularity. The first was the introduction of nonflammable film by Pathé-Frères in 1912. Pathé’s product, the first practical alternative to flammable nitrate film, was manufactured in a 28mm gauge that was easier to handle than the larger, 35mm theatrical standard. With its safe and convenient film stock and projector, Pathé made it possible to show movies at home, in schools, and in other noncommercial settings. Thousands of Americans bought equipment. However, it was Eastman Kodak Company and the Radio Corporation of America that created the products that enabled sponsored film to come into its own. In 1923, Kodak introduced 16mm nonflammable “safety film” along with lightweight, easy-to-use cameras and projectors; 28mm was dropped almost as rapidly as it had been adopted. RCA’s 16mm sound camera followed in 1934 and along with other improvements in sound recording and track printing, paved the way for inexpensive sound film production. After years of experiment, Kodak perfected an improved Kodachrome process and in 1938 brought color film to the 16mm market.
Many companies, schools, and associations maintained film libraries. The Bell Telephone System, General Motors Corporation, General Electric Company, International Harvester Company, Ford Motor Company, the American Red Cross, and the National Safety Council were all involved in distribution, publishing film catalogs and shipping prints. Advertising agencies and public relations firms commissioned films on behalf of clients, crafting sales and advocacy messages that were coordinated with print and radio campaigns. Sponsored films could reach millions of viewers. At its height the industry employed thousands of people and supported at least one trade journal devoted to sponsored film production, appropriately called Business Screen (published from 1938 to 1976). Festivals arose in the 1940s to recognize worthy examples, sometimes in tandem with educational productions. The Cleveland Film Festival specialized in industrials; some works were also honored at the American Film Festival or received Oscars from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which introduced its documentary awards in the mid-1940s.
Where did Americans see sponsored films? A typical American living in a city in the 1930s might see an industrial or institutional film in a theater as a short subject preceding the featured attraction. At newsreel theaters that existed in some large cities, the viewer might find sponsored films on the program. Short screen ads running a minute or less also littered movie schedules and flourished through the 1930s, despite audience objections. Industrials were shown at often-compulsory lunchtime screenings and in on-the-job training sessions. Lodges, women’s organizations, 4-H clubs, scouting groups, Grange branches, and similar groups also provided venues. Larger than any of these was the biggest captive audience of all, schoolchildren.
Industrial and institutional films played in classrooms as early as the mid-teens. Several states, most notably Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia, established distribution services and traveling exhibition programs for young audiences. Educators took exception with the use of curricular materials espousing an explicit point of view. Media experts evaluated the educational value of sponsored films and announced their recommendations through the publications of the Film Council of America and the Educational Film Library Association. H.W. Wilson Company’s Educational Film Catalog (later Educational Film Guide) became an essential tool. Educational film libraries purged titles thought to exhibit overt corporate promotion.
By the late 1950s television had grown to eclipse all other means of sponsored film distribution. As early as the late 1930s, experimental television stations were broadcasting short sponsored films in a few large cities. After World War II, as broadcasting became more regularized, sponsored films occupied network time slots and were omnipresent on independent and UHF TV stations. Programmers were always in search of inexpensive ways to fill airtime but refused to broadcast explicit advertising. The requirements for television affected the nature and style of production and brought about “public service” films that advanced corporate goals without dwelling on mission and products. Companies commissioned films such as Once upon a Honeymoon, a Hollywood-style musical introducing the color telephone as a decorator accessory and mentioning its Bell Telephone System sponsorship only in an introductory title. Sponsors considered television a major outlet, and few titles dating after the mid-1950s were made without broadcast in mind.
Then in the 1970s came signs of obsolescence. The advent of inexpensive, portable video equipment made it more economical for organizations to switch from film to video and move production in-house. As cable and home video became more common and viewers’ options expanded, the traditional sponsored film audience waned. Although filmmakers tried to stay up-to-date, incorporating techniques such as cinema verité cinematography and split screens, these efforts did not keep sponsored films alive. Today lower-cost video and digital media have, by and large, taken over the communications role of sponsored films, and in-house media units have sprung up to customize productions for corporate, government, and nonprofit employers. On the other end of the spectrum are companies that produce and distribute generic presentations on widely applicable topics, such as human resource management. A few multinational giants, like Federal Express and Wal-Mart, produce corporate programming and run television networks to link their geographically far-flung outposts. However, the Internet has become the prime communications venue.
Though sponsored works are still being made (even on film), they generally have a narrow focus. Huge numbers of sponsored films survive. Many slipped the notice of the distribution catalogs and trade magazines of their day and lack active copyright holders. No national catalog or database has been developed to record the scattered holdings. Furthermore, unlike theatrical features that are safeguarded by a handful of corporate owners and public archives, sponsored films are found in a variety of repositories, ranging from private collections and corporations to regional nonprofits and commercial stock footage libraries. Such are the factors that today confound attempts at describing and evaluating these materials.
For several decades sponsored films have been difficult to see and largely forgotten byscholars. Thanks to the Internet and video, a number of long-unseen titles have once again become viewable. The conventions and assumptions of such films as The Atom and Eve or The Home Electrical can seem surprising, even humorous, to contemporary audiences. Some titles, such as The House in the Middle, have earned a place in popular culture. When these works are seen as part of a larger historical framework, they become much more revealing. […]