Essay: A Case for Annotating Film History

AudiAnnotate Audiovisual Extensible Workflow (AWE) is an annotation project created to “accelerate access to, promote scholarship and teaching with, and extend understanding of significant digital audiovisual collections in the humanities” (HiPSTAS). The AudiAnnotate project is hosted on GitHub with a website created by Brumfield Labs. For the past eight months, AudiAnnotate has included support for video as well as audio annotations. I am currently working on a research use case with audiovisual materials - particularly feature films from the early film industry. Not only is annotation important and useful for oral history interviews and spoken words, but it also aids in the study of film as a visual artform, and even film with no sound or spoken dialogue.

For my first two AudiAnnotate projects, I created annotations for the entire silent film Camille (1921), produced by Alla Nazimova and starring Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino, and clips from the pre-code Hollywood film Girls About Town (1931), directed by George Cukor and starring Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman. These annotations include transcriptions of the dialogue, filmmaking choices, editing techniques, special effects, physical damage to the film copy, and a few notes about story content and queer moments in the films. Although the two films were made ten years apart, they both star lesbian and bisexual women as prostitutes and have queer subtext through certain imagery and relationships in each film. The two films, though similar on the surface, reflect the separate times in which they were made - particularly the late silent film era and the pre-code Hollywood era.

The film Camille is one of many film adaptations of Alexandre Dumas’ novel La Dame aux Camélias and follows courtesan Margaret Gautier (Nazimova), as she falls in love and realizes she’s slowly dying of consumption. Girls About Town is a more comedic take on prostitution - it focuses on two glamorous escort roommates as they make their living. Wanda (Kay Francis) falls in love and decides to quit prostitution to get married. Each film has a similar premise and themes throughout, but the tone of each film and the ultimate fates of the film protagonists could not be more different. Camille is a tragic silent epic with extravagant settings and a dark end, while Girls About Town is a provocative pre-code romantic comedy with screwball banter and a happy ending.

The Camille annotation project began as a document to refer back to while I write and research my MA thesis chapter “Alla Nazimova, The Sewing Circle, and Silent Era Lesbian Reception,” in which I discuss silent film actress and producer Alla Nazimova’s impact on the early Hollywood film industry and American audiences from a queer perspective. In addition to my thesis writing, as I created annotations I came to a few realizations. The first is that these annotations serve a larger function than my own research and reference interests. The published annotations are a living document of the film itself and reflect a modern reception of the film. Anyone who needs or wants access to the Camille (1921) script can now find every line of dialogue transcribed in my annotations as well as my own notes that list my understanding of camera movements, special effects, and set design choices from the film. With the addition of Hypothesis, an annotation browser plugin that allows users to add their own annotations to a web page, film writers, students, archivists, and fans can amend or add to my work as well. I’ve added a few public Hypothesis annotations to my Camille project as examples, including information on Nazimova’s collaborators on the production and their roles in the film as well as lesbian cinema history.

The Audiannotate website and my annotations are published online and I have my own backed up copy of the annotations via Premiere Pro and Hypothesis. The ability for anyone to view and add to my work makes the Audiannotate website similar to a virtual audiovisual museum - with the added component of interactivity. The site has accessible living documents of art (in this case, scenes from 1920s motion pictures). All videos are hosted on the Internet Archive and our annotations are synced to that footage, so the likelihood of the videos being taken down is significantly slimmer than if they were hosted on Youtube. AudiAnnotate is an archive of audio and audiovisual digital items and my project is as much about the preservation of these endangered silent films as it is about my thesis research.

The preservation of silent film in particular is very important because the majority of films from that era (90%) are already lost/missing (Mikesell). The Camille AudiAnnotate project serves as an interactive document of the entire film’s credits, script, damage to the image (from the film print or file transfers), and techniques used in the film. The Hypothesis additions include more specific information about the production and players involved including links to outside sources. All of this data exists as a publicly accessible copy of the film and information about its production, and as many archivists know, digital items must have many copies in order to survive. All of this work adds to the likelihood of information about the film surviving past the lifespan of the actual physical film prints. Half of Nazimova’s films are already lost, and the few that are still available give us a glimpse into a significant woman film mogul’s work. In addition to supporting the preservation of the film, the act of annotating film has also added to my own viewing experiences of each film and my understanding of the editing techniques of the eras in which the films were made.

The experience of creating annotations for silent films provides audiences with a new way to view cinema and specifically silent and early sound cinema. In the process of annotating silent film, dialogue annotations are transcribed from intertitles while nearly all of the visual sequences produce artistic, non dialogic annotations (though one also could annotate mouthed words or images of written text in a given scene). This process allows a level of separation from the words and the image almost akin to a painting and a curatorial description - even as the words themselves are also part of the art of the film. By isolating each scene, each line of dialogue, and each movement of the camera, the viewing experience becomes completely new. The methodical practice of scrubbing back and forth through sequences and the repetition of watching each moment of film dozens of times is similar to the editing process itself and reveals nuances in the original filmmakers’ techniques that pass by undetected in a single linear viewing.

The act of annotating, much like the film subjects of my annotations, reflects a distinct queer temporality. When I say queer temporality/queer time, I am referring to Jack Halberstam’s discussion of queer time and space “in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction,” as a nonlinear understanding of life as well as memory and history (Halberstam 1). Queer time is time that does not pass with a strict linearity, that in fact often passes out of order, backwards and forwards through life stages and identities. As I annotated queer interest films produced a century ago, I realized that not only were the films themselves taking me back to a different time in lesbian history and lesbian temporality, but the act of annotating itself was moving me backwards and forwards in a lesbian narrative and in moments of close reflection with historical lesbian identities and art. Combing through Camille and Girls About Town to annotate each minute or second of their construction (including intertitles, effects, set design, damage, etc.) allowed me to build a level of understanding of each individual shot that contributed to my ability to analyze and write about these films while easily referencing back through them to check a line of dialogue or a costume change.

The act of annotating is also an example of queer temporality because of the type of time spent with the films in an editing bay. I didn’t watch the films straight through in their typical one hour runtimes. I spent closer to two dozen hours combing through Camille, pausing every time a shot changed or an intertitle popped up. I went through the whole film pausing every minute or two and transcribing dialogue in intertitles, then restarted and worked on camera, editing techniques, and special effects. I scrubbed through to get to specific moments, then rewinded to see an earlier shot. This time spent in the film world reflects a nonlinear understanding of film, and reveals a queer temporality not only within annotation practices but within the film editing process itself which reflects a similar nonlinear time.

The personas of Nazimova and Kay Francis in the films that I annotated additionally draw on different queer temporalities, with both Nazimova’s vamp image out of Gothic fiction and Kay Francis’s flapper plucked out of time and reproduced anachronistically. Each of these images, though seemingly from multiple times, are reproduced throughout early cinema and every time they function as shorthands for queerness. In Susan Potter’s book Queer Timing, she discusses early Hollywood silent film through a perspective of queer temporality stating that silent films “generate structures of representation and spectatorship–a disembodied and depersonalized moving image aesthetic…able to sustain queer subjectivities that are not exactly lesbian but that are enabled by the disparate forms of its emergence” (Love 2). Specifically, Potter describes Valentino’s androgynous and timeless star persona, cultivated in films such as Camille, and his legion of young women fans. Rather than focus on the over-analyzed heterosexual fantasies of some of his women fans, she argues that lesbian audiences could identify with his and Nazimova’s androgyny on screen. Similarly, Kay Francis’s characters in the 1930s and early 40s were always compared to Nazimova and Theda Bara’s vamps before her, while adding a flapper spin (despite the flapper era being in the past as well). Her butch flapper haircut and modern fashions equally entranced queer audiences of her time and others.

The annotation of film aids research in film history and adds to my understanding of early cinematic practices, but the benefits of annotation don’t end there. Annotating film is important for the preservation of cinema and reception, it adds to a viewer’s understanding of filmmaking techniques, and it reveals a distinct queer temporality within filmmaking techniques and the act of annotation itself. I can now describe in great detail every set change in the film Camille, the styles of special effects in the late silent film era, and the structures of pre-code era musical montage. These annotations are publicly accessible online for anyone to view or add to them. This specific understanding of detailed film analysis and preservation would not be possible without annotation via the AudiAnnotate and Hypothesis programs.

Works Cited

AudiAnnotate, HiPSTAS,

Cukor, George, et al. Girls About Town. 1931.

Halberstam, Jack. In A Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. Vol. 3. NYU press, 2005.

Love, Heather. Feeling backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Mikesell, Terry. “Group’s Rescue of Old Films Preserves Glimpse Into Past.” The Film Foundation, Martin Scorsese, 23 Feb. 2017.

Nazimova, Alla, et al. Camille. 1921.

Potter, Susan. Queer Timing: The Emergence of Lesbian Sexuality in Early Cinema. University of Illinois Press, 2019.