Around the World in Eighty Minutes: The Travel Lecture Film

Article excerpt

"We are the last of the vaudevillians. We go from town to town, set up our projectors, our sound systems, do our shows, and then drive on."

John Holod, travelogue filmmaker, March 1998

Film history should be about all aspects of the medium, not simply those of the dominant cinema. Promoting only documentary or avant-garde alternatives, however, further marginalizes other forms, such as newsreels, educational films, and industrials. My current interest is the travel lecture film, which I see as the archetypal form of the travelogue in cinema. (1) This is the world of itinerant film lecturers who present silent travelogues with live narration. At present, I am studying a corpus of 284 feature films in distribution, produced by forty-eight filmmakers, of whom I have met perhaps half. I have attended over thirty live travelogue screenings. (2) Travel lectures take place at hundreds of venues across North America, including museums (the Portland Art Museum), concert halls (the San Diego Symphony Hall), universities (the University of Colorado-Boulder), and community clubs (the Kodak Camera Club of Rochester, New York).

The travel lecture film formed an important part of early cinema, flourished in later years, and continues today, notwithstanding predictions of its demise in the age of television, virtual reality, and the Internet. Despite continuities with early cinema, the travel lecture film remains a little-studied genre. Because it involves a live performance, it cannot be analyzed apart from its idiosyncratic screenings. As Thayer Soule eloquently puts it in his autobiography On the Road With Travelogues, 1935-1995, a travelogue "lives only when the producer and his audience are together." (3) As such, they leave few historical traces. In addition, from the late 1930s to the 1970s, lecturers projected their camera original -- Kodachrome positive film -- until the prints disintegrated. (4) As the colors of the camera original are extraordinarily vivid, and the cost of prints considerable, some producers still follow this practice today. Kodachrome positive prints are one-of-a-kind works, like daguerreotypes, that cannot adequately be replicated. Nowadays, even those producers who shoot negative film rarely make more than one or two release prints. As a result, few such travelogues survive, and fewer still have been archived. The historical invisibility of the travel lecture film is most evident in its total exclusion from film history books. David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson make no mention of the genre in their 800-page Film History (1994).

Most research on alternative film production and exhibition practices has been limited to the early decades of cinema. While a recent issue of Iris: A Journal of Theory on Image and Sound, edited by Andre Gaudreault and Germain Lacasse, focuses on the film lecturer, all 300 pages are devoted to the early cinema period. In their introduction, the editors claim that the lecturer has "definitively disappeared." (5) And yet the city of Montreal, where Gaudreault works, boasts a remarkable travelogue booking agency which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1997. Les Grands Explorateurs presents travel lecture films with live French-language narration in forty-four different venues throughout Quebec. The 1997-98 season included such titles as Visages d'Australie and Parfums de Chine.

The live travelogue's show-and-tell characteristics have remained remarkably consistent over the past century. The most important is the presence of the filmmaker who addresses the audience directly from the stage. A travel lecture offers a "non-fiction drama of people and places, true but dramatized," as one viewer put it, extending the opportunity to "visit vicariously someplace you can't afford to visit yourself." An audience member in Oregon volunteered another definition, "A travelogue is a story about a far away place -- it doesn't have to be far away, yet that seems appropriate -- that presents a variety of information about a culture, in an interesting, perhaps unique way. …