Soon after World War I, movie theaters took on a new role. Newsreels ran before feature films between 1925 and 1967 — people coming to see a movie got a dose of news to begin it.
On Friday afternoon, as part of the newly re-invigorated Wind-Up Fet in Williamstown and North Adams, film archivist Rich Remsberg of North Adams will host a History Jukebox, a Wheel-of-Fortune-style game show involving vintage newsreels.
“It’s a huge part of people’s understanding of the world,” said Wind-up artistic director Paul Sturtz. “My dad was born in 1926 and went to the movies once a week, and that’s how he became a jingoistic guy who wanted to go fight Germans even before he was at an enlistable age.”
Newsreels and Hollywood romances formed peoples’ world views and their politics, he said. And these films can give a sobering view of the people who made them. One short reel shows cypress trees cut down in a Florida swanp.
“You hear a jaunty sound track with this depressing film about deforestation in Florida, and your senses are in revolt,” Sturtz said. “This is a good thing? Look how great it is that these 100-year-old trees are coming down now finally. … If you look back at great old-growth forests of Indiana, where Rich is from, these great forests were decimated within decades. [You wonder,] why didn’t they have that ecological awareness? That idea is abstract, but when you see this 1-minute film [you think] they’re completely out of their gourds.”
Remsberg has created his game show on a lighter note.
“I want to be the thinking man’s Monty Hall,” he said, recalling the charismatic crowd-playing host of the TV show Let’s Make a Deal.
Along with serious news, the old reels included a lot of odd novelty stories, he said: unusual news stories, odd inventions or crimes or contests.
“They tended toward sensational and simplistic and staged,” he said, “and in modern eyes they can have entertainment value.”
He found these reels in his day job as an archival researcher for documentary films, and he enjoys them for their impressions of the past — like the first appearance of an invention that now seems commonplace — and even more for what they reveal about the film-makers who recorded them. In 50 or 100 years, viewers looking back at tilms made today will see as many blind spots, he said.
Outside the History Jukebox, they will show other news reels as openings for some of the festival’s feature films.
“I think Paul’s got a very good idea, having documentaries as the spine of a festival,” Remsberg said. “Nonfiction and performance places documentary film in the context of storytelling — it has good hybrid vigor.”