by Matt Levine
A music-video ancestor that preceded MTV and YouTube by decades, Scopitone machines capitalized on the popularity of café culture in 1960s France (as seen in many of Godard's early films) to bring a visual accompaniment to the music industry—and, in so doing, provided an avenue of cultural expression for the Arab diaspora migrating to Europe at the time. A sort of 16mm jukebox, Scopitones provided an array of music videos for modern pop hits: simply put in a franc, witness the film cartridge spool automatically, listen to your favorite tune and watch some dizzyingly creative, on-the-fly filmmaking. Instead of cattily lambasting the latest Beyoncé video on YouTube, you’d crowd around the screen and debate it with an eager crowd—an experience which may or may not have constituted greater cultural engagement.
Walker Art Center
Directors: Michéle Collery, Anaïs Prosaic
Cast: Salah Sadaoui, Mohamed Jerrari, Daidy Davis-Boyer, Mohamed Mazouni, Alain Brunet, Slimane Azem, Dahmane el Harrachi, Noura Hamadi, Kamel Hamadi, Samia Gamal, Abdel Halim Hafez, Farid el Atrache, Said Dadouche, Hamadi Laghbabi, Khlifi Ahmed, Abdelwaheb Doukkali
French Television Release: 1999
The phenomenon was particularly significant for the Arab diaspora—indeed, Scoptione machines didn’t really take off until Arab musicians started making films for them, which soon became ubiquitous in the bistros of the Paris. This is compelling subject matter for a documentary, but unfortunately, Treasures of the Scopitones—an hour-long documentary made for French television in 1999—too often resembles a greatest-hits compilation that’s sorely lacking in the historical and social context so vital to the medium’s development. What was the economic and political background of the French music industry, not to mention the disparate industries of northern Africa? What colonial and post-colonial developments gave rise to the great mid-century migration of Arab immigrants to France, Spain, and Italy? How did the music videos featured on Scopitones transform the industry, if at all? These questions, among many others, go entirely unexplored by the documentary. Yet for a technological and artistic innovation as obscure as Scopitones, there is undoubtedly some value in witnessing the unique eclecticism these films offered, even if we’re not invited to plunge much deeper beneath the surface.
Typically made in a matter of days on a minuscule budget, the films featured here provide an almost unfiltered (and often contradictory) expression of French-Arab culture in the early ‘60s. Like the French crime serials of the 1910s that were filmed on the streets of Paris and made up as they went along, these “treasures of the Scoptiones” are made more exciting and volatile by their speedy, thrifty production. Unavoidably, perhaps, the social pressures and obstacles faced by Arab immigrants in Paris were recurring themes: one of Mohamed Mazouni's videos, for example, is shot in an urban construction site at which Arab workers toil in the background. “I’m sick of building roads for heathens,” sings Mazouni with surprising candor. “All we Arabs hear is ‘no!’” At other times, the films’ expression of the hardships of immigration takes on a more melancholy and metaphysical form, as when Kamel Hamadi sings, “On the road of exile I drift off like a sleepwalker.”
Conversely, the musicians often direct social critiques at their own culture, perhaps using their geographical displacement to speak about their homelands more uninhibitedly. One film featuring Slimane Azem features only a brief snippet of music; it’s primarily a short narrative in which a destitute drunkard in Paris relates a sad tale about his wife back in Algeria, whose father and father-in-law are both trying to claim her as their servant. Understandably, though, the artists’ conception of their homeland often takes on a homesick tenderness—my favorite example being a Sabbahi film in which the Lebanese singer telephones her hometown of Beirut: “Hello, Beirut? O, apple of my eye, give me Beirut, don’t make me wait!” She is somehow answered by vivid imagery of the city, turning her phone call (and the music video) into a ravishing travelogue.
The conflicting tensions between Arab and European culture are often conveyed via sexuality. The comparative sexual permissiveness of French culture gives rise to a few cautionary tales about lustful men who are destroyed by their obsessions—a man imprisoned for beating another who has “taken” the woman he loves; a playboy financially ruined by his hedonistic lifestyle—sometimes interspersed with unnerving low-angle close-ups of dancing, miniskirt-clad women. As one Egyptian musician says when revisiting the salacious imagery of his peers’ films, “It’s true that I’m a little…let’s just say that blows my mind, right!?” The sexual disconnects between men and women take on more colorful forms in a dazzling musical number at the beach; the swimsuit-clad women sing, “I’ll never get married. I love the single life too. Men just show off. Deep down they are nothing!” The men respond: “We’ve got other problems too. Bigger problems!”
What might be most pleasurable about these wildly varying Scopitone films is their sheer weirdness. The tiny budgets and rushed production schedules didn’t prevent the directors and producers from taking extravagant chances, including computer-animated backgrounds that are truly jaw-dropping in their technological archaism. Many films exude an affably absurd sense of humor, as when a man with a ridiculous fake mustache compliments his cuisine in overtly sexual ways: “Chick peas are delicious and goat meat is plump. Let me take a swim in the couscous pot!” Maybe the most visually innovative piece, by Abdel Halim Hafez, is set on the moon—a milieu achieved by stringing a luminous array of lights and glittering decorations onto a completely black set (bringing to mind the gorgeous handmade effects of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast). Put simply, the lineup of films here offers an exhilarating taste of the creativity and musicianship to be found in the breadth of Scopitone films made at this time.
The only trace of real-world contextualization arrives at the end, when we learn that no Scopitone machines were made after 1978, officially ending the medium’s reign only a few years before the birth of MTV. The main factor, one former musician mentions, was the movement of immigrant families to the northern suburbs of Paris as housing projects emerged there, diminishing the business for urban bistros. The documentary ends on a note of musical optimism as well as social analogy, as one interviewee compares the Arab music of the Scopitone era with the rap music currently being made in the Parisian suburbs. Yet it would be nice if the documentary had attempted similar historical exposition earlier on—a history of the prevalence of Scopitones is only half-complete if it doesn’t address the social circumstances of its popularity. A musician tells us, in praise of music’s revolutionary aspect, “we wanted to change the world with guitars!”—but we have to take him at his word, since we never get a sense of how or why this “revolution” took shape.
But if Treasures of the Scopitones fails to lend this phenomenon the historical insight it deserves (and requires), it certainly succeeds in lauding the unique vitality of these films. They're dynamic and idiosyncratic enough to compensate for the documentary’s simplicity in other areas. When one man claims that this music was “the soundtrack to our story,” it sounds like a legitimate fact rather than metaphorical hyperbole. Treasures of the Scopitones may not really tell us that story, but as a soundtrack it's astounding.
Treasures of the Scopitones plays in conjunction with the exhibit Album: Cinematheque Tangier, a project by Yto Barrada, on display at the Walker until May 18. Many of the Scopitone films featured in the documentary may also be seen on a Scopitone machine in the exhibit.