Klein and Mason’s HP Garage “History of Memory” Film Review at TFF2019 Tribeca X Competition

"At First Sight" bride in History of Memory

by HelenHighly

Russian Doll poster

Russian Doll poster w/ Natasha Lyonne

Tribeca Film Festival 2019 presents a wide diversity of films, including screenings of branded entertainment. Branded programming is sponsored by a corporate marketing strategy, trying to connect with an audience in a richer way about the brand. On Friday, April 26, Tribeca X explored the intersection of storytelling and advertising. In an era of “Instagram influencers,” the audience for films no longer differentiates between advertising and editorial; that’s an old-journalism idea that has become almost irrelevant. Among other speakers, Natasha Lyonne discussed her work with the fashion brand KENZO. A short film she created for the company was so successful that it resulted in the Emmy-nominated Netflix show Russian Doll, which enjoyed amazing, almost-instant-cult-like popularity. Several different types of branded entertainment, from Feature to Episodic to VR, will be in competition. IndieNYC had the chance to view one of the intriguing Episodic Finalists, History of Memory (Short Documentary), sponsored by The Garage at HP, and talk with the directors Sarah Klein and Tom Mason, of Redglass Pictures.

a sort of branded Proust”

Tribeca X has not created a new category of filmmaking; branded cinema has a well-established tradition. One legendary BMW campaign employed the auteur’s talents of John FrankenheimerAng Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, and Guy Ritchie, among others. See Frankenheimer’s remarkable film, The Hire: Ambush, starring Clive Owen, below:

Tribeca’s effort to bring the genre to prominence now, through Tribeca X, offers a fascinating look into the process.

Klein and Mason were hired by HP to create a series of short films about how printed photographs affect people’s lives. They were given an evocative working title, “History of Memory,” to start them on their creative journey. The duo focused on the power of photographs to generate deep emotions, and how printed photos act as “magical artifacts.” When we interviewed him, director Tom Mason said:

“If your house catches on fire, what do you grab? You take your photo album. It’s an irreplaceable family heirloom.”

So they asked themselves, “What are the stories that do justice to the incredible emotional connection we have to our most treasured images?” Ultimately they asked, “Can one picture change your life forever?” which became the tag-line for the film series. 

As with any documentary film, a key element is the selection of subjects and storylines. Klein and Mason found four compelling, true stories about lives that were altered by the image:

"At First Sight" couple in History of Memory

“At First Sight” couple in History of Memory

  • a woman who discovers her true racial identity via a long-hidden family photo album, and then becomes part of the family in those photos;
  • a couple who meet across continents because of a single printed photograph sent through the mail, now married, 25 years later, having aged along with that old picture;
  • an adoptee, who as a young adult receives his “baby picture” that was never taken, now framed on the wall along with the rest of his adopted family, providing a part of his life that had been missing;
  • and an elderly Chinese man who becomes an international sensation, based on a photo of him captured many years before, but the picture and negative lost, then discovered by a French archivist who takes his gallery show of reclaimed pictures around the world.

Separately titled “A Secret Album,”  “At First Sight,” and “It’s a Boy,” each story depicts personal memories of how people were shaped by their own photographic history, sort of the branded equivalent of Proust.

"At First Sight" bride in History of Memory

“At First Sight” bride in History of Memory

It is interesting that Klein and Mason have worked with Ken Burns, where the photograph reigns supreme. Burns famously gives life to still photographs by slowly zooming in on subjects of interest and panning from one subject to another in the same photo. This technique is now made possible in many professional and home software applications and is termed The Ken Burns Effect in Apple‘s iPhoto and iMovie. His once-genre-defining technique has become a commodified effect that can be placed onto a photo as easily as a colored filter.

Photo from "The Vietnam Ware" by Ken Jones

Photo from “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns

But Klein and Mason did not copy the stylistic methods of their mentor. They talked with us about what they learned from master-documentarian Burns — to ask the questions “Does the story move me? Does it enrich my understanding of the world?” The stories in this movie do just that. They are well-told tales about real people in the most important moments of their lives. And the film’s investigation into the relationship between photographs and personal history elevates the stories from being merely sentimental.

These four films are very seductive about the inherent power of photographs. But they are talking about analog images, good old-fashioned snapshots and fading family portraits – very tangible in the hand and lasting in the mind. Today, we live with thousands of personal photos on our phones and hard drives, too many to contemplate much less remember, and we squint to see them on tiny screens – pixels, not paper.

Gail as a young girl, in History of Memory

Can the emotions that existed when those images were captured be transported to the digital future? Maybe with the help of a printing machine, HP would like to suggest. But will digital photos, forever cleanly stored in the computer, have the same impact when they are converted to paper?

We assume HP wants us to choose the pictures we wish to save from the digital trash heap, and print them now on HP printers, so they can become our new family heirlooms. The problem is that now we have the option not to print, and to just store on a thumb drive. This is an option that did not exist in the past, and we are no longer compelled to use those antiquated analog formats, which seem burdensome and produce clutter. Modern life cares about saving trees, not memories.

It is somewhat ironic that HP, a “new technology” company, wants to re-invent the past. But if photos are to continue to play important roles in people’s lives, and especially if they are to preserve our emotional connections with our most important memories, then we and HP can only hope that people will opt to print. (Watch the History of Memory trailer, below.)

We cannot help but compare History of Memory to the now-classic TV series Mad Men – season 1, episode 13, called “The Wheel,” which centered around Don Draper’s efforts to create an ad campaign for Kodak’s new, circular slide projector. That particular ad presentation by Don Draper is the moment when Mad Men became a certified pop-cultural phenomenon. Watch a clip from that famous episode, below:

Don compares the slide carousel to a portable nostalgia creator. He says, “it lets us travel around and around and back again, to the place we know we are loved.” Great line! But the real story of that episode is that Don is savvy enough to manipulate the marketplace but ultimately his ad campaign works on him as well and affects his personal life. Don falls victim to his own manipulation when he uses his own family photos for his ad presentation. It’s a dramatic narrative inside an ad campaign inside a dramatic narrative.

"The Wheel" from Mad Men TV serres

“The Wheel” from Mad Men TV serres

And History of Memory works in a similar way. Director Tom Mason even mentioned that the process of making this movie changed the way he and his own family preserve and display their photographs. We think Don Draper would be proud of what History of Memory accomplishes, and so would Mad Men creator, Matthew Weiner.


Update: Congratulations to History of Memory filmmakers Sarah Klein and Tom Mason, and HP, for winning the Tribeca X Award in their category! Click here for the full press release.


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