Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Countdown To Ecstasy: China Girls

"China Girls" are the unknown stars of cinema, their careers as fleeting as a blink-and-you-miss it walk-on in a movie. Perhaps known only to film projectionists who saw glimpses (no more than 2 to 4 frames) of them at the very beginning of films, they were the anonymous women who posed with color strips as part of the film countdown leaders, an industry practice used to calibrate color balance and tone from 1928 to 1992 before the advent of digitalization made them unnecessary. They were also sometimes referred to, in more politically correct language, as "projector girls" or "Kodak girls."

I first heard about China Girls thanks to filmmaker John Heyn, perhaps best known as Jeff Krulik's collaborator on the cult short Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Heyn edited together a series of countdown girls in his short "Girls On Film" and set the montage to the music of the obscure Passions song "I'm In Love With a German Film Star." (This hard-to-find single appeared most recently on a 1999 Rhino Records release titled The Postpunk Chronicles: Left of the Dial). I loved this film so much after seeing it during a 1998 film screening at Skizz Cyzyk's old home, The Mansion Theatre, that I begged John Heyn to let me air it on my public access show Atomic TV. Heyn's film remains the single best known source for viewing these mystery women.

Though China Girls were cast off like unwanted lovers, there's renewed interest in these forsaken women thanks to Julie Buck and Karin Segal, a pair of conservationists at the Harvard Film Archive, who found and restored dozens of images from film leaders and put together the "Girls on Film" show at the Sert Gallery in the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA (through September 18, 2005).

But the show still asks many more questions than it answers. Such as, what's the deal with the patronizing and racist name? (Buck theorizes that "It could be a racist idea, because usually the hair is pulled back so hard that perhaps the women ‘looked Chinese.’") Who were these women? (Lab technicians? Professional models?) And who set up the carefully staged shots? (Film lab geeks?) While Buck and Segal have been able to track down the names of a few China Girls, they have not yet succeeded in matching a name with an image. Like the people who worked on early porn loops, the names may never be known, forever vaporized into thin air. Their pretty faces a fleeting memory lost like tears in rain.

Other articles:

China Girls

Flicker Chicks

A Bevy of Unknown Beauties


Blogger The All-Seeing Eye, Jr. said...

The name may have no ethnic connotation at all--it may be analoguous to "china dogs," i.e., ceramic dog figurines, which have sometimes been cited metaphorically as a measure of immobility. Fascinating post, thanks.

3:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard there was a country called "China", too -- the gall!

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everything has gotta be racist doesn't it. Can't be some perfectly innocent explanation.

Thanks for ruining an otherwise interesting subject with your absurd invective.

Come up with conclusive proof it's racist, fine. Until then, just stick to the history and not the idle and overly sensationalistic speculation.

4:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been a professional projectionist for over a quarter century now, and I.ve got to dispute two points:
1. I've NEVER heard these pictures referred to as anything other than 'Kodak Girls', and
2. Discarded? No, they're not discarded, they are very much still in current usage.

5:08 PM  

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