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FILM-PHILOSOPHY  February 2008

FILM-PHILOSOPHY February 2008

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Subject:

Re: pedagogical query: silent cinema

From:

"Henry M. Taylor" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Film-Philosophy Salon <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 17 Feb 2008 00:19:37 +0100

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Considering that filmmakers in the silent days probably never  
anticipated the longevity of their product - not least through  
academic discussion and scrutiny -, and also considering how much  
flexibility was allowed in how and in which order films and programmes  
were compiled and shown, I guess they would grant present-day forms of  
screening some leeway. I doubt exact viewing conditions could be  
reproduced, though students would obviously benefit from knowing in  
which ways cinema-going and the experience of film was different.

Henry




> Quoting "Frank, Michael" <[log in to unmask]>:
>
>> . . .  if my
>> purpose in this silent cinema course is to examine how moving  
>> images can
>> work to communicate meaning in the absence of spoken dialogue, and  
>> if my
>> circumstances [shared, i venture, by most of us] do not permit me to
>> provide a benshi, how honest a representation of a film like this one
>> can i offer? . . . if in some sense the film was made presupposing a
>> benshi, is showing it without one a significant misrepresentation?
>
> I find this a highly intriguing subject, and I wonder if I might  
> broaden it
> a bit to include other extra-textual sources of narrative  
> information upon
> which silent-era cinema audiences might have drawn...
>
> I am currently working on a project that examines narrative films made
> around 1916 and 1917 that dealt with birth control and/or abortion.   
> The
> productions that I have been focusing on are the Lois Weber-Phillips  
> Smalley
> films _Where Are My Children?_ and _The Hand That Rocks the Cradle_,  
> as well
> as Margaret Sanger's _Birth Control_ and an unrealized but  
> reasonably well-
> documented project developed by Alice Guy-Blache and Rose Pastor  
> Stokes.
> One of my incidental discoveries relates to the issue at hand; it  
> was not at
> all unusual for newspapers to publish press releases that gave away  
> major
> details of the films' stories.  These documents are loaded with what  
> we
> today call "spoilers," and I am wondering if the expectation among  
> movie
> companies, theater managers, and audience members back then was that  
> the
> spectators were to have a fairly strong sense of the films' narratives
> before they set foot into the theaters.
>
> Say, for example, that _Where Are My Children?_ was booked to play  
> in a
> given theater for seven days.  During each of those days, the local
> newspaper(s) would publish a press release that would reveal key
> developments in the film's story.  I speculate that a typical  
> spectator
> about to see this film would know ahead of time that a young woman  
> dies as a
> result of a botched abortion and that the wife of the film's central
> character (played by the redoubtable Tyrone Power) has had abortions  
> without
> informing him.  This latter situation is the film's *main*  
> revelation --
> indeed, it prompts the husband to ask the titular question -- yet it  
> is
> "pre-revealed" in the press releases.
>
> Knowing that newspapers were so important as sources of information  
> back
> then, it seems to me that audience members would have difficulty  
> avoiding
> these press releases (if indeed they wanted to avoid them).  These  
> items
> were standard fare in the newspapers; in a few cases, they were  
> published on
> the papers' front pages.
>
> I suspect that, in some instances, audiences used these documents to  
> help
> them make sense of movies that had been severely truncated as a  
> result of
> censorship.  A city or state censorship board might demand the  
> excision of
> several critical scenes, and the ensuing "cuts" might render some  
> situations
> or character actions as incomprehensible.  The press releases might  
> thus
> enable spectators to "fill in the blanks" created by the removal of  
> certain
> key moments.
>
> The widespread presence of spoiler-laden press releases doesn't seem  
> to have
> diminished audience enthusiasm for the films.  _Where Are My  
> Children?_ in
> particular was an incredibly popular film -- it played for weeks if  
> not
> months in New York City, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and many other
> cities and towns.  (In fact, I just learned that it played at London's
> Philharmonic Hall for three solid months in 1917 but without benefit  
> of a
> permit from the British Board of Film Censors.)  The general  
> situation does
> make me wonder, though, if audiences entered movie theaters with  
> something
> resembling a fatalistic perspective -- i.e., they would know that  
> certain
> "fixed" situations and events would occur in the world about to unfold
> before them.
>
> Sorry for rambling on so, but this general topic has given me  
> considerable
> pause.  It raises some interesting questions for those of us who teach
> silent-era film: Should we prepare and distribute similar documents  
> to our
> students before the screenings?  Or would such narrative summaries  
> distance
> the students too much from the films and ruin the sense of discovery  
> and
> engagement that we would want them to have?  I would be grateful for  
> your
> thoughts on any of the above; citations for relevant research or  
> theory
> would be especially welcome.
>
> --Marty Norden
> --------------------------------------------------------------------
> Martin F. Norden
> Communication Dept., 409 Machmer Hall      norden(at)comm.umass.edu
> University of Massachusetts-Amherst        fax: 413 545-6399
> Amherst, MA  01003   USA                   vox: 413 545-0598
>               Home page: http://people.umass.edu/norden
> --------------------------------------------------------------------
>

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