marty norden's musings provoke two musically oriented observations

 

1.  opera audiences [and often ballet audiences too] as a matter of course read a plot synopsis BEFORE going to the performance  -- and this because the interest is not at all in what happens [in “plot”] but in how it’s acted out or performed . . . and years ago, in the heyday of continuous showing double features, audiences showed up at the theater when they wanted to and stayed till the point at which they had entered, thereby often watching the end of one film before the beginning . . . both of these – the first more powerfully, i think -- suggest ways of viewing close to the ones marty mentions from 90 years ago . . . and of course these ways are still with us:: we certainly don’t listebn to songs – or, for that matter watch music videos – to see how they turn out

 

2.  a much more trivial point:  i’ve been pretty familiar with the music scene in london for years [despite living in the states] and know of no venue called “philharmonic hall”  . . . the halls in use a century ago also, so far as i know, did not include a “philharmonic hall” – and indeed the london philharmonic orchestra was not founded until much later . . .  there was, however, a philharmonic hall in liverpool dating from the mid 19th century. and it was used both for music and for cinema . . .  perhaps that’s where   _Where Are My Children?_ played for three weeks in 1917 . . . or was there a since destroyed hall by that name in london in 1917?

 

mike

 

-----Original Message-----
From: Film-Philosophy Salon [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Marty Norden
Sent: Saturday, February 16, 2008 5:42 PM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: pedagogical query: silent cinema

 

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 filmsin

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

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 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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