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?
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
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
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.
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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