Our four-part lecture series on Jaws comes to a conclusion with Marc Longenecker’s coverage of film auteurs. What makes a film auteur? How might we approach Steven Spielberg’s career? There’s a lot to unpack here, so get ready for another in-depth look at your favorite shark movie.
You will need both sides of your brain for the course I’ll be teaching this spring, “Silent Storytelling”. You use both anyway, but it’s that right brain of yours that is more engaged in the silent film experience. That’s more of what’s at the core of the trajectory we’ll cover.
The course traces the development of film’s visual storytelling language, from the early 1910s all the way through the end of the silent era. What we’ll see, experience, and process – and with live piano accompaniment at every class! – is the gradual decrease of onscreen information being spoon-fed to the audience so that more of the storytelling is assembled out in the theater by the movie-goer.
In my work as a silent film accompanist over the last 35+ years, I go on each film’s journey right along with the audience. Silent film accompaniment is about taking in both the film and the audience. I use music to synthesize the two so that the audience is able to connect emotionally with the drama or humor of the film and engage in that pure cinema dream-state. Doing this has for thousands of films at thousands of shows made me much more aware of the language of cinema and how it’s “spoken” to and understood by an audience.
Silent film didn’t know it was missing anything at the time. Until talkies ended the medium in 1929, silent movies were just called “movies”. Silent cinema utilized every element at its disposal to tell stories, entertain, and move people, and every bit of film language was developed and used to a poetic maximum during the silent era.
We’ll get to see how this was put into practice by many luminaries and pioneers of the era: D.W. Griffith, Lois Weber, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Vsevelod Pudovkin, Douglas Fairbanks, Oscar Mischeaux, Buster Keaton, William S. Hart, Laurel & Hardy, Erich von Stroheim, Ernst Lubitsch, King Vidor, and more.
Kevin Brownlow, the Academy-Award-winning silent film historian, archivist and restorationist, wrote that with silent film, the audience is the final participant in the filmmaking process. That’s the right-brain part of silent film I was referring to. We’ll explore this during the course, right along with all that historical information and factoids that’ll go into your left-brain.
This week, CFILM continues its exploration of Jaws with Michael Slowik. Professor Slowik, whose body of work includes After the Silents: Hollywood Film Music in the Early Sound Era, 1926-1934, naturallytackles how the film uses sound. In particular, of course, he investigates that score, and how to approach soundtrack as a film scholar.
We recently hosted a Saturday afternoon workshop in Direct Animation with historian, artist, and filmmaker Janeann Dill. Dr. Dill is an accomplished painter, animator, teacher, and the biographer of Jules Engle (1909-2003) founder of American experimental animation. This Spring she will lead a course on Animation Histories in CFILM, and so the workshop was a taste of things to come. Dr. Dill walked us through experimental animation’s history and development in Europe, showing work by Walter Ruttman, the unparalleled Oskar Fischinger, and others. With those images still buzzing around our heads, we grabbed light boxes, strips of 16mm leader, and started making movies.
Armed with sharpies, thumbtacks, and a dental tool (!), we set about scratching and drawing directly on filmstock. Marking out 24 frames at a time, we drew repeated patterns, each a little different from the last. This was our first experience in “camera-less filmmaking.” If you’ve ever made your own flipbook, or played with a zoetrope, you’ve created moving images from still pictures. The principle is the same, but there is something revelatory about marking and scraping a length of film. In out digital age when every smartphone is a mini-studio, we can lose touch with the magical simplicity of cinema’s fundamental illusion. Few of us really know what happens to that light once it hits an image sensor, or how data is stored and rearranged to put a video on our screen. Effortless moviemaking. But touching film, leaving a physical trace in a tiny 10 X 7 mm (roughly) rectangle, and working through six feet of stock and 240 frames for 10 seconds of movement — that gives us a new, tactile relationship with the medium.
We toiled steadily on our tiny artworks, squinting at the acetate and making endless dots and dashes. Dr. Dill unrolled a bit of film she’s been working on, and we gasped at its precision and detail.
Our efforts were crude, but enthusiastic. We spliced our bits of film together, wound them on a reel, and threaded a projector. In the end we had barely enough footage to fix focus. We held our collective breath as our little dots quivered, wobbled, and zipped across the screen. For a moment, all those still pictures became something else entirely, they came to life. We witnessed the spark that ignited an artform.
At the end of the day, we separated our bits of film so that we can continue to work on them, guaranteeing that the little movie we made will never again be shown. But I was lucky enough to make a smartphone video of one piece of film. Laura Perez Maquedano, a junior film major who’s short Méliès movie was featured a few months back on this blog, created this little dance of blue, black, and white.