Silent Storytelling

By Ben Model

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.

Pick of the Syllabus: Robin, Marian, and Technicolor

Take a dive into the vault with this Wesleyan Magazine article by Scott Higgins.

I regularly return to  The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) in my film courses, and so it is a delight to see the film finally available on DVD in a restoration that does some justice to its grandeur. Robin Hood provides a glimpse of classical Hollywood’s formal perfection and insight into the popular imagination of late 1930s America. Much of film’s appeal derives from the fact that it was produced by Warner Bros., the studio of hard-hitting, topical Cagney gangster pictures and Busby Berkley musicals. Robin Hood, one of Warner’s few costume prestige-pictures, and only its third Technicolor production, was a departure. It cost the studio an unprecedented $2 million, but it moves with the speed of an inexpensive B film. Prince John (Claude Rains) announces his villainous coup with the simple declaration, “I’ve kicked Longchamps out! From now on I am Regent of England.” Moments later, Robin (Errol Flynn) storms into the hall, lays a deer’s carcass at John’s table, and announces “From this night on I use every means in my power to fight you.” Prince John attacks, Robin escapes and, amid a hail of arrows, Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) flashes a concerned glance. In trademark Warner’s fashion, the game is on with a minimum of fuss.

The narrative compression helps bring the genre’s politics sharply forward. The adventure genre has always envisioned a world where people are judged by their abilities rather than class, and where determined individuals can change government for the better. In Robin Hood these ideals forcefully resonate with 1930s concerns. According to the film’s rhetoric, a just government, in Robin’s Sherwood or in the late-1930’s America, should not squander resources on the rich, nor on international affairs. When the good King Richard returns to Sherwood, Robin chides the leader “whose job was here at home protecting his people instead of deserting them to fight in foreign lands.” Though topical, the film never slackens the pace to deepen characters or advocate an agenda. Instead, again in the Warner Bros. style, Robin Hood does everything at once. Distinctions between romance and politics collapse when Robin tenderly declares to Marian, “Normans or Saxons, what’s that matter? It’s injustice I hate.” Produced in the late Depression and, eerily, at the bring of the war against Fascism, Robin Hood is oddly relevant without betraying the genre’s escapist roots.


Robin Hood is also an aesthetic milestone in Technicolor design. Introduced in 1934, “three-strip,” Technicolor was a complicated and expensive system that used three negatives to create a full-color image. Technicolor films were painstakingly designed works of art. The Technicolor Corporation, in concert with the major studios, developed “color scores,” planning a film’s palette around the drama, much like a composer might create a musical score. Where earlier films had subdued Technicolor to make it an unobtrusive adjunct to the story, Robin Hood gleefully puts a broad gamut of red, yellow, green, violet, and blue on brilliant display. Like a musical, it weaves in big “production numbers,” like the dizzying archery contest, that dazzle with an intensity that must have overwhelmed viewers raised on black-and-white.


At its best, Technicolor filmmaking was the art of a million details, and it is in the dense texture of its costumes and mise-en-scene that Robin Hood distinguishes itself. When Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) is introduced in the cold hall of Prince John’s palace, his back is to the camera so that his rich blue cape contrasts with deep velvety red accents stretched across the composition; he is set like a blue sapphire in a band of rubies. Suddenly, Sir Guy turns, the gold lining of his cape flares, and he reveals the brilliant yellow emblem on his chest. The flourish is only momentary, but it completes a visually arresting primary triad of blue, yellow, and red. Technicolor boldly punctuates our first glimpse of Robin’s arch rival.


After countless viewings, Robin Hood still astonishes with its deft mosaic of color. If the care lavished on the film seems inordinate for a simple adventure yarn, it also reminds us of the strength of the Hollywood industry and its importance to American culture in the studio era. With each return to Sherwood we relive the basic pleasures of innocent adventure, but the journey also affords fresh discoveries.

Itching for a Fight!

It’s only just October, but lately my mind has been wandering to next semester and The Cinema of Adventure and Action. This is one of the first classes I taught here at Wesleyan and I return to it every few years without fail. I love action films because they seem so fundamentally cinematic — a genre that no other medium could do better. At their best, they sweep viewers up in a kind of rhythmic perception, where movement becomes emotion — visual and visceral music.

Teaching the class led me to write my most recent book, a study of a small but formative slice of action-film history — the sound-era serial. Among other things, these quick and dirty productions from the 1930s – 1950s refined a cinematic vocabulary for depicting physical combat. Today’s super-hero blockbusters have humble origins indeed. Since it will be months before I get to leap back into action, I thought I’d share a video-lecture on the art of staging and cutting fight scenes. Consider it a down payment on Spring semester:

Documentary: The Other Kind of Visual Storytelling

Four of our CFILM Podcasts speak to a lesser-known but vitally important component of Wesleyan Film: Documentary Storytelling. Though fiction has dominated the past few years of our Senior Thesis Screenings, the film department’s dedication to teaching and making documentary stretches back to its origins. From the outset, Professor Ákos Östör, both a practitioner and scholar of documentary, offered courses in the form, cross-listed with Anthropology. In the early 00’s we pioneered co-taught science documentary courses with Biology, and our production professors regularly move between fiction and documentary in their own work. We also devote time to documentary history in FILM 304 The History of World Cinema and our elective FILM 385 The Documentary Film. In general, we think of documentary and fiction as two points on a continuum of visual storytelling. Both are narrative forms and both can make use of the same techniques. But while fiction films use cinema to create imaginary worlds, documentary refers to the real.

Wesleyan has an enviable roster of documentarians among its alumni, including James Longley (Iraq in Fragments), Douglas and Roger Kass (Emptying the Skies), Sebastian Junger (Restrepo), Roger Weisberg (Dream On), Jessica Sanders (After Innocence), Martha Shane (After Tiller), Shannon Sun Higginson (GTFO) and many many others (apologies to all I’ve not mentioned!).  Over the past year, we’ve welcomed back distinguished documentary filmmakers to share their experiences on our podcast. You can find out about Mary Robertson’s Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time and her related projects on American political culture in PODCAST EPISODE 4. Over the summer, we posted EPISODE 7 featuring Tracy Strain and Randall MacLowry, and EPISODE 8 with Lana Wilson, followed by our season opener, EPISODE 9 featuring Sadia Shepard. Together, these interviews reveal the richness of contemporary nonfiction film and Wesleyan’s contribution to it.

Wesleyan graduate Randall MacLowry and his partner Tracy Strain are consummate professionals who have produced nearly 20 documentaries through their company Film Posse. They visited last spring to discuss Sighted Eyes / Feeling Heart (2017) the first feature documentary about African American author and activist Lorraine Hansberry.  Tracy, who wrote and directed the film, explains how Hansberry’s story inspired her to become a filmmaker and led to a decades-long project that culminated with Sighted Eyes. Randy, producer and editor, takes us through the process of shaping the movie for the marketplace. Together, they offer insight into the art of crafting a story from documents, the necessity of building trusting relationships with interview subjects, and the importance of tenacity for any filmmaker. They also give our students invaluable advice along the way.

There’s no better proof of the continuity between fiction and documentary than Lana Wilson’s profoundly touching film The Departure (2017), the subject of CFILM PODCAST EPISODE 8. As a student, Lana focused on movies like Douglas Sirk’s ravishing 1950s Melodramas and Aki Kaurismäki’s sublimely dry Finnish comedies. As a filmmaker, she’s made her name in non-fiction, beginning with the Emmy-winning After Tiller (2013) a film about abortion rights that she made with fellow alum Martha Shane, and most recently with The Departure which follows the suicide prevention efforts of Japanese Buddhist Priest. When she visited campus last year, Lana talked about her career journey, how she went about creating The Departure, and how that film was inspired by lessons she learned from filmmakers she studied here. After a highly successful American tour, the film opened in Japan in September. Her latest work A Cure for Fear just premiered at the Camden International Film Festival.










In our latest podcast (EPISODE 9) we catch up with filmmaker, producer, and author Sadia Shepard (In Search of the Bene Israel) who is inspiring the next generation of Wesleyan documentarians in her course Documentary Filmmaking: An Introduction to Project Learning.  Each year, she leads a group of first-year students through the process of developing, shooting, and post-producing short documentaries about Middletown and the surrounding area. CFILM hosts a showing of the films at Middletown’s art center The Buttonwood Tree each spring. On the podcast, you will hear excerpts from the discussion that followed last year’s screening, featuring the students themselves. The class combines an introduction to the history of the form with intensive practice, and it was an instant success. This fall, Sadia added a second section to help meet the demand, and some of her former students are now making documentaries for their senior theses.

Encouraged by our students and alumni, CFILM plans to expand opportunities for documentary filmmaking and study over the next few years. Our world needs honest, responsible, and compelling non-fiction storytellers more than ever. We are committed to helping them find their voices.


Un Oubli Gigantesque

 FILM WORKSHOP is CFILM’s organization for frosh and sophomore student filmmakers. Every week, the workshop meets with one of our filmmaking faculty members to discuss screenplays, organize projects, and produce short films. Steve Collins mentored the group in the fall and Mirko Rucnov took over in the spring.  Laura Perez Maquedano, a rising junior film major, joined the workshop last year and devoted herself to making a trick film in the style of Georges Méliès. The result is Un Oubli Gigantesque.

Laura shot the movie on 16mm and achieved her special effects in-camera, using techniques pioneered by Méliès between 1896 and 1913. Her inspiration was The Cook in Trouble (1904), a movie we show in History of Global Cinema.




Laura’s cook gets into serious trouble when an egg grows to gigantic proportions and transforms into a horrible dragon. The growing egg, which might look like a simple effect in the digital age, took some serious engineering to achieve. Laura drew on  production techniques for The Man with the Rubber Head (1901).




Like Méliès, Laura built a special ramp to slide the egg toward the lens and double-exposed the film by rewinding the camera and carefully counting frames.




She shot the whole thing in an abandoned garage, not too much smaller than Méliès original glass studio.  The film is a great example of working within limits, inhabiting film history, creating something new by returning to the past, and celebrating the joy of cinema — all things we try to teach. We can’t wait to see what Laura does in the major!

Click HERE to Watch the Film 

The Nitrate Picture Show

By Michael Slowik

In early May, I had the pleasure of attending The Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY with my colleagues Jeanine Basinger and Marc Longenecker.  The nitrate festival is—to my knowledge—unique in the sense that it is the only festival to screen exclusively nitrate prints. As film historians know, nitrate was the film stock used around the world until about 1952, when a switch to acetate film stock occurred.  Nitrate is known for being both highly flammable and prone to deterioration over time, so it is truly a rare privilege to be able to view high-quality nitrate prints in 2018.

So, did the festival’s films look different from the digital images that we call still call “film” today?  In a word: YES!! From the first film to the last, the nitrate prints offered a noticeably greater depth of field—along with a sense of crispness between various objects in the frame—that even the best digital projections today cannot match.  And in terms of gradation, I was regularly struck by the astonishing array of gray tones available on a nitrate print. These subtle gradations allow the image to convey textures, shapes, and other subtleties that we simply no longer experience in today’s digital cinema.

Every film on the program—whether short or feature-length, black-and-white or color—was a treat to watch on nitrate, but for me, some of the greatest pleasures included two Technicolor films: a short Movietone travelogue called Along the Rainbow Trail and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes.  Though colored film stock deteriorates over time, both films—and especially The Red Shoes—were still able to suggest the stunning level of color saturation that nitrate Technicolor could provide.  I also greatly enjoyed Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73—probably the best film on the program—for the way in which nitrate integrated character with landscape, especially the climactic shootout on the high rocks of Arizona.  But for me, the nitrate highlight was The Razor’s Edge, a superbly shot 145-minute evocation of beauty and loss that I had viewed many times, but never on a nitrate print.  Using lavish, carefully lit images and well choreographed staging and blocking, The Razor’s Edge absorbs you in the beauty of post-World War I high society (not the mention the beauty of Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney in their prime), while simultaneously giving you the sense that—through mistakes, missed opportunities and tragedies—it is a world that is gone and will never return.  Only via gorgeous nitrate can The Razor’s Edge fully evoke these qualities.

The Razor’s Edge

The nitrate festival is an invaluable resource for putting historians and movie buffs in the shoes of audience members of the past.  Watching these films in their original format helps us understand why film dominated popular entertainment for so long, and why so many people in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s fell in love with, obsessed about, and habitually returned to the movies.

Limitations of Life: Fassbinder Learns from Sirk

By Leo Lensing

As students of “New German Cinema” know, I show sequences from Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) when we discuss Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s bold adaptation from 1973, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Fassbinder substitutes a more complicated relationship between a younger Moroccan immigrant worker and an older German cleaning lady for the 1950s version of a fraught May-December romance embodied in technicolor (and lily white) by Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman.

I have threatened for years now to repeat a seminar that I taught once long ago, “Limitations of Life: Fassbinder & Sirk,” and this fall I will make good on that underhanded promise with a course that explores the relationship between the once neglected German-American émigré director and the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema. Fassbinder’s 1971 essay “Imitation of Life. Six Films by Douglas Sirk” was a major factor in the critical rediscovery of Sirk’s subversive melodramas. The encounter with these films accelerated Fassbinder’s ambition to make films that combined Brechtian “distanciation” with Hollywood glamor. The course will explore the connections between the Sirk films that Fassbinder first saw in Munich in 1971, including Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life, and his early Sirk-inspired social dramas of contemporary German life as well as their impact on the great historical trilogy about the early postwar years, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, and Veronica Voss (1978-1981). We will also look at two films Sirk made in Germany in the late 1930s with Zarah Leander, the Swedish-born star of German cinema in the early years of Nazi Germany. These films, too, marked Fassbinder’s work and are perhaps one of the inspirations for Lili Marleen, his portrait of a torch singer compromised by her performances for the “culture industry” of the Third Reich.

As students of all my film courses know, I like to show them what dealers in movie memorabilia call the “paper” of the industry: posters, programs, postcards, scripts, even letters and other manuscripts and typescripts. During the March break – in a bookstore in Berlin piled high with cinema odds and ends of all kinds – I found this picture-postcard portrait of Zarah Leander from the 1940s:

In The Marriage of Maria Braun, Fassbinder has the heroine and her sister Betti making their way through the ruins of their bombed out high school before singing “Nur nicht aus Liebe weinen” (Never Cry Over Love), a hit song from one of Leander’s early films and a kind of anthem of their adolescence.

Not long before Sirk made Imitation of Life, he signed a 24-page-plus contract with Universal Studios, which I rescued from a book dealer in Baltimore.

Sirk agreed to “render his services as a motion picture producer, including, but not limited to, services in supervising photoplays and/or services in a consulting capacity with respect to photoplays including the selection, writing, and development of stories, adaptations, dialogue and/or continuities, cutting, editing and the selection of cast and all the services as may be required of producers according to the custom of the industry.” In other words, Universal wanted it all! Sirk was also required “to conduct himself with due regard to public conventions and morals and to agree that he will not do or commit any act or thing that will degrade him in society or bring him into public hatred, contempt, scorn or ridicule or that will shock, insult or offend the community or ridicule public morals or decency.” It’s safe to say that this might have worked for Sirk – it was the 1950s after all – but never for Fassbinder.

Commentators on the relationship between Fassbinder and Sirk rarely mention that not only did the young filmmaker eventually meet Sirk and participate in a joint interview, they also made a film together. Juliane Lorenz, the editor of Fassbinder’s last films and the president of the Fassbinder Foundation, has given me a private DVD copy of Bourbon Street Blues, a short based on a story by Tennessee Williams. This scarcely known, rarely shown film will be another object of the course’s inquiry into one of the most productive intergenerational relationships in the film history of the twentieth century.

LIMITATIONS OF LIFE: Coming in September 2018!

A Significant Blog

AWARENESS is CFilm’s public series of free films engaging with vital social, political, and cultural issues. Now in its third year, the series brings Middletown and campus communities together to confront and discuss a wide range of fascinating and sometimes difficult subjects. This year’s films included The Departure, The Rape of Recy Taylor, Paper Lanterns, Age of Consequence, and Destruction of Memory. The series concluded last Tuesday with the Indian documentary An Insignificant Man followed by a discussion with co-director Kushboo Ranka and Anthropology Professor Anu Sharma. Swapnil Rai, who taught CFILM’s course in Bollywood Cinema last fall, moderated the session. Afterward, she shared a few thoughts about the film:

An Insignificant Man is an observational documentary about a very unique moment in Indian politics, the rise of the Common Man Party (Aam Aadmi Party, AAP). It documents the early years of AAP, from the party’s inception as an anti-corruption movement, to its culmination as the ruling party in the state of New Delhi. This documentary is compelling for two reasons. First, it gives the viewer a singular and insightful glimpse into a unique democratic process; the formation of a political party from the grassroots level. Second, it very effectively utilizes the observational documentary form. The filmmakers Vinay Shukla and Khushboo Ranka filmed for over 400 hours with their unobtrusive DSLR camera to then crystallize that footage into a crisp 100 min narrative. Their documentary gives the audience an uninhibited and honest look into the emergence of AAP and reveals the machinations behind the political haze. Four years hence, the AAP has lost its idealism and devolved into just another political party. This time capsule of their incredible rise is euphoric nonetheless.



It appears you have stumbled upon the Wesleyan College of Film and the Moving Image: The Social Media Experience! Welcome!

Consider this here blog your virtual access point to CFILM’s guts– who we are, what’s happening, ways to get involved. We’ll update every week with goings-on, thoughts on film, and the Wesleyan CFILM podcast (!), so check frequently to stay up-to-date. Have fun! Watch Closely! And be safe!