16 / 11 / 02 – 15 / 12 / 02
Exhibition / Films / Talks / Performance
What do those Old Films Mean?
Six part series for Channel 4 Television (1987)
Each 26 min., Dir.: Noël Burch
What Do Those Old Films Mean? was originally a six part series that aired on England's Channel Four Television. The series was conceived by Noël Burch. It explores the early days of film in six different countries - Great Britain, the US, Denmark, France, the USSR and Germany from a historical, social, political and cinematic perspective.
Vol. 1: Great Britain 1900-1912
Along the Great Divide
Vol. 4: France 1904-1912
The Enemy Below
Vol. 2: USA 1902-1914
Tomorrow the World
Vol. 5: USSR 1926-1930
Vol. 3: Denmark: 1910 – 1912
She! The City and The History
Vol. 6: Germany 1926-1932
Under Two Flags
La lucarne de l'infini (Life to Those Shadows )
Noël Burch (1991)
Two different attitudes towards silent films are prevalent amongst non specialists.
Those acclaimed as Great Films are treated as though the hallowed decades in the Museum of Cinema had somehow turned them into icons of Pure Form, of Universal Emotion, had somehow detached them from the time and place in which they were made. For example, it is considered irrelevant to wonder why Abel Gance in 1926 should want to idealize Napoleon and trivialize the French Revolution, or why D.W. Griffith in 1916 should want to show world history as a pageant, animated by something called "intolerance," with only the American present as "real" (and, implicitly, perfectible).
As for the thousands of less prestigious early films, they are treated either as curiosities to be marveled at, enigmatic artifacts fallen from some unknown planet (this is especially true of films made before the First World War) or as objects of myth whether or not their comical effect was intended.
The contention of What do those old films mean is that films of the past can be better appreciated by relocating them within their social and historical context and that, conversely, certain dimensions of the societies which produced them can be better understood when their films are deciphered in this way.
What is it that one should know about a set of old films? The economic conditions under which they were made; the social origins of those who made them; the cultural environment in which they were first seen, and by whom; the important social and political themes that are refracted through them, consciously or unconsciously. It is crucial to know how the films of one country differ from those of another within a given time-frame, so as to pinpoint factors which, appearances notwithstanding, were more local than they were "universal." This last point is especially important in dealing with the Primitive Era (1895-c. 1914), since it has for so long been assumed, even among specialists, that during this "heroic age" filmmakers the world over were engaged in a common "battle for technical know-how" and that national differences were peripheral to.the vital matter of each film's contribution (if any) to the Progress of Film Language, or else to its Primitive Charm (if any).
Yet, is it not of considerable interest to realize that, for example, the monotonously edifying moralism of U.S. productions, from the beginning of cinema, is not simply the mechanical reproduction of some such "essence" as American puritanism, but is a product of class and regional relations specific to turn-of-the-century U.S.A.? Or to know that the "subversive" character of so many early French films is related to the fact that the country where cinema was first industrialized, nevertheless "lagged behind" the most advanced capitalist economies? Or to point up the singularity of Denmark's early "erotic melodramas", with their forthright treatment of sexuality and desire, at a time when these themes were radically suppressed in other national productions?
Needless to say, the television format- as well as the personal ideological convictions of the author of the series - have led to the choice of certain, often very brief periods and to the selection of only a few among the many co-existing strands. For example, in dealing with the German Twenties, the focus has been on the films produced by the Left, to the almost total exclusion of the high-art or commercial films that were certainly more representative of both cultural and popular taste. For the Soviet Twenties, the stress is on films dealing with the problems of everyday life, films long neglected in favor of the experiments of Eisenstein, Dovzhenko or Vertov, although they were probably more popular and certainly more representative of their period than any of the classical "masterpieces."
A word is in order regarding the non-verbal components of the sound tracks of this series. There is considerable historical justification for adding soundeffects to films made between 1900 and 1912. It was common practice during public screenings - the lavish travelling cinemas of the French fairgrounds, for instance, came equipped with sophisticated "soundeffects organs." However, to add such effects to films from the Soviet late Twenties is, perhaps, stretching a point and to be justified more by considerations of television aesthetics than by the historical imminence of synch sound. Since the earliest beginnings, the public screening of films has always involved musical accompaniments - and to show mute films in dead silence is to deprive them of a temporal "yardstick" and an expressive dimension which those who made and saw them when they were still "live objects" deemed absolutely essential. After 1920, it was common for an original musical score to be composed (most often compiled from the repertoire of familiar classics, with the addition of "original" bridging material) for this or that "big" film. Otherwise, pianists were left to improvize out of ingenious catalogues of evocative themes. For this series, no attempt was made either to unearth and record original scores or even to recreate the usual type of accompaniment provided by the average pianothumper in a popular hall. Our musical sensibility and culture, has changed radically in the space of fifty years: we no longer find acceptable Murnau's The Last Laugh with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition or Sternberg's The Docks of New York with Schubert's Unfinished Symphony: The assumption has been made here that a whole web of cultural connections links the cinema and the music of a given time and place, however far apart the social milieus out of which they arise. Each programme offers, as a sub-text, a "panorama" of the music of the chosen time and place.
Silent films were almost never silent. They were also seldom seen in black and white. Even leaving aside the sophisticated polychrome stencil techniques used by Pathé for over twenty years, the majority of silent films produced in the West were tinted according to a simple narrative code: blue for night, amber for day, red for fireside effects, etc. All the fiction films excerpted for this series have been coloured in this spirit, as much to achieve the three-dimensional effect which was one of the original aims of colouring as out of antiquarian fidelity.