New York City movie theatre showing a Buster Keaton film (1920s)

Silent Film: Cinema, Society, and the Avant-Garde

Instructor: Rebecca Ariel Porte
BISR Central
68 Jay Street, #425
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Silent film is one of modernism’s quintessential mediums. In an essay on Kafka, Walter Benjamin notes that “the invention of the film and the phonograph came in an age of maximum alienation of men from one another.” Many early film critics and connoisseurs, enthusiastic about film’s technological possibilities and developments, viewed the passing of silent film and the ascendency of “talkies” as a potential regression for the medium, overshadowing novel visual techniques that were still developing in cinema and even stifling the social and political possibilities in the nascent art form. What are the unique aesthetic qualities of silent film? How and why did cinema come to be invented around the turn of the twentieth century? And what does one of its earliest forms—the silent film—have to tell us about the force of cinema in the alienated modern world?

In this course, an introduction to silent cinema, we’ll learn how to watch a silent film and how to understand early cinema in its historical and intellectual contexts. Our questions will include the following: what factors—technological, social, economic, political—contributed to the rise of film? What are the aesthetics of silent film and why? How should we place film with respect to other modernisms, high and low? How did film become a popular medium? When did film become an art? When is film experimental? How were silent films made and within what kinds of structures? What is the relationship of early cinema to problems of race, gender, class, nationalism, propaganda, and what would come to be called “the culture industry”? Why is silent film so good to think with? Our syllabus will explore a variety of silent films ranging from early technological forays to products of the nascent Hollywood studio system to comedies, experiments in cinematography, documentaries, melodramas, horror films, and “art” films drawn from a variety of national traditions. Some of our cinematic referents, paired with critical and theoretical supplements, are likely to include Louise Brooks, Luis Buñuel, Charlie Chaplin, Salvador Dali, Maya Deren, Sergei Eisenstein, D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton, Niren Lahiri, Fritz Lang, Fernand Leger, Mary Pickford, Georges Méliès, Eadward Muybridge, Yasujir? Ozu, G.W. Pabst, Dziga Vertov, and Wu Yonggang.

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
April 11 — May 02, 2022
4 weeks


Registration Open

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