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  • DAVID THORBURN: This afternoon, by welcoming

  • our virtual audience, the audience that's

  • looking at this lecture on MIT'S OpenCourseWare, some of you

  • attentive viewers may notice what the students here

  • would not notice-- that seven years have elapsed.

  • There's no podium-- some of you may have gotten that--

  • and a much older professor.

  • I hope that our completion of these lectures seven years

  • later will not result in a reduced or less energetic

  • performance.

  • I'll do my best.

  • We come now to the end of our first segment

  • in the course on silent film.

  • And I thought it would be helpful to use

  • today's lecture in part to create some perspectives

  • on both the silent film, the idea of the silent film--

  • not just the particular films we've

  • looked at, but more generally the phenomenon of silent film,

  • the whole phenomenon-- and some perspectives that will also

  • help us look forward to what will follow,

  • to the sound films that will follow this week.

  • I'd like in a certain way to do this

  • by complicating an idea I've already

  • suggested to you about the notion

  • of the film as a cultural form.

  • What does it actually mean to say

  • that a film is a cultural form?

  • What, in a concrete sense, does this phrase signify?

  • Well, one answer I think I can offer by drawing

  • on your own experience.

  • My guess is that all of you have watched older films, films

  • from 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, and immediately

  • been struck as soon as you began to watch

  • the film by certain kinds of differences

  • that the original filmmakers would have been oblivious to.

  • And I'm talking about things like the hairdos of people,

  • the clothing that they wear, the way automobiles look, or even

  • a world in which there are no automobiles,

  • the physical environment that is shown.

  • One of the things that this reminds us of

  • is that always, even the most surreal

  • and imaginative and science-fictiony

  • films, always inevitably in some deep way,

  • in some essential ways, reflect the society

  • from which they come.

  • They may reflect more than that, and they

  • may be influenced by other factors as well,

  • but they are expressions of the culture that

  • gave rise to them in certain really essential ways.

  • And one of the things this means,

  • among other significance, one of the most interesting aspects

  • of this recognition is the fact that films

  • get richer over time.

  • They become artifacts of immense anthropological interest,

  • even if they're terrible films, because they show us

  • what the world of 50 or 25 or 30 years ago actually looked like

  • and how people walked and how people combed their hair

  • and what kind of makeup they wore,

  • all of the things, many of the things, which

  • in many respects, the people making the original film

  • would simply have taken for granted as part of the reality

  • they were trying to dramatize.

  • So one way of thinking about film as a cultural form

  • is to recognize that as films grow older,

  • they create meaning.

  • They become more interesting.

  • They become richer, and a corollary implication

  • of this idea that films become richer

  • is that the meaning of any individual artifact,

  • cultural artifact, especially cultural artifacts as complex

  • as films, is always in process.

  • But the meaning is never fully fixed or finished,

  • that new significance and new meanings emerge

  • from these texts with the passage of time,

  • as if the texts themselves undergo

  • a kind of transformation.

  • One final point about this, just to sort of tweak

  • your broader understanding of these kinds of questions--

  • one of the kinds of transitions that

  • occurs with particular artifacts is they sometimes move or make

  • a kind of transition from being recognized

  • as merely ordinary and uninteresting parts

  • of the society from which they grow, from which they emerge,

  • simply ordinary routine aspects of the experience of society.

  • Later ages may value these routine objects

  • as profoundly valuable works of art.

  • And in a certain sense, one could

  • say that the film in the United States

  • underwent a transition of that kind,

  • that at a certain point in the history of our understanding

  • of movies, American culture began to recognize that movies

  • were actually works of art, that they deserved comparison

  • with novels and plays and poems and so forth, probably

  • an idea that all of you folks take for granted.

  • Many of members of your generation

  • admire movie directors more than they do novelists and poets--

  • a radical mistake it seems to me,

  • but that's my literary bias showing through.

  • I certainly admire great directors certainly as much

  • as I do good novelists.

  • But the fact is that this is really not the case.

  • This recognition of the film as an artistic object,

  • as I've suggested earlier in the course,

  • is not some fixed or stable identity

  • that the film has had from the beginning.

  • It's an identity that the film has garnered,

  • that has been laid on the film later

  • as cultural changes have occurred

  • and as other forms of expression have emerged

  • that have put the film in a kind of different position

  • hierarchically from other kinds of imaginative expressions.

  • And as I've already suggested many times in this course,

  • we'll come back to this principle, because it's

  • such a central historical fact about the nature, the content

  • of American movies especially.

  • It's the advent of television that

  • is partly responsible for the transformation,

  • although it takes some time for the transformation

  • in American attitudes toward what movies are,

  • because television became the throwaway item,

  • the routine item, the thing Americans

  • experienced every day.

  • And the consequence of that was to change our understanding

  • of what the film was.

  • Now of course, the Europeans had an insight like this long

  • before the Americans did, and that's

  • something I'll talk about a bit later today

  • and also at other times in our course.

  • So that's one way of thinking about what it means to say

  • that a film is a cultural form.

  • It means that it's unstable in the sense

  • that its meanings are not fixed, and the way

  • in which a culture categorizes and understands

  • a particular artifact is also something that's unstable,

  • that undergoes change over time.

  • But there are other ways to think

  • about this problem of film as a cultural formation,

  • as an expression of society, and I

  • want to tease out some of those meanings for you as well.

  • One way to come at this problem is

  • to think of a kind of tension or even contention

  • between our recognition that film is a global form-- that

  • is to say that because the movies are watched

  • across national boundaries, movies that are made

  • in the United States can influence movies that are made

  • in Europe and vice versa.

  • So in one sense, the film, especially

  • after film got going within the first 10 years of its life,

  • it had become an international phenomenon,

  • and American films were watched in Europe,

  • and European films influenced American directors, even

  • at very early stages so that we begin

  • to get certain kinds of films that certainly appealed

  • across national boundaries.

  • And so there is a kind of global dimension

  • to what film might be.

  • And there's another way of thinking

  • about what it means to talk about film

  • as a global phenomenon, not as a merely national expression.

  • And that has to do specifically with the way in which

  • particular directors and films in particular societies

  • can influence world cinema.

  • And from the very earliest days of cinema, as I suggested,

  • this has been a reality.

  • As David Cook's History of Narrative Film informs you,

  • and I hope you'll read the assigned chapters

  • on Russian film closely, because I can only skim

  • these topics in my lecture.

  • What you'll discover among other things

  • is that the great American director, DW Griffith,

  • had a profound impact on Russian films

  • and that, in fact, at a certain point

  • in the history of Russian films, there

  • was a workshop run by a man named Kuleshov,

  • who actually took DW Griffith's movies

  • and disassembled them shot by shot

  • and studied the editing rhythms in his workshop.

  • This had a profound impact not only on Russian cinema,

  • but Griffith's practices had a profound impact

  • on virtually all filmmakers.

  • And there's a kind of reverse influence,

  • because certain Russian directors, Eisenstein

  • especially, but also Dziga Vertov,

  • their work had a profound impact on the films

  • from Western Europe and from the United States.

  • So it's a two-way process.

  • It's too simple to say that particular films are only

  • an expression of French culture or only an expression

  • of Russian culture or only an expression of American culture.

  • They are also global phenomena, and they

  • were global phenomena from almost the earliest stages.

  • So it's important to recognize this tension or this balance.

  • There are dimensions of film that reach

  • across national boundaries.

  • And as we've already suggested, one

  • of the explanations for the success of American movies

  • in the United States was in part a function

  • of the fact that they did not require language

  • in nearly the same degree.

  • They were visual experiences, and an immigrant population

  • coming into the large cities of the United States

  • at the turn of the century was one of the primary factors that

  • helps to explain the phenomenal quick growth of the movies

  • from a novelty into a profound embedded cultural experience.

  • So it is a global phenomenon in a certain way

  • and reaches across national boundaries.

  • But there's also-- and we need to acknowledge

  • this side of the equation too-- there's also a profound,

  • a really deep fundamental sense in which

  • films, at least until very recently,

  • are an expression of the individual national cultures

  • from which they come.

  • I say until very recently, because some of you

  • must be aware of the fact that a new kind of film

  • is being made now by which I mean a film that

  • seems to appeal across all national boundaries, that

  • doesn't seem to have a decisive national identity.

  • At least some films like that.

  • I think the Bollywood people are making films like this.

  • Americans are certainly making films like this now.

  • And sometimes if you think of some of the action

  • adventure films that will have a cast that

  • is drawn from different cultures, a sort

  • of multiethnic and multilingual cast, all of them dubbed

  • into whatever language the film is being exhibited in,

  • you'll see an example.

  • What's begun to emerge now in our 21st century world

  • is a kind of movie that already conceives of itself

  • as belonging to a kind of global culture.

  • So far I'm not sure these movies have as much artistic interest

  • as one would like, but it's a new phenomenon,

  • and the globalizing tendencies of digital technology

  • are certainly encouraging new ways

  • to think about the origins or the central sources of movies.

  • But until very recently, it is still the case

  • that virtually every film made in any society

  • reflected in deep and fundamental ways

  • aspects of that society.

  • And one of the reasons that this is such an important thing

  • to recognize is it means that, especially

  • in cultures like the European societies

  • and those in the United States, the movies are profoundly