Why Study Cinematic History?

         The reason why most universities require students to take certain prerequisite courses is to open up their minds to subjects they may not know anything or possibly very little about. The goal is to turn them loose into the world as a well-rounded person who will be able to use the wide variety of courses they took outside of their major, as well as though within their major, when they go out into the world after they graduate and look for employment.

         After students fulfill the university requirements of English, mathematics, and science courses and move beyond their first few years of college, they may find that they still are lacking a few electives outside of their major. This is an opportunity for them to continue to broaden their knowledge about subjects they may be curious to know more about, or possibly ones that might just sound interesting. An advisor may suggest something totally outside the box from the interest and major of the student or the student may stumble onto the course himself. The latter is what happened to me as I planned my senior year and chose the course, "History of Cinema," as an elective.

         As a person with an appreciation of films, particularly in my younger years when I had more time to go out to movies or watch them at home, I thought this would be an opportunity where I could study many different genres of film every Tuesday night and have fun while I earned credit for the class. It has proven to be more than that because it has given me an appreciation not only for the history of cinema as a whole, but also an understanding of the talented individuals behind these films and a more open eye looking through the camera as they saw it.

        For example, this course began with D.W. Griffith and how he developed the narrative form of film back in the early 1900's. After watching Birth of a Nation, I found that it is understandable to see the huge part that he played to help establish the narrative language of the cinema and turn it into an art form, even if one does not agree with his racist sequences. It is not hard to see why there was so much controversy and scandal over this film, but the eye must look beyond the content to appreciate the vision this man had in film development. I was not familiar with D.W. Griffith prior to this class; and, had I not been in this class, I am not sure I would have been able to keep my attention on the film. Instead, I walked away with a greater appreciation for the contributions of this talented director.

         The next film to stand out in this course was the film Greed, made in 1924 and directed by Erich von Stroheim. It was hard to imagine that a film that started out to be ten hours could make any sense after it was cut down to a little more than two hours. It is not wonder that von Stroheim could not look at the final product because he would have been very upset how the studio chopped up his film. However, what was left of his film introduced the audience to a film shot on location that displayed the development of characters, their facial expressions and motions.

         The films during the first few weeks of class were silent, black and white films with subtitles. They required the student to pay attention to every little scene or risk losing some of the content of the film. Training oneself to sit and pay attention to films from this time period can be used by students when they go out into the world and have to sit and listen to many different discussions and meetings, spoken by people from many diverse backgrounds. It takes training, conditioning, and reminding the mind and body that this may not be what you are accustomed to, but it is something you have to open your mind up to if you want to succeed.

         Successful is exactly what Charlie Chaplin, the director, actor, musician was, and his films were internationally famous. After watching his 1925 film, The Gold Rush, I was reminded why I was familiar with Chaplin and the famous character he created in this and many other films. His films have entertained people for many years and everyone thought he was so cute along with being a great mime that could blend comic and tragic themes in this film. He was also quite a musician, and his first two sound films included musical scores by him. His greatest contributions to the history of cinema are as a distinguished director, particularly in his films of the 1920's.

         Not being a big fan of monster movies, I still found myself actually looking forward to seeing the original King Kong film made in 1933. It is amazing how exposing one self to different genres of film during the course of a semester can affect prior mindset of a person. I had not seen the remake of this film and was able to see it for face value rather than to try to compare it to something else. The directors, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, did a fabulous job with the film in many areas. They did an outstanding job creating King Kong especially the way they used his mouth and teeth to make the audience like him and overlook his terrifying size. They showed his gentle side especially with Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). The musical score by Max Steiner was exciting and adventurous as it matched each step of the actors and added to the excitement of the action scenes. Having an open mind as I proceeded to watch this film helped me appreciate the many fine qualities of the film rather than to block it out as a genre I had previously disliked. This lesson could be useful as any student entering the professional world would need to have an open, rather than an opinionated mind. This could apply to a simple thing such as the selection of a restaurant. For example, when the client picks a place you despise, you will have to learn to agree graciously to his or her choice.

         Other films worth noting that we studied were Citizen Kane, directed in 1941 by Orson Welles, a young man who was ahead of his time and full of many new filmatic techniques that he used in this film about William Randolph Hearst. Another incredible director who made many films and left a huge impact on the history of films that started in the 1940's was Alfred Hitchcock. We also viewed other films that helped broaden our appreciation of films from other countries and showed us how they also contributed to the future of the film industry in their country as well as the United States. Some of those film titles are the 1946 release of Jean Cocteau and René Clement's Beauty and the Beast (France), the 1963 film by Federico Fellini titled 8 ˝ (Italy), the 1966 film titled Closely Watched Trains (Czechoslovakia), directed by Jirí Menzel, and the 1950 film Rashomon (Japan), directed by Akira Kurosawa.

         This course began with an advisor possibly suggesting that a student should consider having an open mind to trying the History of Cinema course. This could be compared to keeping your comments to yourself if the client picks a restaurant or movie you dislike. The first reaction of the student to the advisor's suggestion may have been one of "has he/she lost his/her mind" or "I can't sit for three hours watching stupid movies," but my reaction was neither of these. I have always liked movies, but I have not been as loyal to watching them as some members of my family have over the years. This course has opened my eyes to the historical aspect of the movie industry, covering all angles of it related to the time period and the outcomes of the films we screened. It has given me a thirst for more and a better understanding of how we have gotten to where we are today with films. The knowledge gained from this course will help me as well as other students in all disciplines have a better acceptance of a variety of genres of films, which in turn will I hope help them open their eyes and minds when they walk out the doors of the universities with their diploma in hand and enter our very diverse world today.

Susan Marinoff

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