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Friday, September 13, 2013

Classical vs. Romantic Aesthetic in the Silent Film Era (1890s-1920s)

The Story of Film - An Odyssey
Available on Netflix Streaming
Released 2012
The Story of Film - An Odyssey New York Times Review January 2012
The Story of Film - An Odyssey - IMDB
The Story of Film - An Odyssey - Rotten Tomatoes

  I DVR'ed episode 2 of this sprawling 900 minute plus television documentary by critic/narrator Mark Cousins about the history of film.  I was so impressed by the DVR episode that I searched "The Story of Film - An Odyssey streaming" on Google, and quickly discovered that it was on Netflix streaming. I watched the first two episodes a little bit each night this week and I found this documentary really enthralling on a number of levels, but mostly because Cousins actually seems to be in touch with the last 50 years of film criticism and non-Hollywood film, so he's giving what is essentially the Criterion Collection history of film.

  Cousins posits fairly early on that this is a revisionist or alternative history of Cinema, assuming that the main Hollywood driven narrative is the recognizable narrative for most viewers.  However, for me it is the history of Cinema, not a competing story.  Hollywood still plays the central role in a history of film that includes non Hollywood film, if only because the Audience for non-Hollywood films  within the United States was negligible until after World War II.

 The two most interesting themes from the first two episodes of this monster documentary are the movement of film from being a "popular amusement" to an art form between 1900 and the 1920s.  The second is the analysis of the mainstream 1920s Hollywood aesthetic as being "Romantic" and not "Classical."    Although he doesn't really delve into the terminology, it is clear that he is using Romantic and Classical with the meanings established in 19th and 20th century art criticism.  So by Romantic he means Romantic like M.H. Abrams meant Romantic in his book, The Mirror & The Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition.

  Using Abrams Mirror/Lamp metaphor, Classicism sees art as a mirror and Romanticism sees art as a lamp.  Thus, for Cousins the Hollywood spectacle film of the 1920s, with it's soft lighting of starlets, emotive subject matter and over wrought set design, is the definition of Romantic and is about as "Classic" as a Wordsworth poem.  This whole analysis seems to play off of an understanding of the silent film era as being equivalent to "Classic" Hollywood.  I'm not sure that is a term that is really embraced by American audiences.  Being Northern Irish/British, Cousins comes from a different perspective on that question.

 The other interesting theme is the process by which film started as an amusement, something less then art, and evolved into a recognized art form by the teens/twenties of the twentieth century. Again, as a television type documentary, Cousins doesn't get into the mechanics of it, but he does show some early theaters- built before the movie "palaces" of the teens and 20s, and they look like the equivalent of video arcades.  Early theaters were often referred to as Nickelodeons, which is a compound word combining Nickel (price) and Odeon, which is what they called a theater in ancient Greece.

  The Story of Film is a must for anyone looking to dive into the Criterion Collection- because it shares a similar perspective on world cinema and many of the non-American works discussed are represented in the Criterion Collection.

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