Re-Examining the Silent Film: Interviews with Historians Charles Musser, Eileen Bowser and Richard Kozarski

Article excerpt

Recently, during a few hot summer days in New York City, I had the opportunity to talk with three distinguished scholars of the silent cinema: Charles Musser in his home at 45th Street and Tenth Avenue, Richard Kozarski in his offices at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, and Eileen Bowser in the film division of the Museum of Modern Art. The common topic among them was the ongoing History of the American Cinema from Scribner, to which each has contributed a volume (see the book reviews beginning on page 125 of this issue). Although each of the three conversations occurred separately, it is possible to stitch them together into a kind of "montage" of voices, if you will. The three scholars are friends, as well as colleagues; and because their interests reflect different specific periods of time in silent film history, they frequently consult with each other. Indeed, they regard each other more as collaborators than as competitors.

"Taken together, our books form a mosaic," says Kozarski. "Many of the topics thread through all three volumes, but we were able to view them from different angles. We all felt each other to be 'looking over each other's shoulder,' so to speak-a kind of guarantee no one would go too far off the point."

"Certainly this Scribners project is the most ambitious film history to be published in this country," avers Bowser, the senior member of the trio, who some years ago was one of the readers of Musser's doctoral dissertation. "And it's significant also in that it represents the end result of a movement that began back about 1978 when there was a symposium sponsored by the International Federation of Archives in Brighton, England, which covered the 1900-1906 period. The time was right for scholars to come from all over the world and reevaluate film history from the perspective of our own generation. Teams and groups of scholars were working together to reevaluate film history for our generation. Recently the world's film archives have made available for scholarly study vast bodies of films and related materials that just weren't available to earlier writers."

"There have been histories of film from the very beginning, of course," continues Kozarski, "but one of the problems until the 1960s was that too many primary materials about the making and distributing of films have been locked up in the studios. The Fox, Paramount, and Universal papers, for example, were not in any public collection. But now the floodgates are opened and universities and libraries across the country are holding mountains of material, including primary documentation. Now we can learn which films went over budget, what people were paid, what happened in staff meetings, etc. We can work with a certain degree of specificity."

Bowser says that these primary materials totally alter the perspective of the historian. "When you can go back to actually see the early films and examine the records, your whole vision changes. Now instead of looking backward, as so many film historians have done, we try to put ourselves in the position of looking forward. We try to get the preconceptions out of our minds and just sit down and look at what those audiences saw. You don't say, Oh, that was a primitive era, and they didn't know how to do things.' It wasn't that they didn't know how to do things, they just did them differently. Film at first was an exhibition, something to look at, to be amused by, even amazed by; but when it began to change in Griffith's time it became something else, something that drew the audience into it as part of the film, an experience they lived through."

"We all felt that a certain amount of revisionism was inevitable," explains Musser. "After all, we have had access to more materials than have been generally available to previous historians. For instance, it has been quite the thing over the years to downplay or decry the importance of Edison in the early history of film and emphasize the work of his assistant, W. …