Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Old Films, New Sounds: Screening Silent Cinema with Electronic Music

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Old Films, New Sounds: Screening Silent Cinema with Electronic Music

Article excerpt

Résumé: Les diverses circonstances qui entourent le visionnement d'un film dans un cours de cinéma influencent profondément la réaction des étudiants face à l'oeuvre en question. Que ce soit l'information fournie au sujet du film avant sa projection ou la qualité de la copie utilisée, les choix de l'instructeur peuvent avoir un impacte déterminant (et parfois imprévu) sur la réception du film. Cet article retrace les expériences d'un instructeur qui a tenté d'identifier les divers effets sur les étudiants de la musique d'accompagnement des films muets. Au cours d'un visionnement en particulier, une musique d'accompagnement électronique a été très efficace au près des étudiants. Cela a mené à une série d'expériences pédagogiques visant à déterminer si les étudiants répondent aux films muets plus favorablement si l'accompagnement est moderne plutôt que traditionnel. Cette recherche a été entreprise non seulement pour répondre à mon propre besoin d'améliorer mes méthodes d'enseignement, mais aussi pour fournir un modèle à d'autres instructeurs qui veulent diversifier leurs façons de présenter des films muets.

One of the simplest demonstrations that a film studies instructor can under- take in the classroom involves familiarizing students with the difference between film and video projection. From 2004 to 2006 I taught an introductory film history course in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University covering cinema's first five decades. While approximately twenty-five percent of the students taking this course were enrolled in the department's film production major and were actively creating their own 16mm films, the remain- ing students were largely taking the course out of personal interest or to fulfill requirements for other degrees. As such, the majority of students were not nec- essarily familiar with the technical differences between film and video, nor their variability in image quality. In order to demonstrate this distinction, a compari- son was undertaken using the German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Germany, 1919, Robert Weine). Starting from the beginning of the film, a DVD print was shown on screen via a data projector, which ran for about five minutes. The same opening scenes of the film were then projected via a 16mm projector, and this is the format through which students viewed the entire film. This demonstration subsequently led to discussions in tutorials about the differ- ences between the film and video image, with many students noting that they had not necessarily been aware of the difference in image quality until it was pointed out to them.

One problem with this teaching demonstration, however, was the fact that the 16mm print of Caligari had no musical soundtrack, something that the students had become accustomed to having with their silent films during the semester. This factor would ultimately lead to subsequent demonstrations testing the notion of whether modern electronic music could be used to enhance student engagement with silent films in the classroom. I decided to fill the silence of the Caligari print by synching up a CD during the screening (a senior colleague at another institution occasionally played jazz albums in such a situation). The album selected to accompany Caligari was Songs of a Dead Dreamer by DJ Spooky, featuring music that might be generally described as "electronica" by some, or "trip-hop" by others (my students used both of these terms to describe the music, for example). The terms largely refer to music that has been created by a Disc Jockey (DJ) through combining pre-existing musical samples together and/or crafting electronic tones into rhythmic structures-criteria that informs the definition of electronic music for the purposes of this essay.1 With its dreamlike/surreal soundscapes, Songs of a Dead Dreamer was well suited to the expressionist imagery presented in Caligari, and the album's title served as a thematic link to the film's depiction of somnambulism. …

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