Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

MoMA Celebrates Silent Cinema

Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

MoMA Celebrates Silent Cinema

Article excerpt

Museum of Modern Art, New York

Beginning in October of 1999, and continuing through March of 2001, The Museum of Modern Art in New York undertook an extensive re-examination of its collections, as well as the very notion of modernism, in a series of exhibitions called MoMA2000. Actually three separate series - Modern Starts, Making Choices, and Open Ends - MoMA2000 abandoned (at least temporarily) the traditional, chronological history of modern art, developed and championed so persuasively by MoMA since its founding in 1929, in favor of a thematic approach to the various permanent collections. The Department of Film and Video was a key contributor to this experiment.

The opening segment, Modern Starts, attempted to re-think the early years of modernism across all media. Inspired by the fresh understanding of early cinema which has emerged over the last two decades as a result of the Brighton Conference of 1978, The Department of Film and Video decided to present its silent film holdings in a new light, giving renewed emphasis to films produced before World War One. An equally important consideration was the fact that, although the Museum had added significantly to its collection of international silent cinema over the past thirty years, few of these recent acquisitions had been presented to our film-going public.

The entire length and breadth of silent cinema was covered, and so the title chosen for the series - From Automatic Vaudeville to the Seventh Art: Cinema's Silent Years - was an attempt to convey the notion of the medium's development, from its humble beginnings as a theatrical and fairground amusement in the nineteenth century, to its full flowering as an art form in the first decades of the twentieth. Of the several thousand silent-era films in MoMA's collections, only those deemed essentially complete, or of best-surviving image quality, were programmed; fragments and subjects whose primary value reside in their historical content were also exhibited, but in special screenings where they could be offered within an appropriate context.

Significantly, our earliest holdings were presented in a manner sympathetic to their first exhibition in the years 1893-95. Rather than project Thomas Edison's kinetoscope loops in our theaters, as has been our custom, we wanted to show them in something approaching their original context - as a peepshow attraction within a larger space devoted to leisure activities. The Museum commissioned Ray Phillips to build two facsimile kinetoscope machines and placed them in CaféEtc., a multimedia environment created as a laboratory in which we might experiment with a variety of new (and old) technologies in a traditional café setting. Such titles as Blacksmithing Scene (1893), Sandow (1894) and Annabelle Butterfly Dance 1 (1894) were exhibited on a rotating basis throughout the series. Viewers dropped a coin in a slot and the 35mm subject would slowly flicker to life, running for approximately thirty seconds before fading away. The effect on most museum visitors was telling, as many had never before experienced such an intimate, almost voyeuristic relationship to a moving image. Thus we were able to lay the foundation for what would be the startling appearance of the projected image.

As a companion to the appearance of the kinetoscopes themselves, MoMA brought back into print a rare volume from its special collections, W. K. L. and Antonia Dickson's History of the Kinetograph, Kinetoscope and Kinetophonograph. Originally published in 1895, it is the earliest published history of the cinema and is based on material first presented in the Dicksons' book-length biography of Thomas Edison published the previous year. The Museum chose to issue a paperback facsimile of the original volume in its collections because it has the distinction of being W. K. L. Dickson's personal copy, acquired by MoMA in 1940 and containing fascinating marginalia in his own hand. In their far-reaching, yet wonderfully astute predictions concerning the future of the cinema, Dickson and his sister drew upon their intimate knowledge of the cinema's initial development at the Edison lab in New Jersey, as well as their own hopes for its ultimate success, to craft a history of the medium before it had even grown beyond the confines of its peepshow origins. …

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