So today on my lunch break I took at a look at two Méliès films on DVD, Le Voyage à travers l’impossible (1904) and Photographie électrique à distance (1908). I'm pretty sure I saw the former, one of his most famous works, before, but it's quite possible that I only saw an excerpt. (In the past I haven't always been good at marking down short films, noteworthy fragments, etc. in my viewing logs.) Le Voyage... is a remarkable, amazing, beautiful, the sort of thing that becomes embedded in one's memory, or so I would think but maybe I had forgotten it already once.
As I looked over the types of films screened in my silent cinema course at NYU, and thought back to our readings, I became very dissatisfied. None of it sparked in me the intensity of feeling I've had towards early and silent film lately. It seems like a standard line.
It wasn't the professor's fault, it wasn't the TA's fault: they were both fine. I think it has more to do with a certain rigidity of curriculum, so that we go over predetermined points (racism in Birth of a Nation, women filmmakers, the Lumières vs. Méliès, and so on) and the real opportunities for engagement, vigorous and passionate engagement, with this arcane and primitive material find themselves passed over. In effect we take our medicine: hem-and-haw over the question of Griffith and ideology, nod our heads at the history lesson that Oscar Micheaux provides a week later, etc.
I suspect that if I were ever to teach an introductory course on silent cinema I'd begin with as much of a hands(and eyes)-on approach to late 19th century Western visual, scientific, and leisure culture as I could. And in the first or second lecture, whenever I got around to showing a "proper" film, I would have tried to recreate the experience as outlined and stressed by Tom Gunning, where the magic of the movies was in fact the appearance of motion from out of a still projection of a photograph. I would emphasize the multiplicity of ways of making, exhibiting, and taking in these cinematographic images--it wasn't a straight line from the mythical December 1895 night in Paris to the Regal Cinemas on 14th St. in New York, and it's not enough to simply say that, it's necessary to show it, and to spend some time in those alternate pathways. Look at coloring techniques, sound and music, narration, intertitling, and all the things that make these objects interesting, and not simply relevant to academic/theoretical concerns of the day. (And I'm not downplaying those concerns, just denying that they are all that matter, or all that legitimize the study of silent film, or any kind of culture.) I'd want students to revel in the sheer power of Le Voyage..., to discuss and write at some length on the tactility of colors, the importance of motion in frame, composition strategies, speed and pacing, connections to other media, and (let's not be scared of it) actual philosophical questions raised by all these practices.
(I'm well aware I'm being perhaps a bit too idealistic, but I don't think I'm being wrongly idealistic. Still, while I'm dreaming: it would be great if professors would screen prints, even if only 16mm, and if they would also give students in a class like this the chance, if at all possible, to do something I still long to do ... see a nitrate print!)