Film 105 – Senior Seminar on Silent Film. A course with Prof. Kaes at UC Berkeley
This class is a “senior seminar” – it is only meant for people who have completed their undergraduate studies in Berkeley and are in their last year before graduation. I figured that I could smuggle myself into the class based on my prior experience in filmmaking. The first day of class, we are around twelve people total – a real seminar, in a conference room, with Prof. Kaes announcing that we could make out of the course whatever we agree upon – as long as it serves the purpose of the course, namely exploring the first two decades of early Cinema.
Expectations and Reality
I don’t have high expectations. Clearly, I had not really cared in the past about the likes of the Lumiere Brothers, George Melies, Charlie Chaplin, Thomas Edison‘s film studios, Nickelodeon VS. Laterna Magica VS. Cinematographe. What I like though is the free approach that acknowledges us as adults, as students who can literally bring something to this conference table.
Each class, two students team up to present a topic. I for example present the topic of Thomas Edison in relation to his film studio bossing and industrial research lab, while my topic partner Stephanie concentrates on the implications in film that came up during Edison’s time. Each of these topics is derived from a chapter of Kaes’ book manuscript, which in itself consists of a collection of primary sources. Primary Sources are original writings from “the time” – in our case, between 1895 and 1920. What is so wonderful about primary sources is that they are an honest imprint of how life was like back then, and how authors thought about Cinema in the early 1900s.
Now, when an author from 100 years ago writes that he dislikes the 1-man-peephole Nickelodeons and rather has films presented to him on the big screen with the (originally French) projection technique, you cannot be ignorant enough to not draw parallels to our modern time. If you’ve been around enough in filmmaking, you will have had this discussion with other people as well: “How terrible that people watch films they downloaded on the phones instead of the movie theater. This is the end of true Cinema.”
History is Repeating Itself
And here is where the magic of the class starts for me: We are re-living the past – technology and cinema experience is repeating itself, over and over again.
Back in the early 1900s, Edison sued the hell out of so many filmmakers and camera engineers for patent infringement. Today, Sony and Arri and RED are taking each other to court for stealing each other’s RAW video compression concepts.
Back then, people talked about film either helping children learn content, or slowing them down by distracting them. Today, we talk about the violence of films either being influential in children’s development or not really having impact on one’s potential to violence.
Back then, some German nutheads invented abstract film, where weird lines were animated to run across the screen in a rhythmic manner, intersecting and shrinking/growing to the melody. Today, we all hail the VJs which animate abstract visuals to live Dance/Trance/Techno/House music.
Do you see something? It’s a pattern. And this is why history is such an important thing to learn, for all of us, regardless of our profession: We can learn from the past to shape our own future.
If you think about building a new camera, learn the history of people who got screwed over and got their camera technology stolen by the bigwigs – and how others were able to legally protect their products. If you think about becoming a VJ, look back at the Abstractionist filmmakers and how it all started. If you want to become president, look how political leaders in the past succeeded at transforming their countries to their better, or how they got corrupted by power and caused irreparable damage by incompetence or tyranny.
That’s what Kaes teaches us – to read the pattern, to appreciate history for its all-time relevance.
Being a Historian of the Future
A second thing that I learn in this class is to “Be a Historian of the Future”. Kaes encourages us to bring articles about the present day changes in the film and entertainment worlds. That includes things like primary sources (original articles) of present-day journalists analyzing changes in the rating system of the US, certain memes describing funny aspects of our new society, studies about mobile phone use in relation to youtube, Psy’s phenomenal viewcount on youtube with Gangnam Style etc. etc.
But once the article is presented, we don’t talk much about how strange Psy’s style is or why we hate that movies are so violent – much rather, we talk about the implications on society that a South-Korean popstar suddenly takes over the attention of the internet with no comparable precedence. Or, that memes give a populist depiction of current social sentiment as well as democratizing comedy to include all millenials in the joke – only requiring you to pay attention to popular internet culture to understand the jokes.
Being a Historian of the Future lets you suddenly experience life on a second rail: While you dealt strictly with actually experiencing the world only, you can now look at everything happening around you and withdraw yourself from it to objectify and analyze it from the standpoint of a historian who would live 100 years in the future. What are the historical implications and interpretations of the pop culture Boo-men like Backstreet boys or Justin Bieber? What do memes say about our current society’s humor? How will the ever-shrinking size of computers impact the culture of the 21st century? How will cinema be changed forever [or not] by the popular re-introduction of 3D movies? How will history view whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, and how will our treatment and judgement of privacy issues impact on how society will evolve in the next 100 years? How is facebook and twitter changing human interaction and social networks of individuals forever, what are the historical changes that will be brought about by so many individuals being so connected?
Ever since this class with Prof. Kaes, I have never looked at life the same way, as cheesy as this may sound. I do play the historian of the future in my head on a constant basis. Analyzing popular culture with a withdrawn objective viewpoint is a very powerful ability that should be fostered and duplicated – it gives us the ability to get a glimpse of the big picture – an invaluable talent that can help us to change the world to the better – or just live a little bit more consciously in it, appreciating thing we always took for granted.
One effect the class has on me: Instead of writing a research paper, I am allowed to make a little movie to capture the sentiment of the class. So, I go and remix Charlie Chaplin with our modern age – the result being my latest short film “All I Want Is Silence”.