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Culture and Education

A Study of Old and New - Silent Movie History

Hiroshi Komatsu, Professor,
Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

I teach film history but my specialty is silent movies. Movies were invented at the end of the19th century and were silent up until about the end of the 1920s. Silent movies were shown in movie theaters with live music accompaniment and the dialog was shown as text called "intermediate subtitles"inserted into the scenes. My research focuses on silent movies as a peculiar art form, created in the 30 years after movies were first shown.

Current advanced video equipment makes it very easy to repeatedly play video materials and thus allows us to conduct relatively effortless research. When I was a student, silent movies were not generally available for viewing. The usual approach was to "study"the silent movie from the cinematic literature even though these films were actually in existence. Technological advances such as video tapes and other media significantly eased these difficulties. Research into silent movies has advanced to a much greater degree in the past thirty years or so, and the study of the silent movie is gradually catching up to conventional art studies (i.e., art history).

Studying movies is more difficult than studying art; for example, art history has access to copies of works (i.e., paintings) that can be shown in a classroom. Videos or DVDs can be shown but the time required to view them is longer, whereas still paintings or sculptures are immediately available to the senses. From an education point of view, this time restriction is more significant. The length of a movie created in the very early period runs about one or two minutes; movies created up until 1906 ran less than 10 minutes. It was rare for those movies to run to 10 minutes. It is possible to show these movies in a 90-minute class. Over time, however, the average movie has increased in length. Now it is impossible to show one movie in just one class. And in terms of "time", music is also temporal. Unlike movies, music can be represented by music scores. It is also possible to extract a scene that is significant for whatever purpose. But students may think they have learned about the movie without seeing the whole thing. Students viewing the whole movie may not have a problem but there is not so much silent movie software available.

This is a problem but the situation has been drastically improved because films can be shown in college classrooms. Film, even if only partial, can be used as teaching material, which has more to offer than words, photographs or illustrations. Worldwide, more opportunities have become available to use this type of image software, and research on the film (film history) has been stimulated. Compared to contemporary film, research on silent movies is still difficult but it is becoming an established research field in the past decade. My university is the only place in Japan specializing in silent movies. During discussions with researchers in other countries, it becomes apparent that the young are becoming interested in this art form - the silent movie - created 100 years ago. I wonder when we in Japan will be able to discuss D.W. Griffith or Louis Feuillade on the same level as the art of the Renaissance or Impressionism. For example, when seeing and comparing a painting created in 1910 and a film created in the same year, which do people feel is older? Of course people think the movie is "older"because it shows or "represents reality." People do not know how to view an old movie and that may enhance the feeling of "oldness."The research field of silent movie history is a relatively new area of study into the images that make people feel very old.

Hiroshi Komatsu, Professor,
Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Born in 1956. Graduated from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (Aesthetics and Art History Department, Faculty of Fine Arts).
1978 - 1980: Studies in the University of Copenhagen (Cinematology Research Center), Received Danish government scholarship
Completed the second course Graduate School, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.
Assistant professor, the Faculty of Arts, Saitama University
Assistant professor, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Waseda University.
Currently, professor Faculty of Letters, Arts and Science, Waseda University
Author of "Origin of Movies" (Seidosha)
Co-translator of "World Movie History" (Sadoul) (Kokushokankokai, 12 Vol.)