The Sunday Intertitle: Educating Archie

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There’s a chance that next year I’ll be teaching a course in film history. This feels like a nice back-to-basics thing to do. When I first started teaching at Edinburgh College of Art there was very little formal structure or supervision to the course — the hippydippy art college philosophy survived into the nineties.

Since it seemed I could do just about anything I liked within reason, I created a series of lectures and, later, screenings, which walked the students through film history from Lumiere to the present. It was very western-centric, but it covered the major developments of film language and introduced them to a few names. Since this was a practical film-making course, this was all a bonus, but my emphasis was on film language. I didn’t care if they mastered the dates and there was no test. Just an attempt to open up possibilities and show them different sources to steal from.

As the course has become more constrained by oversight and broken into individual sub-courses, this whistle-stop tour of film history disappeared, but ironically it’s now coming back, as there’s a need for a single-semester course which can be taken by outside students who aren’t necessarily experienced in practical filmmaking and haven’t been trained on our equipment.

I decided to ask the Twitter hive mind what movies they’d show to exemplify the 1910s, maybe the period I’m least familiar with. Elisabetta Girelli suggested SIR ARNE’S TREASURE, which I hadn’t seen. I should work my way through all the suggestions, though.

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This one has Scottish baddies, which appealed. And, as it unfolds, it feels like THE VIRGIN SPRING is copying from its playbook. Three “ruffians,” a terrible crime, the criminals pass unrecognized among the good folk, divine intervention and revenge. In Bergman the latter two are reversed, and everything’s more horrible and we don’t know quite what we should make of it. But I like the idea of a lineage running so: SIR ARNE’S TREASURE: THE VIRGIN SPRING: LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.

In terms of film language, the camera movement in SAT is surprising. The first move is a curved track preceding a guard as he patrols a curved corridor. Following someone about is, in a way, the simplest kind of tracking shot, conceptually, but director Mauritz Stiller’s moves have a certain originality.

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When the guilt-ridden Lord Archie crosses the ice, the dolly-shot is a straight line, but something very unusual happens. The ghost of one of his victims appears in double-exposure. The double-exposures here are even better than in THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE. And the tracking shot makes the phantom seem to hover in mid-air and glide across the ice, tied to Archie (I can’t get used to calling him Archie) by supernatural bonds.

Even better, Stiller then cuts to what we have to read as the ghost’s POV, as Archie looks over his shoulder, Like one, that on a lonesome road…

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It’s thrifty, too: Stiller can use the same track for this shot as for the previous. Always a good idea when laying track, to think what else you can use it for… This is the kind of thing I say to turn film history classes into practical filmmaking classes…

(This is a TREMENDOUS film.)

6 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Educating Archie”

  1. I would love to hear more about the movies that were made between 1910 and 1920. Once a long time ago I saw a documentary on this. And I was amazed that there were innovative and good movies being made that I had never heard of

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    David, I’m surer you will teach an exceptionally fine class. There is a serious need for such today with students (film production, studies, or otherwise) not having any idea of the history of cinema. Instead, they usually get “dumbed down” flavor of the month offerings. With the precise example you furnish above, your students will gain from having someone who lknows what he is talking about.

  3. There are two things I want to ask you about. First, have you either audiotaped or videotaped any of your lectures? I would like to watch them. Second, I’d like to discuss film language with you via email. Would you mind emailing me at streetstories@juno.com

    Bryce A Suderow

  4. La Faustin Says:

    Where’s your tweet? I have a few suggestions, but I really want to see what other people have come up with!

  5. Bryce, possibly it was Brownlow & Winterbottom’s Cinema Europe you saw?

    I haven’t recorded lectures so far, though it’ll probably happen. The closest thng so far is our occasional podcast, The Shadowcast.

    Tony, thanks! I’m going to do a practice run with week with one session of ten or so clips.

    Phoebe, it was a March 2nd tweet if that helps. Thanks!

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    For Bryce, I highly recommend David’s podcasts and audio-commentaries that evoke a phrase one student used in evaluations before I was removed from teaching film – “It makes a change to have somebody in class who knows what he is talking about.”

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