Last month, the Museum of Modern Art embarked on one of its most ambitious and exciting film series in recent years, An Auteurist History of Film
. Curated by Charles Silver, the two-year-plus series takes as its organizational principle the Auteur Theory
(which posits the director as the primary author of a film), and aims to cover pre-cinema (such as "magic lanterns"
and other early visual and photographic technologies) all the way to the present day. The breadth of its programming is highly promising, with opportunities to revisit and reevaluate more canonical works, as well the chance to see long-neglected and often non-commercially available films (such as Benjamin Christensen's The Mysterious X
from 1914). Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Charles Silver about the guiding principles of his latest series, as well changes in the New York City film scene over the past several decades.
The L Magazine: What was the motivation for doing this series now?
It seems like as good a time as any. I've been at The Museum of Modern Art for almost 39 years now, and I've been going to the movies for close to 60 (or maybe more) and I thought it would be good to go back and survey our film archive (which begins in the 1890s and goes up to the present day) and try to define the Auteur theory through the collection. There have been, in the past, other film history cycles at the museum, so it is not totally novel, but I thought that approaching it from the Auteur Theory would make the most coherent expression of film history, at least up until the point that the studios broke down, and we had films really by committees and computers. It is hard to argue that a lot of current movies could be the expression of individual artists although I think there are many exceptions.
How do you begin to navigate 100+ years of cinema?
I'm limiting myself to films we have in the collection. There are certainly gaps that I hope this series may go a way towards filling by pointing them out. We've been upfront that this is only one approach to the subject. And no, I haven't seen all of the 22,000 films the museum has in its collection, or the millions of films that have been made, so there is always an element of prejudice and personal inclination. You have to live with that. But there's also a problem in that since we're starting with very early film, something like 85% of silent films no longer exist, so we're inevitably going to be unsatisfactory in commemorating some people whose entire careers have been wiped out by deterioration of nitrate film prints. You do the best you can with what's available, but I think we're being honest about the fact that we're not saying this is "the" entire, official history of film.
What is the current value of these films for contemporary audiences? Educational, entertainment, or something else?
I think there's all that, but also this is the Museum of Modern Art, which from its inception has considered film to be an art. To the extent that art is entertaining fine, and to the extent that it is edifying in other ways fine also, but I think it also has a spiritual element. In one of the commentaries I am posting online for the series I refer to film as an alternative religion for the 20th century. That may offend a lot of people, but for me and many, what one feels from film is a religious experience at its very best.
I am also hoping to show really good 35mm prints. A lot of people have seen these films on video or DVD, but that's not really seeing them. If you look at a film like Josef von Sternberg's Morocco
, for example, you see it on the big screen and it's a totally different experience. There's also this whole factor that we don't always deal with, which is that there is always a whole new audience of younger people who have come along and haven't seen these movies. So, there is an educational function there, of making people aware of what has come before and contrast that with what is being made today, which may be highly imitative and inferior to what was maybe fifty, sixty, seventy years ago.
What changes have you seen in the NYC film scene in the time you've been at MoMA?
It used to be easier to see films, at least the ones that I wanted to see. There were several repertory houses going all the timeâ€“the Elgin, the Thalia, the New Yorkerâ€“and essentially that scene is gone. There were a lot more foreign films opening. It's now so expensive to open a film in New York, in terms of publicity and such, that we're missing out on a lot of things. At the same time, back in the 1960s and 1970s it was a very exciting timeâ€“the time of the New Wave, and great things were also coming out of England and Italyâ€“so there was a lot more reason for foreign films to be available. MoMA has always been a sort of bastion for film lovers and it remains constant, but in general there was a greater variety of cinema in the city.
(photo credits: Museum of Modern Art)