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Silent Cinema
An Introduction

By Paolo Cherchi Usai

 

BOOK REVIEW

Silent Cinema: An Introduction
By Paolo Cherchi Usai

British Film Institute Publishing : London, England : 2000
ISBN 0-8517-0745-9 (978-0-8517-0745-7) : 212 pages : hardcover edition : $65.00
ISBN 0-8517-0746-7 (978-0-8517-0746-4) : 212 pages : trade paperback edition: $22.95

Reviewed by Carl Bennett
Paolo Cherchi Usai’s 1991 book Burning Passions (English edition published in 1994) has been transformed through expansion, revision and retitling into an even more valuable reference work in this 2000 edition. Silent Cinema: An Introduction may well become one of the pivotal reference works for film students, archivists and enthusiasts who are very serious about research on and the preservation of films of the silent era. But we feel the title may be a bit misleading without an explanation of the intent of the book.

The book, which includes introductions by David Robinson and Kevin Brownlow, is no glossing overview of the beginnings of artistic cinematic expression and the genesis of the film industry. The book puts forth and addresses the issues of raising the quality of silent film research and restoration to establish minimum acceptible standards for this important work. The book is a handbook for the serious cinema student and historian, and seeks to establish a common groundwork for the future endeavors of the film researcher and film archivist.

Cherchi Usai has touched on a diverse series of historical and contemporary issues and has provided a series of facts that establish a minimum groundwork of technical and academic knowledge to establish cooperative understanding between the scholarly researcher and the staunch archivist. The valuable information supplied in the book includes information on nitrate and safety filmstocks of the silent era, color tinting and toning processes, the historical evolution of print spocket holes, the multiplicity of professional and reduction print film formats, release print duplication and distribution practices, the evolution of archival preservation practices, researchers’ practices within an archive, and the establishment of guidelines for historically accurate and academically accepted filmographies and bibliographies. Among the appendices is information on the differences of film measurements and running speeds in metres and feet for 35mm and 16mm prints, a listing of FIAF member film archives, the different trademarks used on films by Melies Star Films from 1896 through 1908, and tables of Eastman Kodak and Pathe filmstock edgecodes for the years 1905 through 1928.

Cherchi Usai also seeks to suggest a series of ten guiding rules for the serious researcher and archivist, which we selectively list here: “Any decision taken in the preservation process must a) be reversible, b) prevent further deterioration or alteration of the original artifact, and c) be carefully documented . . . Historical written documents on silent cinema should be consulted analytically rather than selectively . . . Beware of scholarly writings where no information is given in order to verify the source of controversial data . . . Always keep clear the distinction between evidence found in the print and information drawn from written sources . . . Every print of a film is a unique object, with its own physical and aesthetic characteristics, and should not be treated as identical to other prints with the same title . . . The ‘original’ version of a film is a multiple object fragmented into a number of different entities equal to the number of surviving copies.” These rules intend to raise awareness of scholarly and preservation issues and establish minimum guidelines for the adherence to the high goals of both professions.

With all the valuable information included in the book, we find that Cherchi Usai’s chapter on the ethics of film preservation raises a provoking question that we would very much like to address (although the response is probably inappropriate within the context of a book review). Should films be preserved fanatically as composited prints, acquiring all surviving footage from prints originating from multiple camera negatives to create as complete a composite representation of the original release version as seen in the country of its production, or preserved stanchly as preservation prints, an accurate representation of the survival form of an individual positive release print or a camera or rerelease negative as it has survived to this day, regardless of its incompleteness or damage altering it from its original state? My opinion is that both must be done. Archival prints should be preserved in stable materials that represent the original materials (correcting damage to frame misalignment or scratches if it can be done without affecting the original image quality) held by the archive as accurately as possible. Composite prints should be prepared with the intent to make as narratively complete a representation of the film (regardless of the print quality and originating negative — domestic [first camera] or export [second camera] negative) as originally released, unless the release version is well known to have altered the filmmaker’s (the director’s or even, in some cases, the producer’s) artistic intent, in which case a reconstruction (defined by Cherchi Usai as a ‘recreation’) of the intended film should be attempted. These prints should be intended for public presentation and for distribution in home video editions. Composite prints, however, should always document the pedigree of its Frankensteinian body parts, noting when substandard reduction prints containing the only known surviving footage and when alternate footage from second camera negatives or from unreleased outtakes are utilized. Cherchi Usai makes a similar point stressing that a surviving film is of little value if we cannot make sense of it as either a surviving historical relic or as an artistic-cultural statement. Both extremes can be seen as absurd from a certain point-of-view and neither “principle is absolutely right or completely wrong.” Cherchi Usai presents us with some difficult questions but, appropriately, does not attempt to make empirical pronoucements.

In whole, Silent Cinema: An Introduction goes far beyond the interests and comprehension of the casual reader, but we feel that it is another required volume for the reference library of both the serious film historian and archivist. We highly recommend Silent Cinema: An Introduction to anyone who is frustrated by the glut of glossing film history overviews with which this book may be mistakenly grouped or identified with.

 
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