Studying Early and Silent Cinema by Keith Withall: review

Our Hospitality (1923)
Our Hospitality (1923)

I watched my first silent films, not on my grandpa’s knee, nor at one of these grand screenings with live music that they have nowadays, but in a sixth-form college classroom while being guided through my film studies A-level. It’s not a very romantic story, but I loved what I saw, and while studying for my exams, and subsequently at university, I sought out, saw, and enjoyed many more silents – going from a teenage film fan to an early cinema buff-in-waiting. The film studies syllabus (WJEC, a few years ago now) that I took was great – introducing us to relatively obscure arty silents as well as a healthy appreciation of Hollywood industry mechanics and even a smattering of theory. It stood me in good stead for my English lit & lang degree and a master’s in film history. Plus, I doubt the 18-year-old me would ever have got to see Un Chien Andalou without it. If you want someone to take the blame for Silent London, you can point your finger squarely at a tertiary college in Ealing W5. (I chose the college, incidentally, primarily because it was so close to the famous film studios.)

The point is, I think that sixth form is a great time to introduce people to early and silent film. Teenagers who seek out noisy bands and edgy art want off-beat films to watch too. Silents fit the bill perfectly. There’s something off-kilter about silent movies when you first meet them, and something unexpected about a supposedly modern subject area taking you so far back into the past.

A Corner in Wheat (DW Griffith, 1909)
A Corner in Wheat (DW Griffith, 1909)

Cheering then, to see Keith Withall’s Studying Early and Silent Cinema land on my desk. It’s an expansion of a 2007 volume and clearly informed by two things: his years spent teaching film studies at FE and HE level, and a passion for attending the film festivals at Pordenone and Bologna. This is a useful work for anyone interested in silent cinema to use as a reference but a great introduction to the subject for students. It’s a read-this-now-watch-that thing, and I’m all for it. Not only that, but Withall blogs too, posting thoughtful, erudite essays at cinetext.wordpress.com

Withall’s expanded book is an enjoyable and wide-ranging introduction to the key concepts and landmarks in the early and silent film period. This guide tackles a breathtakingly vast amount of material in the clearest of terms, and always with one eye on the here-and-now. There are references not just to modern films and attitudes, but also practical consideration of the availability of viewing material. Case studies examine classic films in detail, while wider sweeps take in potted histories of alternative and smaller national cinemas. Throughout, Withall encourages students towards wider exploration of the subject area – and most importantly, towards further viewing.

E&SC Cover 2014 v2Studying Early and Silent Cinema by Keith Withall will be on sale in May 2014, priced £16.99 in paperback (ISBN: 978-1-906733-69-8) and £50 in hardback (ISBN: 978-1-906733-70-4), published by Auteur

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