CHS film study class bring silent films to the forefront

Joshua Farley, Sophomore Contributor

Our Period Seven Journalism team has embarked on many adventures so far: from exploring the city in our new Building Youngstown project, to digging into the music of local band— and our personal friends— the Vindys, but there’s plenty of interesting things to do right here at CHS. One of the most interesting is the Film Study class, run by Mr. Jennings, which allows students to find out about all the things that make a good movie good in the first place. To do this, it is necessary to start from the very beginning of the story, just as students do who decide to sign up for Film Study.

In the relatively short history of film, its beginnings are still somewhat elusive, especially to the modern moviegoer. In those earliest days, recording sound onto the physical filmstrips was impossible, leading to an era of about thirty years where an actor’s body language and visual storytelling were crucial: the Silent Era. In those times, a film’s score (then provided by an actual live musician or orchestra in the theater), sets, and physical acting were the main devices available to tell a story, creating movies that feel unique when compared to the norms that have emerged since then, and require a new level imagination to be fully enjoyed.

Most people are familiar with George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, even if they don’t realize they are at first. This movie brings us the famous shot of a rocket ship crashing into the eye of the “Man on the Moon”. The short, ten minute film also brought films with narrative storytelling into prominence. This is where our film study journey began, with the class and Mr. Jennings carefully scrutinizing the blurred and flickering storytelling of Melies, complete with broad and often flailing arm movements to convey emotions from the characters. While the movie was certainly groundbreaking, not as much analysis goes into it as the movies that followed it, simply because it is ten minutes and cameras with the ability to tilt, pan, or otherwise be easily moved were not invented yet, with the entire short taking place in front of a set that resembled a simple stage play.

After this first study, one of the centerpieces of film’s silent era came into focus for the class. This director was none other than F.W. Murnau, who also helped create a revolutionary new era of film: the German Expressionism period. Most people today would associate Murnau with the film Nosferatu, which they then associate with a joke in Spongebob. That movie, which turned 100 on March 4th, would be a strong enough legacy, with its otherworldly costume design, elaborate castle crypts, and surreal use of film that has been completely tinted in various bold colors clearly summarizing what the expressionist movement in art was all about: conveying emotions to be shared between the creator and audience.

However, he achieved something even better, a film that has become my favorite in the class so far: Sunrise, A Song of Two Humans. To explain the deep emotional resonance that this movie has had with me would take an entire other article, but suffice it to say that Sunrise is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen, and its great visual storytelling and acting have opened my eyes to the truly vast possibilities that exist in the medium of movies, with or without spoken words.

After watching these movies, it was my opinion that the use of the Silent movie medium ended far too soon. Unfortunately, our time watching the silent classics in Film Study was also coming to an end. The last silent movie we watched was by one of the greatest directors and actors of all time: Charlie Chaplin. The movie was City Lights, featuring his most famous character, the Tramp. To put it simply, Chaplin is absolutely hilarious in this movie, bumbling his way through a slapstick adventure in the city and in trying to find love. Just as in Sunrise, it is Chaplin’s versatility as an actor that sells the movie, deftly switching from all-out comedy to pure, heartfelt sadness to fit the tone of each scene in this classic comedy.

If any of these movies speak to you, there are plenty of ways to find them or talk about them. Some of them are available on the Criterion Collection, which publishes “artier” movies on DVD and Blu-Ray, or on various streaming services. For a discussion, the website Letterboxd serves as a social media platform, where fans can review virtually any movie in existence. But perhaps the best way to experience them is among friends in the Film Study class, where it’s possible to talk about these films face-to-face and learn about all the work that goes into planning and creating a movie with Mr. Jennings. Along the way, you’ll gather a respect and appreciation of the silent medium in ways you never thought were possible. No matter which way you go to begin your silent movie journey, you can rest assured that you’ll be in for a good time.