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James Dean. Still from director Elia Kazan's East of Eden. The Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Collection. All images courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

James Dean, still from Elia Kazan’s ‘East of Eden,’ the Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Collection (all images courtesy the Museum of Modern Art)

Charles Silver has worked at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) since 1970, first in the film studies center and then (and still) as a curator in the department of film. His recent exhibitions include Roman Polanski, The Great War: A Cinematic Legacy, and An Auteurist History of Film, a screening series that lasted for five years. In his writing, including books on the history of the Western, Charles Chaplin, and Marlene Dietrich, Silver seamlessly blends his personal relationship to film with humor, behind-the-scenes tidbits, and analysis. A short piece about Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute on MoMA’s Inside/Out blog includes this passage:

Bergman invents a kind of Skype/locket for the princess, has the three spirits ride in a Jules Verne flying machine that could be in a Karel Zeman film, has a “follow the bouncing ball” sing-along, and makes the king’s council resemble Patrick Stewart’s Stonecutters on Matt Groening’s The Simpsons. All of this comes as a bit of relief to those of us not well versed in “high culture.” … Bergman is not averse to bending the rules of what CINEMA should be. By adding a good deal of humor, Bergman also bends the rules of what a Bergman film should be.

That kind of critical thinking made deliciously palatable by the addition of humor is unique to Silver. His Inside/Out blog posts that accompanied the Auteurist screenings will be collected in a book published by MoMA this fall, with the working title An Auteurist History of Film.

Silver sat down with Hyperallergic recently to discuss politics in film, boring auteurs, and Charles Chaplin, among other topics.

*   *   *

Julia Friedman: In your book The Western Film, you talk about going to the movies all the time while growing up in New Jersey. Is that where you first developed an interest in film?

Charles Silver: Basically, yes. I lived about half a mile from a theater that showed first runs of the features on Saturday and Sunday. You could see four films. I had good taste, even in those days, but I didn’t think of films the way I do now or subsequently. There was an addictive quality to going to the movies that I don’t feel anymore. I don’t know if anybody does.

JF: Did you get a degree in film?

CS: No. I’ve never taken a film course. I don’t know if I believe in them or not. When I was going to college Sputnik happened, and everybody went into a panic. So, Congress passed something called the National Defense Education Act, which provided PhD programs, fellowships, for people studying government and related fields. And I got one of those. I got a master’s in political science, but I hated it, mostly because it was all behavioralism BS, really. So, I wound up going back to movies. There were no film degrees to speak of in those days. As an undergraduate I wrote an honors paper on The Birth of a Nation for the American Civilization major at Rutgers. Later I started reading Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice. He influenced me greatly. I spent a good deal of the ’60s reading him, and some others, and going to the movies. Luckily I wound up here after a couple of years. I’ve been here ever since.

JF: What was the film department like when you first got here?

CS: It was much smaller. The head of the department was this guy Willard Van Dyke, a documentary filmmaker who’d worked mostly in the ’30s and ’40s. There were two curators, one in charge of the archives, Eileen Bowser, and one in charge of the exhibitions program, Adrienne Mancia. I was hired to run the Film Study Center, a research facility. I did that for close to 40 years, before going full time into exhibitions. But I was doing exhibitions from the very beginning, kind of moonlighting.

JF: How did the Auteurist History of Film exhibition come about?

CS: About five years ago, Raj Roy, who’s the chief curator, suggested we do a history of film, and it ended up as an auteurist history program. And at the time the museum was also starting up a blog, Inside/Out, and Raj suggested that I write posts to accompany the screenings. It was in the back of our minds that at some point it might be publishable, but that was never the primary aim. I enjoy writing, but mostly I enjoy reading my stuff afterwards.

JF: When you read it do you tend to agree with it?

CS: Oh yeah. I’m my favorite author. (laughs)

JF: Do you find it hard to write in that very short format?

CS: The mandate from the museum for writing these blogs was they should be informal and not too long. I’ve been writing twice as much as they had wanted. I tried to explain that a film is not like a painting — there’s always a bunch of people involved in its creation. My inclination has been much more journalistic than scholarly, a lot of it very idiosyncratic and really very autobiographical in ways. And nobody’s complained a whole heck of a lot about that. I don’t like reading academic stuff; it goes on forever and impresses with words the author knows that I don’t.

JF: I think the book could be used in an educational setting too. It provides an overview of the history of film, from a certain perspective.

CS: Well, of the museum collection especially. But because I restricted it to the collection, I left out certain major figures or certain major films. So, I mean if somebody does a rigorous, scholarly analysis of it they’re not going to be happy, but I think it’s a way of reaching people who might not otherwise tend to read about old films. One of our major problems right now is to attract a younger audience for the showings in the theater. People are dying off, basically.

JF: Do you think film is getting objectively worse? You’ve made some comments to this effect in your Auteurist posts.

CS: I’m sure a lot of people don’t agree with me, but I think there was a kind of golden age, from 1915 to the mid ’60s or 1970. I do have a strong emphasis on American film, but I don’t think this is exclusive to American film. There are good things being made now, but I think the Hollywood studio system did offer directors an opportunity to foster their talent free from the burden of fundraising. And the computer-generated stuff … Gravity, the best picture last year, I found it to be a stunt. It was fun for five or ten minutes, but I don’t think it’s significant art. Harrison Ford made a comment at a White House screening of 42, the Jackie Robinson film, which I thought really profoundly summed up my own feelings: “The language of film is emotion.” I’m trying not to be too sentimental, but I think the best films are ones that move me. They’re not abstract, they’re not “about” something. I like documentaries, but they’re limited, I think.

JF: I think some documentaries are very limited, like Ken Burns and the talking-heads style. But what about people like Fredrick Wiseman?

CS: Frankly I prefer Ken Burns. (laughs)

JF: Do you think Burns is an auteur?

CS: I didn’t put him in the series, but I do think, in a way. I know Ken, and something like The Civil War or the baseball stuff, it touched me. But there are limits to what you can do. My beef with Wiseman is that I think he really needs somebody to say, ‘OK, you’ve already shown this, cut ten minutes here, five minutes there.’ It’s not like I don’t have any patience, but I think he really needs some help.

JF: In your writing you’re sometimes very forgiving of politics or personal flaws: Disney, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Elia Kazan. But you’re less forgiving of Leni Riefenstahl.

CS: Riefenstahl goes beyond the pale. There’s no defense available, I think, to her. A friend of mine named Steven Bach did a biography of her, Leni. He points out, first of all, that she had many Jewish friends in the industry whom she basically sold down the river when called to. And when Hitler marched into Paris and did this grand tour, she sent him a congratulatory telegram about how moved she was. Was she thinking, ‘A million marks to make my next movie?’ Or did she really believe in what she said? I have to take her at her word, I think, that she really believed. With Allen we don’t know all of the truth, and I think Polanski has paid his dues. Kazan I’m very ambivalent about. I don’t know what I would have done in his circumstance. And I do think he’s a significant enough artist to get the benefit of the doubt. I interviewed Kazan a couple times. He had rather a foul mouth. He told me to send him the text, that his wife would be upset if he swore. He asked me to cut a few things. I have mixed feelings about Kazan, but I am political. I’d be more upfront about my politics if [circumstances] permitted.

Still from director Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will,’ the Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Collection

JF: What are your politics?

CS: I consider myself a Social Democrat. I’m definitely to the left of the Democratic Party, and I really find what the Republican Party has become quite despicable. I think sometimes politics does enter into movies, and you have to comment on it. I got some flak because I made a passing joke about Mitt Romney during the campaign. It wasn’t really an attack or anything; it was about Ugetsu, the Mizoguchi film about a 16th-century ceramicist who was only too happy to sell his work regardless of the quality of it. I made some comment about his capitalistic views being like Mitt Romney’s. It wasn’t even funny, but several people wrote in complaining about it. It’s still up on the site.

JF: Charles Chaplin is one of your personal favorites. What is it about his films?

CS: Well, the substance of his films tends to be rather political. And as an auteur he was really the most open in terms of being autobiographical and expressing his personal beliefs. He made The Circus in 1928, when his marriage is breaking up and he’s having all kinds of personal problems and depression. And it’s all in the film — like him sitting down at night and writing in his diary. He adds humor and turns his personal troubles into great art, but because he also acted in his films they became even more of an example of personal expression. So, I think he is kind of the model of the auteur. I think City Lights is one of the greatest of all films, and Modern Times one of the funniest.

JF: In the Auteur blogs you’re not always complimentary of directors’ entire careers. For example, you talk about Godard’s films becoming very … bad.

CS: Is this your opinion or mine?

JF: It’s a little bit of your opinion? Definitely mine.

CS: I’m glad we agree. I think his ’60s films had a lot of the virtues of old Hollywood, old-fashioned movie storytelling, and some really good performances. I haven’t seen a new Godard film in decades. Actually, the museum paid him to make a film about the museum called The Old Place; we don’t show it much.

JF: What’s it like?

CS: Paintings, and Godard making profound comments.

Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, still from director Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘A Woman Is a Woman,’ the Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Collection

JF: Speaking of later Godard, you talk about some of Bergman’s films that you find excessively ponderous and intellectual. To what extent should film be watchable entertainment?

CS: That’s a good question. Movies started as an entertainment for the masses. There was nothing profound or deeply thought out in the early movies. I find it really torturous to enter into Bergman’s angst and his ‘is there a God?’ It’s not fair to say that that’s not what movies are for, but it’s certainly not what I want to go to a movie for. If I wanted to read religious, philosophical writing, I would. At the same time, Bergman can be entertaining. And he had considerable technical skill. So, I wouldn’t dismiss him entirely. But I do not think he’s one of the great filmmakers.

JF: Are there any exhibitions you wanted to do that never materialized?

CS: A friend of mine wants me to do Spielberg. I don’t think he would remember, but I met Spielberg when he was here to introduce his first theatrical film that we were showing. He was brought around, and we were chatting and he asked, ‘I’m thinking of doing a film on sharks; are there any films you can think of that I should watch?’ I mentioned Tiger Shark, a Howard Hawks movie. And I had no idea if I’d ever hear of him again. Certainly he’s never heard of me again.

JF: Who knows, maybe he remembers — he probably does.

CS: I’m sure he’s got other things on his mind. He’s a really interesting case, I think, of somebody who’s managed to be an auteur but also play within the industry and be successful outside of the studio. I mean, he has his own company and backers, but there aren’t too many guys like him that can survive doing what he’s done.

JF: Has access to older films improved?

CS: You have no idea how difficult it was to see older films before you were born. Although it’s one thing to see a DVD, and another to see a film in a theater with hundreds of people. But access has certainly improved.

JF: Do you think a change in theater-going behavior is part of what’s causing film to change and/or decline?

CS: I think the experience of movie going is basically disappearing. The trend is towards replacing it with new digital devices. But there’s plenty of audience for some new stuff, which is mostly garbage I think, personally. I’m very pessimistic about where it’s all going.

JF: Do you think that certain qualities make a film harder to access for different generations? Certainly some people have a lot of trouble watching silent and black-and-white film, maybe because they’re not accustomed to it in a sensory way. Is that just a lack of effort?

CS: I think it’s partly that, and habit. Our job is making these films not only available but also desirable. I think a film like City Lights or Modern Times, which are silent basically, although they have music tracks and sound effects, are as accessible as anything. I don’t see that they’re dated. Maybe I’m crazy.

JF: Has anything become dated? Are there examples of films that have lost emotional resonance?

CS: Certainly in subject matter, I think a lot of films become really hard for people to relate to. Definitely silent film, until people like Chaplin and Griffith came along, had really excessive, over-the-top acting. But I think great art really doesn’t become dated. It remains relevant. Have you seen [F.W.] Murnau’s Sunrise? It’s from 1927, one of the last of the great silent films. It’s silent, and it’s sentimental in a lot of ways, but it’s also very much still relevant. There are certain artists who are able to reach future generations, if the future generations are interested.

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Julia Friedman

Julia graduated from Barnard with a B.A. in European History, and from NYU with an M.A. in Visual Arts Administration. She works as Senior Curatorial Manager at Madison Square Park Conservancy.

One reply on “Talking Pictures with a Film Curator of 45 Years”

  1. Amazing in an interview concerning art film the casual denigration of a major political party. And complete agreement by the interviewer. Never would have happened even twenty years ago.

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