Women and the Silent Screen VII: Performance and the Emotions

Melbourne, Australia: Sun 29 Sept–Wed 2 Oct 2013

by Jill Julius Matthews

Australia is a long way from the heartlands of silent cinema research in Europe and North America. To my knowledge there are no dedicated silent film courses taught in any of its thirty-six universities. Silent film itself has a small and enthusiastic following, but screenings rarely go beyond the comic and expressionist canon – Chaplin, Keaton, Metropolis, Potemkin – and a few nationalist icons – The Sentimental Bloke, Dad and Dave. But some of us are Brave!

Victoria Duckett is Very Brave. Trained in Australia and the US, and then teaching in England, Italy and now back in Australia, she has a network of connections built over years at WSS, Bologna Ritrovato, Pordenone and elsewhere. When she offered to run Women and the Silent Screen VII in Melbourne, her hope was to enhance the profile of silent cinema scholarship in Australia, giving it the fillip that it needed. Against the odds – intellectual, institutional, geographic, and a lot of last-minute cancellations – Victoria and her co-convenor, art historian Jeanette Hoorn, succeeded very well.

The Conference ran over three and a half days, with three DVD screening sessions curated by the New Zealand Film Archive and the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. They presented classic films – Venus of the South Seas (1924), The Girl of the Bush (1921), The Bush Cinderella (1928) – plus shorts. Accompaniment was by the highly experienced pianist, Mauro Colombis. Keynote papers were given by Pam Cook (UK), and Richard Abel, Mary Ann Doane, Shelley Stamp and Hilary Hallet (USA).

Numbers were very comfortable for a specialist conference, around 60, with 50 of those participants giving papers. Scholars from North America and Australasia gave the great bulk, with a small number from Europe, and one each from India and Japan. This intensity, of course, meant that three simultaneous sessions were necessary to fit in all the papers, resulting in quite small audiences for some sessions. The variety also meant that no two people had the same conference experience. The program is available here.

For me, the two stand-out papers were the keynote addresses by Richard Abel and Shelley Stamp. Both of them moved away from the standard focus on individual actors/directors and looked at the silent screen as a cultural institution. Richard presented a fascinating account of the rise of a new profession for women in the US – newspaper film writing. Based on the intensive searching in regional newspapers now made possible by digitisation, his analysis reconfigured the story of cinema before the Great War, showing the vital importance of women, as reporters, columnists, editors and reviewers, in nurturing the new film industry.

Against Richard’s positive account of this early flourishing of women in the industry, Shelly’s story was more depressing. Adopting Richard Koszarski’s phrase “vengeful forgetting”, she recounted the remasculinisation of American cinema that accompanied its recapitalisation with the rise of the studio system from the late 1910s, and the unremarked absence of women in many classic histories. She addressed the implications of this absence for present day scholars and suggested strategies to disrupt the orthodox academic discourse that marginalises women and the silent screen.

The conference provided the occasion for the launches of two on-line projects: Researching Women in Silent Cinema: New Findings and Perspectives, edited by Monica Dall’Asta, Victoria Duckett, and Lucia Tralli; and the Women Film Pioneers Project website.

The weather was pleasant, the catering good, the conference dinner excellent, and I think that the 60 of us had a great time. Victoria is hoping to be able to put together the papers presented for a publication. The location of the next WSS was discussed by the Business Meeting but not determined. To be continued…

Professor Jill Julius Matthews is a researcher at the Australian National
University. Her book, Dance Hall and Picture Palace. Sydney’s Romance
with Modernity (Sydney: Currency Press, 2005) deals, among other things,
with the rise of early cinema in Australia. In July 2014 she is convening the
conference History, Cinema, Digital Archives” as part of the ANU
Humanities Research Centre’s 2014 annual theme: “Now Showing:
Cultures, Judgements, and Research on the Digital Screen”. Offers
of papers are welcome.

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