- Conference Report: Border Crossings: Rethinking Silent Cinema, February 8–10, 2008, University of California, Berkeley
The subtitle gestures toward the aim of this conference: to reconsider and reevaluate established approaches to the study of silent cinema. “Border Crossings” should thus be taken in a broad sense, encompassing not only the inquiry into international and transnational movements that has always constituted the history of cinema, but also more discursive meanings that challenge the epistemological boundaries of the field. Conference papers thus critiqued the tendency to focus solely on early Euro-American cinemas, while shedding light on non-Western contexts that necessitated a concomitant rethinking of the concept of national cinema and its historiography in film studies.
All of the cutting-edge presentations brought to light obscure but important primary sources: films that have never been critically discussed, articles from non–English language trade journals, fascinating export statistics, and hitherto unseen still images. The conference called attention to a number of innovative historical perspectives on silent film, including analysis not only of non-Western silent cinemas but also of how films travel across borders and the variety of meanings that may be produced when they reach their new contexts. Such approaches proved that there is still much to be learned, within and beyond Hollywood, from this era of cinema history.
The chief organizers, Anupama Kapse and Laura Horak, should be commended for putting on such a stimulating event, bringing together established and emerging scholars in a lively debate and stimulating exchange. Indeed, if their vision for the conference was to explore relatively under-researched vicinities across the disciplinary boundaries of silent film studies, then Border Crossings should be considered an unqualified success.
A major concern of the conference was to focus on the problem of national cinema within a transnational context. Many papers revealed how the latter implicitly critiqued the appropriateness of the former as an analytical category within the increasingly globalizing field of film studies. Sustained and critical analysis of the national cinema model has been sorely lacking in the way the field often structures standard film histories. The findings of the first panel, “Borders in Wartime,” [End Page 111] directly addressed this tension, highlighting the Great War as the watershed moment in the movement toward a more global, potentially cosmopolitan consciousness. Two papers that stood out include one presented by Sheila Skaff that described the early history of the cinema in Poland, its arrival in Krakow in 1896, and what Skaff described as the identification and longing for images of modern life in the West. Skaff raised an important question about the appropriateness of considering national cinemas in silent film studies, for Poland at this moment had not yet consolidated its own status as a nation-state. Her presentation revealed how cinema’s negotiation with the transnational is always already immanent to its situatedness within the national. Paul Dobryden performed a close reading of the boxing scene from Lang’s Spies (1928), convincingly arguing that this scene allegorizes the tension underlying the Weimar film industry and its resistance to a global Zivilisation. The problem of the nation was thus linked closely to the contentious geopolitical coordinates of early-twentieth-century Europe. The anxieties around nationhood during the war and in the postwar period were expressed cinematically, as negotiations between national and international interests. Papers emphasized their significance to the global context by revealing how the history of cinema may be rethought as inextricably linked to concerns extending beyond the borders of the nation.
Of course, this tension was shown to be applicable to contexts outside of Europe. For Manishita Dass, key passages from a report drawn up in 1927 by the ICC (Indian Cinematograph Committee) illuminated how some of its key formulations implicitly constitute power relations linked to class-based standards of artistic taste. She showed how the rhetoric of the report interpellates “proper” spectatorial positions that would in turn reproduce these standards. Such understandings of spectatorship were based, Dass argued, on the committee’s gaze on the West and its understanding of proper behavior in the film theater. As such, the formation of the national subject was inextricably linked to an interpretation of the non-Indian...