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part ii Creative Choices: Recovering Value in Amateur Film Reflection 1 The Task at Hand: The Films of Ernest Stillman Whit Stillman In cinema, one decision is vastly more important than all the others. So many filmmakers lavish enormous talent and resources on misconceived projects, unsuited to the medium, with much hard work and creativity poured into the sand. The key decision—the choice of subject—sounds simple but, extrapolating from the many cases of talented people who have made poor ones, it is not. The best subject has visual interest and the sort of physicality the camera can capture better than words, the potential for beauty and dramatic tension, while being well explorable by the means at hand. And it must have the fascination and emotional resonance that will keep the filmmaker drawn in and inspired. The striking quality of Ernest Stillman’s films in Northeast Historic Film’s collections, as well as others elsewhere, is how well suited the choices of subject were to him and the silent 16mm camera he had at hand. We have been asked to draw personal connections with our forebears’ films; in my case these are not very apparent. I never knew my grandfather, who died before I was born. As children it was the apparatus of his filmmaking we knew, not the content: a film-editing deck and a silent 16mm projector on which we would watch Felix the Cat cartoons and World War II documentaries. My brother would usually operate the projector; perhaps this had some influence on him as, when he was suspended from Harvard in the 1960s for his political activities , he became a film teaching assistant at MIT and a film projectionist (among other things, helping the manager of Cambridge’s Orson Welles Cinema splice together old Warner Brothers cartoons to create the feature Bugs Bunny Superstar ) before going on to train in medicine as our grandfather had done. My father also had a photographic bent, which he exercised recording family events with a magnificent Rolleiflex camera; if I recall correctly, you would peer over its top and see a beautiful image upside down on its ground glass. I never had their affinity for cameras and photography; instead, I approached filmmaking as a failed writer, deciding in college that without the solitary stamina to be a novelist I might do something in film and television. There was the same question of finding good subjects that my grandfather faced: only three 98 | Whit Stillman periods of my own experience had potential as film stories, and after making those, I struggled to find books or historical subjects to adapt, which brings me to the one odd personal connection with Ernest Stillman’s films. A few years back, while staying in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood on a house- and dog-sitting assignment, the dog and I chanced upon the delivery of boxes of ice-packed fresh fish to a fish shop that looked like it had survived from one of the Godfather films. There was something fascinating about seeing these denizens of wild nature deposited directly on an urban avenue. What a wonderful visually and thematically rich film I thought it would make to follow the capture of fish from the sea, via all the steps, to the shop counter. Or even just, as in this case, to the pavement outside the shop. The sea and its creatures are fascinating and ideal for cinema: they neither take nor need direction. Fish work for cheap and, with a bed of ice, for long hours; fish never request first-class travel for their companion, publicist, and hair and makeup team: fish glisten beautifully without any hair or makeup work at all—no artificial glitter needed. Fish and fish processing is a subject of such visual strength that it could even be intertwined with the fictional human storylines that supply the filler in commercial cinema without losing its fascination . The idea seemed very strong. It was a pleasant comeuppance to discover that ninety years before, my grandfather had had the same idea, and while such “ideas” can come fast and Fig. R1.1 Head title, circa 1930. From 16mm film. Ernest G. Stillman Collection, Northeast Historic Film. [Accession 1289, Reel 7] The Task at Hand | 99 cheap, he shot and executed a film on the subject with great patience and austere beauty. Much of the little I know about my grandfather is reflected in his films. He was very shy, which he overcame...


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