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First International Berkeley Conference on Silent Cinema

By Asbjørn Grønstad on 27.02.2011 (09:00).

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This weekend I was fortunate enough to participate in "Cinema Across Media: The 1920s," the First International Berkeley Conference on Silent Cinema, an event presented by the Department of Film and Media at UC Berkeley and which, broadly speaking, focused on what one might call the transmedial history of cinema. While institutionally this is a brand new department, the film culture at UCB has obviously played an important part in the evolution of film studies as a discipline and field of research. It was here that the major journal Film Quarterlyappeared in 1955, around the same time that Pauline Kael embarked on her vocation as a film critic for the New Yorker. Kael was also the director of the first repertory theater in the United States, the Berkeley Cinema Guild, and through these efforts she helped galvanize the growth of a burgeoning cinephilia on the West Coast. So vital was this film culture that the entrepreneur Ed Landsberg, Kael's husband, had to open a larger venue in Berkeley in 1961, The Fine Arts Cinema (once an ice cream factory, it was recently converted into a housing complex, and by sheer coincidence an apartment in that same building became my home in 2006-2007 when I was a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley). In the 1970s a film program was established at UCB, the Film Group Major, founded by the English professor William Nestrick in collaboration with Bertrand August from Comparative Literature and Seymour Chatman from Rhetoric. A fertile period for Berkeley's film culture, that decade also saw the launch of three epochal cinema journals, Camera Obscura and Women and Filmin 1972 (the latter until 1975) and Jump Cut in 1974. With such a rich history in screen studies it seemed quite appropriate that UCB should host such an extraordinarily successful and intellectually vibrant event.

The opening panel of the conference was dedicated to honoring the memory of Miriam Bratu Hansen, who passed away on February 5. It featured appreciations by moderator Mark Sandberg, Tom Gunning, Linda Williams and Daniel Morgan. In addition to keynotes by Paolo Cherchi Usai, Gert rud Koch, Thomas Elsaesser, Anthony Vidler and Tom Gunning the conference highlighted the silent cinema's relation to other arts and media across a range of exciting panels with names such as "Film Artistry and Multimedia Practice," "Mobilizing the Archive: Projectors, Exhibitors, Industries," "Media Consolidation and Conglomeration" and "Cinema, Light, Architecture." As part of the program the Pacific Film Archive also screened Marcel L'Herbier's L'inhumaine (1924) and a selection of silent comedies from the late 1920s.

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