Filmmaking: Tips, Sources & Tools, Talks & Interviews — September 1, 2012 at 11:58 am

Prof. Eric Faden: Very difficult for students to understand silent films today

eric faden bucknell universityBeing a teacher is not easy, especially right before the beginning of the classes, when a lot of students start arriving at your doorstep, just like a flow of visitors to a website.

Yet, Professor of English and Film/Media Studies at Bucknell University Dr. Eric Faden found some time to talk with BZFilm about a range of topics regarding movies and filmmaking. Proceed to the interview below.


Mr. Faden you practiced the idea of doing “video essays” instead of usual paper ones with students in your classes. How did that idea work out? In your opinion, is it something other film schools around the world should be using in any way?

Using video essay has worked very well. We live in a media-saturated universe where our understanding of the world around is largely constructed through consuming sophisticated mixes of moving images, sound, and text. To me, have students understanding how film and media make meaning through just writing papers is absurd. It’s more powerful when they can critique and react to media with media they create themselves. I wouldn’t recommend this practice just to film schools; I recommend it to ALL schools.

Which foreign made classic films in your opinion every film student should see at least once?

Well my taste in films is very eclectic. In terms of classic films I still think Renoir’s “Rules of the Game”, Marker’s “La Jetee”, Lang’s “Metropolis” and “M”, Eisenstein’s “October”, and Weine’s “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” are essential viewing. More recently, I’ve admired Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies”, all of Wong Kar-Wai’s work, and most of Kiarostami’s films.

Let’s assume a youngster desperately wants to learn film, yet he does not have enough of finances to go to a film school of some kind. What in this case would you suggest?

I think the most important thing is to be able to “think” cinema no matter the technology or equipment you have (or don’t have) access to. Everyone knows how to use Microsoft Word but very few people are great writers. It’s the same with film… just because you have a RED camera doesn’t make you a great filmmaker. In my classes, we often use very low-tech equipment but work much more on the basics – framing, lighting, mise-en-scene, cutting, and good, clean sound design. Equipment is easy, ideas are hard.

With regard to the movies of the silent era, how in your opinion, the today’s youth assesses them?

I think it’s very difficult for students to “read” those films today. Visual culture has changed and early cinema is really a different visual language than today’s contemporary cinema. I teach a few courses that deal with early cinema material and I’m often surprised at how much I need to train the students to “read” the film for its meaning.

An increasing number of producers are choosing to bypass sales agents altogether and negotiate directly with international buyers. As a producer points out, it can make sense to sell your own film – but only in special cases. How would you explain that?

While I do have a few films that are commercially distributed, I’m really outside of that world. I’m very fortunate in that I have a salary as a teacher, and am allowed as part of my job to also make films. So I’m not at the mercy of sales agents or normal commercial pressures.

You used to say that big studios make money not on recent films but on storage libraries where they keep the archives full of old movies. In some way, this can be assessed as a “passive income”. Would you explain your point of view? Since if there was no revenue made on recent films, there would have been much less of them on the market…

That’s a complex question. I think the point I wanted to make was that the studios understand that the best product is one you can re-sell multiple times. It wasn’t really until the 1970s and large media consolidation that this viewpoint came into focus.

Movies are obviously expensive, time consuming to make and relatively unpredictable in terms of income. So, it is better to make relatively few movies (Hollywood only produces a small percentage of world cinema) but sell them repeatedly across multiple technology platforms. It’s similar in the music industry – the same album/artist but purchased repeatedly on vinyl, tape, CD, and now digital.

Some people believe that the big movie studios are working on an old business model, and get away with it just because they are “big”. In your opinion, what would be an appropriate business model for a film studio? What could be changed?

I think it depends on what you want. If the goal is to make money, then the studios are doing quite well. Some of that profit is certainly attributable to their size and market weight. They are working on an older model but it is one that works quite well. In fact, their stance on digital technology more or less repeats their stance on several technologies which is to initially resist the technology until it can be absorbed.

This stance has been seen repeatedly with television’s invention in the 1950s, the introduction of the VCR in the 1970s and now the Internet. If the goal is to make good, challenging, and interesting movies, then, well, you need a totally different system. A good, interesting Hollywood movie is more an accident than purposely designed.

Some small independent movie studios say that piracy actually helps them to get their movies “out there” to be seen by a bigger audience. This very method hurts the big blockbusters when they’re being “pirated”, so the big studios are naturally against it. Which side are you on, in this case?

I’m not sure the big studio are “hurt” by piracy to the extent they would like us to believe. Piracy is no doubt a problem and I don’t condone its practice. I would, however, like to see copyright duration radically shortened so that material falls into the public domain (where it could be copied/distributed freely) much sooner.

What does American cinema, in general, lacks, when compared to Asian or European cinema?

I think it’s difficult to generalize. If we are speaking about Hollywood, then that is a production system that relies on formulas for both form and content, and I think those conventions are fairly tired. That could be said, however, for a number of national cinemas. At the same time, I think there’s interesting work being done all of the world. I think it’s getting much hard to classify film under national rubrics.

Copyrights seem to have a different meaning for big studios today, as they relentlessly try to track down anyone who tries to use something of theirs, even if it is not made for profits. What are your thoughts on that?

I don’t think they are relentlessly trying to track people down. I think through the MPAA they are trying to intimidate various large scale pirates and pirating pipelines (like Megaupload and the Pirate Bay). The are also trying to encourage legislation and technologies that would curtail or make more difficult current piracy practices.

I think, however, that for every attempted legislative and/or technical threat, there’s a fairly quick technical work-around. Piracy has been and always will be an issue until the concept of copyright goes away.

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