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Learning from the Silent Screen

Growing up as a self-professed "movie rat," Amy Borden loved classic Hollywood films. In grad school, she became interested in more than just the movies themselves. What were they picturing? What was the cultural space in which they developed? Now a film scholar and professor in PSU’s Theater + Film department, Borden specializes in the earliest decades of cinema.

"It sets up so many institutions and traditions, of both filmmaking and how we look at the world, so it’s this great union of cinema and art and philosophy. I try to bring all those things into the class, because I think they’re really fun."

Borden teaches a range of classes at PSU, including avant-garde and queer cinema, but her primary focus is American silent film and late-19th century visual culture. In her course Bodies in Motion, she examines how the human body was pictured in the silent era. Borden looks at not only movie screens, but also other image-producing technologies, such as kinetoscopes, shadowgraphy performances, and X-rays (discovered in 1895).

The representation of the body in cinema continues to be relevant today, she notes. "What does it mean to capture a body photographically? Think of Andy Serkis [an actor best known for his motion-capture performances in movies such as King Kong and the Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes series]. There’s a human body at the core of that, but it’s invisible. Does it matter to the audience? Does the audience still keep in mind that there’s Andy Serkis, the actor, under these personas?"

One of the films that Borden shows her students, "The Boxing Cats (Professor Welton's)," is a short movie from 1894 with two cats dressed as prizefighters. Borden jokes that it’s the first cat video. But even in more serious subject areas, she finds many parallels between the the silent film era and our own. "The questions asked 100 years ago are not even remotely different from the questions we’re asking now."

Borden says that students sometimes start her classes a little unsure about watching silent film, because they may have a preconception that it’s people over-acting. But the students are open-minded, and they find themselves rewarded for that. "These films are hella funny," says Borden. "They’re beautiful, and so visually dynamic. Students connect to that."

Borden, who has Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, says she tries to bring the richness she had in her own education to PSU’s urban setting, with its hugely diverse student body. "I think that public education is the key to advancement," she says. "It’s not about a vocational sort of space, or a skill set that you can translate into your job. It’s a space where you become human. It’s interactions in the classroom, interactions with your classmates. Having the kind of diversity we have is very powerful, and speaks to the very idea of a liberal education."

PSU's film program combines theory and practical training, and offers both a BA/BS in Film, and a minor in Film Studies. Courses include film analysis, screenwriting, narrative film production, visual effects, game design and more.

By Stephanie Argy