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Honoring Charles Silver, the Late Genius of MoMA’s Film Study Center

Honoring Charles Silver, the Late Genius of MoMA's Film Study Center

[Editor’s Note: Charles Silver, who headed up the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Study Center, passed away this week in New York. Silver worked at the museum since 1970. Indiewire asked his longtime colleague and former MOMA curator Laurence Kardish to share the following thoughts on Silver’s legacy.]

"For Charles, a Standing Ovation"

Perhaps, and with good reason, there is no one in this world whose name appears more frequently in film books’ acknowledgements than the name of my former colleague and friend, Charles Silver. Charles arrived at MoMA in 1970 to work in the Department of Film’s Study Center, established a few years previously, with no formal academic training in film but with the hard-knock trench experience of working with a mercurial and important distributor, Tom Brandon, whose left-wing history gave him access to a remarkable catalogue of 16mm and 35mm films from Cold War "enemy" countries. Charles’ passion for film, knowledge of the art, and understanding of how cinema relates to both the human and social condition were evident from his first encounter with those of us working in the Department. Almost immediately, he took over the running of the Film Study Center, now known as the Celeste Bartos International Film Study Center, and over two generations he guided scholars, journalists, and critics through MoMA’s rich files and extensive library, providing sources for their interpretations of movie history and culture. He helped shape their investigations.

Charles began writing about film at Rutgers while studying Political Science, a subject that had little appeal to his romantic nature. However, his appreciation of process came into full play when he began working at MoMA. The Film Department was a leading force in the creation of PASTA-MoMA, a recently formed association of professional and administrative staff that included curators, secretaries, sales clerks, and just about anyone who was not already represented by a union. Charles became an active organizer and an outspoken spokesperson for the in-house union, championing the then provocative idea of fair play and equitable play in a field hitherto distinguished by privilege. Charles, always a social democrat, never wavered in his sentiments for the underdog and the unjustly maligned.

This sympathy would create some ambivalence in his enthusiasm for certain filmmakers such as Elia Kazan, whose work he admired and whose exhibition he curated. While remaining queasy about Kazan’s "naming names," Charles wrote eloquently about Kazan, illuminating the conflicting irreconcilables of a controversial career. Charles appreciated the complexities of personality and how they informed the work of any interesting auteur. Charles and I spoke about this and we both agreed that biography necessarily affects not only the vision of a filmmaker but the response of any viewer. We shared the belief one’s own history is part of any critical judgement. The power of film disallows disinterest. 

Although not a sportsman himself, Charles adored baseball and, in 2006, co-organized a series, "Baseball and American Culture," at MoMA. In 2013, when Brian Helgeland’s film about Jackie Robinson, "42," was shown at the White House, Charles was thrilled to read a quote from Harrison Ford, one of the film’s stars, saying, "The language of film is emotion." Charles believed that the best films are the ones which moved him. He had little patience for abstraction.

While at MoMA, Charles wrote three books, two for Pyramid’s paperback series — "Illustrated History of the Movies – Marlene Dietrich" (1974) and "The Western Film" (1976, now, I think, a classic) — and one for MoMA — a slender monograph, "Charles Chaplin: An Appreciation" (1989). But his magnum opus is really the notes he religiously prepared for the films he presented as curator. Charles’ final interview prior to retirement in December may be found online in Hyperallergic’s "Talking Pictures with a Film Curator of 45 Years." Coming to the near end of his five-year exhibition, "An Auteurist History of Film," for which he posted weekly notes on MoMA’s Inside/Out blog, Julia Friedman asked Charles about his texts. "My writing," he replied, "…is journalistic…idiosyncratic…and really very autobiographical in ways." It is also distinguished by a subtle, and at times cutting wit, is always elegant, and often-times sublime. I understand MoMA will be publishing Charles’ notes for his "Auteurist History," and my bet is that they will endure. Just read these few sentences from his "Manhattan" posting. Charles has the last word, and I say, "Hallelujah!"

"For me, having lived in the city for almost half a century, Woody Allen has been as vital to New York as Hendrik Hudson was. In between, there was a long string of greats, men and occasionally women with extraordinary accomplishments who walked our streets. They include Washington and Lincoln, passing through on the way to immortality; Melville prowling the waterfront and Customs House; Whitman just prowling; Olmsted designing a park that some consider the greatest work of art of the 19th century; Teddy Roosevelt wishing police commissioner was an equestrian position; D. W. Griffith inventing a new art form on 14th Street; Eugene O’Neill hobnobbing with Reds and drinking himself silly in the Village; Ruth hitting them out of the park and Robinson stealing home; Elia Kazan talking dirty in his tiny office at the old Astor-Victoria theater; Chaplin and Welles navigating the hallways at the Plaza Hotel; Garbo, Gish, and Hepburn exchanging neighborly visits on the East Side; our neighbor, Cary Grant, hanging out at the Warwick; and Andrew Sarris giving us the auteur theory."

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Joe Fanning

Charles and I have had a number of interactions over the years, aka decades, via his work and my deep interest in pre-29 films. His efforts were particularly helpful when, in 1993, he offered to let me organize, lecture, and host a celebration, at MoMA, for the birth centennial of Robert Harron. For many years before then and long after – Silver and I were able to laugh, smile, joke, and watch films with the deepest of interest. Without any exaggeration, whenever I read about or watched anything dealing with Biograph, Charles is always on my mind. He will continue to be so for many years to come whenever the lights dim, the camera rolls, and the film starts.

Matthew Kennedy

It seems many writers have Charles Silver stories. I became acquainted with Charles while researching my first book, a biography of Marie Dressler, back in the ’90s. He was remarkably generous with his time and knowledge to a fledging film historian. I was ecstatic when he curated a MOMA Dressler retrospective and signing at the book’s publication. He curated two more retrospectives based on my books (Joan Blondell and Roadshow!) in the subsequent years. Our conversations always revolved around – what else? – the movies. We weren’t in accord on Douglas Sirk, but would rally around our mutual fondness of early Richard Barthelmess. He didn’t seem too concerned about selling tickets, but rather sharing film’s vast global breadth to anyone wise enough to follow his work. Charles epitomized the gentleman film scholar, vastly knowledgeable, confident in what he liked but never stodgy or elitist. He was also a giving, shy, slyly witty, and forever supportive man. Whenever I visited the Film Study Center, he would dump a hefty load of clipping files onto the desk, point me in the direction of the rest room and photocopier, and confirm our lunch date, usually Italian. I’m saddened but not surprised that he died only weeks after retiring from MOMA. I didn’t know Charles well, he was also quite private, but it seemed to me that movies were his life. How lucky for him and us that he reveled in movie love for so many years and in the process gave us all so much of himself. His death is a huge loss for film lovers, and I am forever grateful to have crossed his path on multiple happy occasions.

Carl Prince

I first saw Charles Silver in his bassinet; he’s my first cousin in a very close family that he cherished always, and remained close to his entire life. We were lifetime friends. As children we spent summers together in the Catskills; were students together at Rutgers; and still later were friends in New York over a half century. I wound up a history professor at NYU. He was, as described, a gentle man. He was, as all have noted, possessed of a singular integrity, a populist very much in our family tradition. He was, as many have noted, a great baseball fan. He and I co-directed MoMA’s 2006 Baseball Symposium after I published a book about the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team close to both our hearts. For those who are part of his extensive family and knew him in this special way, he was a wonderful and much-loved brother and uncle to his sister Karen Fuhr and her three daughters. He was a life-long friend to me and my children, grandchildren and to the families of all of his cousins. He never missed a family roll call. I’m writing this so that those who cherished him for his kindness, honesty, talent and strength will also know that we who are his family loved him for just those wonderful traits.

Kevin Stoehr

Many thanks to Larry Kardish for his wonderful tribute to Charles. I had the great fortune to have known Charles over the past decade or so. He was a dear friend and a model of humane humility. My own film scholarship benefited enormously through Charles’s encouragement and assistance. I will treasure my memories of being with him at the MoMA, once in the seaside paradise of Ogunquit, Maine, and twice in my hometown or Portland, Maine (a city that was also dear to Charles since it was the hometown of his favorite director, John Ford). You will be deeply missed, Charles. One of his favorite characters in one of his favorite movies (John Wayne as Nathan Brittles in Ford’s SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON) uttered one of Charles’s favorite lines, reading an inscription from his men: "Lest we forget." Indeed.

Mark Griffin

Grateful Thanks to Larry Kardish for paying tribute to an unsung hero where film preservation and scholarship are concerned. In addition to being an unfailingly supportive professional mentor, Charles Silver was a true friend – generous, good natured and thoughtful. One of my favorite memories is of attempting to "convert" Charles into becoming a Vincente Minnelli fan. We watched "A Matter of Time" together once and although he probably would have preferred watching an early John Ford production, he was a good sport and watched attentively. Our film community will truly miss dear Mr. Silver and his unique dedication to all things cinematic.

Peter Nellhaus

Good memories also of being a student volunteer at MoMA, mostly of working with and knowing Charles, along with Mary Corliss and Stephen Harvey. Charles generously sent me a copy Stephen’s book on Vincente Minnelii so many years after I left NYC.

Aaron Braun

I am saddened by the loss of one of the sweetest souls I have ever known. I too had the distinct pleasure of interning at the Study Center for a semester and then working at MOMA for a few years afterward. He was a gentle, gracious and most honorable man.
Have always cherished the memory of entering the FSC on a horribly rainy day, lamenting the weather to him and his inimitable response: "I’m sorry, Aaron."

John Ewing

I met Charles when I was a student intern in MoMA’s Film Department during the fall of 1972. He couldn’t have been nicer to a naive kid from Canton, Ohio, and the day after he learned that I was a Nino Rota fan, and was trying to amass a collection of his soundtrack recordings, Charles brought in his own mono copy of the "La Dolce Vita" soundtrack (one I didn’t have, and one of the most coveted) and gave it to me. I refused, saying it was too valuable to just give away, but Charles insisted. "You’ll enjoy it more than I will,’ he said. It was a magnanimous gesture from an unfailingly generous man, and I still have that record to this day. Thanks you, Charles.

Ed Carter

Charles was my first boss out of NYU graduate school in 1982, and I worked for him in the Film Study Center for 5+ years. I would not be where I am today without Charles’ support and friendship. I learned more about film working in the FSC than I ever did in school, but also how to be a good union man (and Mets fan). A one of a kind personality.

Ray Carney

Thanks to Larry Kardish for the beautiful piece. I am one of those who has Charles to thank for several of my own books. Years and years go, as a fresh-faced, newly minted Ph.D. with little or nothing to show in the way of scholarly accomplishments, I cold-called Charles one cold winter afternoon and asked if he could help me begin my research on my first book (on the life and work of John Cassavetes). When I showed up at MoMA a week or two later, he treated me with the kindness, patience, courtesy, and spectacular helpfulness that only a Nobel Prize winner would have deserved. He bought me lunch. He told me "Cassavetes stories." He went though books and microfilms with me. That was Charles. On that occasion and on dozens of subsequent visits to the museum, over the course of many subsequent years, he was unfailingly kind and generous with his time, wonderfully knowledgeable, and downright fun to "hang out with" chatting in his office while he not only told his dry "Groucho-like jokes" but used the butt of his cigar to pace the punchlines like the man himself. I’ll miss him greatly.

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