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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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