Angela, in dire need to get medicine for her dying mother, makes some unwise decision on the streets of Naples on how to get the 20 lire- the opening bit of the 1929 silent film, Street Angel. I’m watching this movie, well at least the first bit, as part of the Coursera open course on The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color.

In the scene above, she is sentenced by judges who don’t seem to care a whole lot about her or her story, she’s just another on a treadmill, and the guard who brought her in escorts her out. It’s a nice full cycle, perfect for beng GIFfed

Given my previous track record of less than one week duration in Coursera classes, I had already let most of the week slip by before showing up for class. I cannot say I am thrilled at the courser design. The first week has 5 “mini-lectures” each about 15 minutes, in which the professor mainly tells me things I could much more efficiently read on my own. Then he reads to us from a book.


And then there was the first quiz. I might have busted the honor code here, but frankly this is a joke, insult, or just plain _______.

Frankly, I just skipped this question just to screw up their analytics.

But really, the five week course format is:

  • Lecture video, with brainless quizzes.
  • We watch a movie.
  • Followup Lecture
  • Final multiple choice quiz, if I can squeak a 70%, I get a certificate. Or a ribbon. Or a sticker with a rabbit on it.

If this is the best design Coursera has going, I don’t see how higher education, broken or rotten tree or whatever, even has a worry. I would be embarrassed to paint this as the triggering disturbance sending tsunamis of change out.

But I digress.

I do want to learn more about film and film history; this class is supposed to look at how film tells a story, and how that method changed in the transition from silent films to talking ones, and second, in the transition from black and white to color. And I might muscle through despite every inclination to run to my laptop and make animated GIFs.

So that’s what I did.

One can think of the challenges of teaching a film class where everyone might not have access to the films. The first emails warned that the first film, Street Angel was rare, and it might be hard to find online, we might have to pay, or buy an expensive box set.

In the forums, someone just send out a YouTube link for the full movie. It looks like that the person who uploaded it to YouTube — A Petapouca — is in the class:


That is actually kind of neat, and if I was teaching the class, I would feel pretty good about the community rising up like that. I mean, in the age when one can watch all kinds of full features for free on the YT, why not a movie from 1928? Why should that be rare?

I’m keen to learn more about the style and approach of silent films (which are not silent at all, the orchestra score serves in many way as the flow of dialogue we expect in a talkie) especially for when in ds106 we get to the Return to the Silent Era assignment. The task there is to remix a modern movie to be in the style of this early film era. It’s more than just turning it black and white.

For one thing, in this movie, there is a lot of dialogue going on where we just see mouths moving and gesturing. The music indicates the mood, but we are left to interpret the scene, it is not handed out to us in full detail. Here is a GIF of the early scene where Angela gets caught by the cops, again, the scene provides a nice cycle because Angela enters on the right, and is escorted off to the left.


An interesting and likely nor highly original observation, is that these films could be appreciated by an audience of almost any language; the title card narration is in frequent, and most of the action is indicated in film editing and music.

I don;t know if it is director Frank Borzage’s style, but in the early scenes where Angela is pursued and sent to jail, there are fantastic uses of shadows to indicate mode and setting. Here Angela is being escorted to jail for her one year sentence; the montage of the large shadows passing is a powerful metaphor maybe of a darker world? In this segment, it is Angela’s shadow being led by a policeman:


And right after this, little Angela escapes, running off to the archway, chased by the cops. The way she (and they) are dwarfed by the shadows is a masterful touch:


I am writing this only 17 minutes into the film, but for me, breaking down the scenes by making GIFs is compelling me to be more deliberate about how I watch the movie. But I am definitely seeing and noticing much more than if I sat and watched passively.

A note in the method- I did not download the movie (it is more than an hour and a half), but am using iSHowU on my mac to screen capture short segments as quicktime files. I then import into PhotoShop as frames, usually at 6-8 frames per second, and then step through to see how many I can discard. Black and white films can be pushed a bit more on saving as GIFs, I did 3 of the 4 above as 64 color, and with exception of the first one (about 4 scenes) they are all under 1 MB.

I should get back to my movie watching, Angela has just met up with Gino the painter, and it looks like love.

Can’t wait for the next lecture and quiz.

Yes, I can.

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


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