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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

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“After the Silents”

A new book by an SDSU film scholar spotlights the use of music in early sound cinema.

Michael Slowik is a film scholar whose research focuses on the study of United States film history from interdisciplinary perspectives.

His research focuses on film sound, film’s intersection with theatre and film and technology. At San Diego State University, Slowik teaches film history and theory at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

He recently published a book, "After the Silents," that explores a pivotal time in the history of the film industry.

Tell me about your role here at SDSU.

I started teaching here in August 2013 and am a critical studies assistant professor. I teach a few large lecture classes at the introductory level, but most of what I teach is upper level classes involving film analysis and film history.

Tell me what your book, "After the Silents," is about.

“After the Silents” explores the period in Hollywood film history that is situated right as sound is coming to film.

The book is about a period in Hollywood film history that is situated right as sound is coming to film permanently. It covers the first nine years of sound cinema and focuses on the use of music in those films. I am mainly interested in the background music that goes along with the dramatic or comedic moments of the film and the sort of emotional connotations it adds.

I focus on how music was understood in the period and what contributions it makes to films in that era. A lot of scholars have said that there is no music prior to King Kong in 1933, so this book is also intended to correct those claims.

Talk about the process of researching and writing this book.

I started researching in early 2010, and for the first year and a half I was pretty much exclusively viewing films and doing research. It took a lot of preparation for a couple of reasons. First, there is just so little written about film music in this period that I did not have a predetermined list of films to watch.

Eventually I went through this yearly catalog put together by the American Film Institute and checked every single entry for any type of a music credit I could find. If the film did have a music credit, I would put it on a list and make my best effort to view the film. I also traveled to several archives to watch films that seemed like they would be very important, but that I could not obtain any other way.

All told I watched 240 films from the period and while some were dead ends, a lot of them did at least have something noteworthy in terms of how music was used. So that was a very exhaustive and exhausting process to work through those films but I think it results in a book that is truly comprehensive. It has basically been a five year process to get this book published.

What gave you the idea?

I started the project when I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa. While studying there, I had taken several courses on film sound that covered both the silent era and parts of the sound era. During those courses I noticed that there were a number of instances of film music prior to King Kong, so I sensed there was a story that had not previously been told.

Are you the first to really explore and document film music in the early sound era?

I do believe I am the first to do so in such a comprehensive manner. While there are a number of early film music books that touch briefly on the early sound era, for that particular period they make some claims that I do not believe are accurate. What I am doing is literally watching and listening to a large selection of movies and focusing primarily on technique and strategy.

Were there any interesting findings?

Yes, definitely. Although there are some techniques that I identified as patterns, more than anything else it is just experimentation. You get the sense that the rules are not yet set and that each film is taking a stab at what it means to be a sound film.

Have you always been interested in the early sound era?

Film history is what really gets me excited. What interests me is studying the progress that film makes, the evolution, the trajectory, looking at how new technologies are introduced and how that affects the kind of stories that get told. I am also very interested in how other forms influenced films over the years. There was a lot of influence from musical theatre in the early sound era.

What are some of your other hobbies?

I run a lot. I have run seven marathons including the Boston Marathon in 2013. I read a lot of books and listen to music. Because I have never lived on the coast before, my wife and I go to the beach obsessively. She likes to dive and I boogie board, which is a lot of fun.

Michael Slowik was interviewed by Jack Haworth on behalf of the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts.