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Charles Chaplin's Film and the Politics of Silence

ENGL 392.401
crosslisted as: CIMS 392
Friday 5:15-8:15pm

Course Online: Synchronous and Asynchronous Components

fulfills requirements:
Sector 1: Theory and Poetics of the Standard Major
Sector 6: 20th Century Literature of the Standard Major
Elective of the Standard Major
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major


Course Description


ENGL/CIMS 392: “The Politics of Pantomime and the Films of Charlie Chaplin”




This BFS seminar, cross-listed in English and Cinema Studies, is designed for advanced students pursuing any major. No background in performance or cinema studies is required. The ability to grow as an observer and a communicator is indispensable, as well as the ability to do productive collaborative work and to perform in front of an audience. The major prereqisites for success in this course are a desire to learn to appreciate how communication works in pantomimic film, a willingness to try new things, and a sense of humor.




This course welcomes all BFS students, in every discipline and major. Non-BFS students are required to apply; consult the instructor for the procedure.




Course Structure


●      This class is radically experimental/experiential, so please read the entire prospectus to get an overview of what we will be doing.


●      Weekly schedule: The course meets once per week for 3 hours. This time structure is designed to allow for in-class film screenings, visits by guest speakers, and occasional out-of-classroom activities during our scheduled class time (as these prove possible under pandemic conditions).


●      Regular in-class format: Class sessions will combine a variety of formats and tasks. In a typical class session:


o   Instructor will lead discussion of the reading or viewing homework students have done for that session. There will be more lecturing at the start of the semester and more discussion in subsequent weeks.


o   Film clips and short films (approx. 15-30 minutes in length) will be shown in class. (Feature films will be viewed outside of class time, as homework.)




While the above describes the format/schedule of most class sessions, the course also contains some unique components. These include:


·      Special class formats for visiting speakers: 3-4 times over the course of the semester, visiting experts will join the class during our regularly scheduled meeting. Unless these speakers reside in Philadelphia, these meetings will take place over Zoom. Linked reading assignments will precede these visits, and students will be required to prepare questions for each speaker.


●      Additional out-of-class meetings: This course will require five additional meeting times outside of the traditional weekly schedule.


○      All students will participate in 2 two-hour performance workshops with professional pantomimists. These workshops, which normally cost hundreds of dollars, are provided free to registered students. Though the schedule is not yet firm, they are likely to take place on Saturday afternoons. Both workshops are mandatory for all students as they are essential to your final project.


○      For the final project in this course, students will either perform short, original pantomimic performances for real-life audiences (options 2 and 3 below), or work collaboratively to produce film screenings at pubic venues (option 1 below).  Attendance at these events is mandatory for all students. There will be no separate final exam.


○      Finally, all students will also participate in an informal, costumed event on a date when our class does not meet (TBA). This event will consist of pantomimic clowning in Tramp costume wherever a student is located that day (in class, at work), and whatever students happen to be doing.  This activity honors a strange event that took place on November 12, 1916. On that day, Chaplin, the first global film celebrity, was reported to be in almost 800 North American locations simultaneously; he was paged in hotels he wasn’t staying at, met by brass bands at train stations when he wasn’t traveling; people who weren’t Chaplin were pursued down city streets by admiring crowds. We’ll recreate the event, for fun and for practice in pantomime.  


Each student will make a short video of their adventures in Chaplin costume on our Tramp event, and post it to our course’s Canvas site by a due date TBA. Aim for a funny video of about 5 minutes (minimum). Professional production standards are NOT expected.


Student Assessment


·      Every student begins this class with an A.


·      Equal weight will be given to:


o   Regular, constructive, visible, and engaged attendance


o   Consistent, thoughtful Canvas discussion posts


o   Quality of participation in workshops


o   Quality of participation in final project


o   Engaged participation and posting of a short video on Costume Day


·      Because class/workshop/event attendance are the essential components of this course, there are no essay assignments. Regular posts to Canvas are graded for completion (one original post each week, and  two responses to other students’ posts).






·      .


Course Requirements


●      All requirements -- class attendance, the small number of out-of-class events described here, homework, and the final project -- can be fulfilled by BFS students within the University’s guideline of 9 hours/week.


●      Attendance: Attendance at every class session is required. This includes the scheduled dates outside of the regular class meeting. You are expected to complete all assigned homework before class meets,  and to participate constructively at every class session and event.  


●      Weekly Assignments


In general, students will be required to read assigned pages in books; to view silent films from the 1910s, 20s, and 30s (in class or as homework, as assigned); to post weekly on a Canvas thread, and to respond to other students’ posts (at least 2 responses per week).


○      On Canvas: early in the semester, students will address questions posed by the instructor. As the semester proceeds, students will be responsible to construct their own questions and theses.  Students’ posted thoughts will form the bases for discussion in class.Canvas Discussion posts should not exceed 3 paragraphs.


○      Weekly film screenings will usually consist of 1-3 shorts or 1 feature-length film:. Because the communal experience of silent film is an important feature of the genre, we’ll aim to watch together as often as possible, in class and as part of Option #1 below. Students are encouraged to organize informal watch parties when we don’t have time to watch/finish films in class.


○      Reading assignments will be weighted to take place mostly early in semester (to give students necessary background) and in advance of visiting speakers. As the semester goes on, viewing and performance practice will occupy us more than reading.


●      Final Project


○      Students will select one of three project options. All three have the same overall goals:  1) to give students a chance to demonstrate what they learned in this class about pantomimic communication, 2) to encourage students to take a chance and try something new, 3) to permit students to experiment with using gesture (no spoken words) to create particular “feeling effects” in the audience – amusement, empathy, embarrassment, amazement, etc. (Much of our work all semester will be devoted to understanding how pantomime elicits feeling.)


●      Those performing pantomime will not be graded on the professionalism of the performance, but on 1) your willingness to try, 2) your effort to explore and communicate the goals and methods of pantomime as we have come to understand them over the course of the semester, and 3) your success in eliciting feeling in your audience.




■      Project Option #1: To work on one of 2 committees (up to 3 students and both instructors) to produce off-campus community screenings in the West Philadelphia area.


For this project, we are honored to be negotiating with two distinguished Philadelphia performance partners: the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (Penn) and the Lightbox Film Center (University of the Arts). Student committees and course instructors will work with staff at the Annenberg and the Lightbox to produce the 2 screening events (one per committee) at those venues.


Students who opt for this project must be prepared to maintain flexibility in order to accommodate the scheduling needs of the real-life producing theaters with which we’re working. The instructor has been in negotiation with each venue for over two years to make this opportunity available to Penn students, but pandemic considerations mean that our schedules are not yet finalized. We’ll aim to hold our events on Saturday afternoons (like the required performance workshops), but final scheduling will be determined collaboratively with the venues.  If pandemic conditions preclude screenings at these public venues altogether, the instructors will arrange alternative spaces on campus.


The goals of this project are 1) To experience collaborative curation in producing film screenings at public venues; this includes organizing, arranging for technology, advertising, and screenings,  2) At each event, briefly to introduce the films to the audience from a podium, offering information they may need to enjoy the experience (the instructors are happy to collaborate with students on this task), 3) To allow all members of our class an opportunity to watch  a selection of Chaplin’s pantomimic films on large theatrical screens, which are optimal for perceiving complicated pantomime gestures. (Screens of appropriate size are not available in Penn classrooms), 4) to engage with members of the West Philadelphia community and offer them comic relief in a dark time, and 4) to foster collaboration between Penn students, the Annenberg Center, and the Lightbox Film Center at the University of the Arts.




Project Option #2: To work in committees of 2-3 students to produce informal pantomime events for children in the West Philadelphia community (one event per committee).
This project requires that students conceive, practice, and perform a 10-15 minute pantomimic story in costume, and to engage generously with local children to help them enjoy the performance. We are in negotiation with the Children’s Hospital, Mighty Writers, and the Free Public Library. None of these entities is yet sure what the pandemic will allow in their spaces. (It may be necessary for us to perform in lobbies or in open air.) Most of them have after-school programs where we hope to perform. Each committee will schedule its event in conjunction with a one of these community partners (the instructors will help).




The goals of this assignment are 1) to perform for a real-life audience of children the pantomimic methods learned in our Saturday workshops, with the goal of creating shared feelings, 2) to be ambassadors for Penn, 3) to enrich the educations of area children, 4) to offer the performances when and where our community partners find it most helpful.




Project Option #3:  To prepare and perform an in-person, pantomimic event on campus, for an adult audience. Students are welcome to invite family and friends. Interested faculty and staff, and our partners from the city, will also be invited. 

Without using words, individual students will stage a live, 10-15 minute event (e.g., eating a meal, helping someone cross a busy street, getting ready for bed, feeding a child, etc.), with the goal of eliciting particular feelings in the audience.




These individual pantomimes will be performed in person during the final class session at a central location on campus; we are negotiating for the Kislak Center at Van Pelt Library. All students must be present. 




We hope to have budget to offer refreshments at this event. We are aiming for a fun, celebratory event at the end of the semester!


○      Final project evaluation


■      To get an A on the final project, students will demonstrate engagement and understanding of the techniques and purposes of pantimime. You will not be evaluated for your skill as a pantomimist, but according to the energy, information, and care you put into your work, your professionalism and purpose, your abilities to collaborate and communicate. Inventiveness and creativity are welcome and will be rewarded.




Essential Course Policies


●      Required books:


○      There will be three required and one recommended textbook for sale at the bookstore, Students may also obtain these titles elsewhere. Opt for the most recent affordable edition.


○      Please buy physical books, and bring them to class on the dates assigned. Screens will not be permitted during class meetings.


○      No title should cost more than $30.00. If you are looking at a more expensive copy of a particular title, look instead for a slightly earlier edition; it will be cheaper.


●      Required films:


○      You will not be required to buy any films.  Every required film will be made available to students in currently authorized, recently remastered editions via Canvas. This provision has been made possible for our course by the generosity of the international Chaplin Office in Paris.


○      Please do not watch the films on YouTube before clearing the particular version and format with Jacob Myers. Links to the authorized versions of every film are available on Canvas to ensure that you see the best (i.e. the most complete, most watchable, uncut, carefully restored) version of each film.