The lights of the giant chandelier dimmed as the Mighty Wurlitzer’s eerie tremor flooded the hall and the organist at its console rose from beneath the stage. The performance was a special concert for Marcia Robertson and Bradley Reichek’s honors class at Richmond’s Byrd Theatre Friday afternoon.
The trip marked one of the highlights of Honors 270 — Strangely Familiar: The Uncanny in Literature and Film, a class based on Freud’s definition of the “uncanny” as “the class of frightening which leads back to what is known of the old and long familiar.”
Annabelle Vesterman ’16, who majors in biology with a minor in chemistry, was immediately sold on the class.
“I’ve always been intrigued by all things unexplainable and somewhat creepy,” she said.
The syllabus includes films such as “The Double Life of Veronique,” “Rebecca” and “Blue Velvet,” as well as texts such as Hoffman’s “The Sandman,” Poe’s “Black Cat” and Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In addition to attending weekly screenings, giving oral presentations and writing critical essays, students create three short films that imitate some of the genres they encounter.
“The first, completed last week, was a film in the style of a Lumière actualité or a Méliès trick film,” said Reichek, Sweet Briar’s director of enrollment management strategic operations. “The second … will be a short horror film. The third and final film project will be a surrealist film inspired by films like Maya Deren’s ‘Meshes of the Afternoon,’ Buñuel and Dali’s ‘Un Chien Andalou’ and Man Ray’s ‘L’Étoile de mer.’
It was Reichek who came up with the idea for the course last year.
“Bradley and I talked pretty often early last year about assessment, when he was in institutional research,” Robertson said. “Conversation turned to film … and then it turned to Freud’s concept of the uncanny … I think that it was Bradley who asked, ‘Why not teach a course on the uncanny?’ [An] honors course seemed the best home for a class that is interdisciplinary and that combines written work and the making of short films.”
And what better destination for a field trip than the historic movie theater in Richmond’s artsy Carytown?
Just shy of its 85th birthday in December, the Byrd Theatre remains almost exactly what it was meant to be: a movie theater, with all the bells and whistles of 1928 — an opulent auditorium in the style of the Italian Renaissance, featuring supersized color paintings, gold-colored stucco in every corner, a 19-foot, 500-bulb chandelier hovering below an ornate, vaulted ceiling, and special Saturday night performances on the nearly century-old Wurlitzer. Having operated as a movie theater almost continuously, it also still shows silent films, as well as independent local productions and regular second-run movies.
In addition to the 15-minute concert, the group received a complete history and tour of the building, including its projection room, and enjoyed excerpts from the 1927 classic “Safety Last.” Several students made plans to come back the following Friday for a showing of the original “Phantom of the Opera,” which will be accompanied by the organ. Vesterman was one of them.
“My favorite part of the trip was probably listening to the Wurlitzer organ,” she said. “I play the piano and the violin and have tinkered around with a pump organ before, but to see a single man control all those different instruments and play them so beautifully just amazed me. I also feel like it gave me more of an understanding of how silent films were viewed in the 1920s with the music the organist played. It has such a unique sound.”
While there are no other field trips planned, students will participate in a workshop with feminist film critic Molly Haskell ’61 during her visit to campus in November.
Focusing on George Cukor’s “Gaslight,” the workshop will in many ways be a “master class,” Reichek said.
“[It] will be an incredible opportunity for the students to work closely with a prominent and esteemed professional in her craft,” he said.