Charles Musser grew up in Old Greenwich and Riverside, Connecticut, and attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, where he took Public Affairs courses with Gerry Studds, who co-chaired Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign in New Hampshire. (Studds was later Congressman from Cape Cod and the first openly gay national political figure in the United States.) He also apprenticed to local studio potter Gerry Williams, a former conscientious objector whose father was close friends with Gandhi. He won the school’s history prize his senior year. In the fall of 1969, Charlie became a Yale freshman as its undergraduate college admitted women for the first time. He created his own major in film studies and, took classes with Jay Leyda, Standish Lawder, Murray Lerner, David Milch, Michael Roemer and Peter Demetz. He wrote his first film paper on Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera.
Leaving Yale after his junior year to try his luck in the film industry, Charlie moved to New York City and rented an apartment on 45th Street between 9th and 10th Avenue (Bebell and Bebell film labs was on one side, Motion Picture Enterprises on the other). He has lived on the same block since 1972. Charlie began to knock on doors, starting at the top of the nearby Film Center Building. On the 14th floor, he talked his way past the receptionist and was hired to sync dailies of blown off hands and feet for a medical film––his first professional job. After gigs with Sam Lake Enterprises (cutting hard core inserts into soft core films) and other Film Center companies, he worked his way down 45th Street and knocked on the doors of Leacock-Pennebaker (56 West 45th Street). D. A Pennebaker put him in touch with a new sub-tenant– Peter Davis, then beginning work on a Vietnam War documentary that became Hearts and Minds (1974; Oscar, Best Documentary). He was hired to sync dailies during the day, while the cutting room was used on nights and weekends by a several upcoming filmmakers, including Deborah Shaffer and Bonnie Friedman, Barbara Kopple and Alexis Krasilovsky. Charlie worked on Hearts and Minds for two years––one year in New York and one in Los Angeles. As the first assistant editor, he also cut two scenes in the final film.
After Hearts and Minds, Charlie returned to Yale and graduated, writing his senior essay on Russian Formalism and Early Soviet Film Theory. He became a part-time graduate student at NYU’s Department of Cinema Studies and worked professionally as a film editor on sponsored documentaries such as Sons of Bwiregi for Amram Nowak and the Maryknoll Missionaries: its executive producer was Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, who later became Foreign Minister under the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. He also cut a medical film for Valkhn Films (Victor Kanefsky): there he became friends with Sam Pollard who was editing for Victor in an adjoining suite. (Sam went on to edit several fiction features by Spike Lee and to produce his documentaries).
Charlie subsequently joined IATSE local 771, the film editor’s union. He also received a bi-centennial grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to make An American Potter (1976), on Gerry Williams: it was awarded a Blue Ribbon from the American Film Festival, “Best in Category-Fine Arts” from the San Francisco Film Festival, as well as a CINE “Golden Eagle.” He then worked as an editor and segment producer for Tony Potter on Between the Wars (Alan Landsburg Productions). Charlie also became interested in the origins of editing. From his research he soon realized that film editing was not “invented” but rather editing (the juxtaposition of one shot or scene to the next) and “post-production” were the domain of the exhibitor in the 1890s and were only centralized inside the production company in the early 1900s. Edwin S. Porter, an exhibitor who became America’s first “filmmaker,” embodied this shift. Receiving the Society for Cinema Studies Student Award for Scholarly Writing for his essay “The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter,” Charlie was soon awarded a New York State Council of the Arts grant to make a documentary that became Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter (1982), which had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. Carrie Rickey of the Village Voice called it one of the year’s best documentaries. It was subsequently shown at the London, Berlin, Sydney and Melbourne film festivals.
Although Charlie continued to work as a film editor for the next several years, he increasingly focused on academic scholarship. He became the film historian for the Thomas A. Edison Papers and was the catalog editor of its Motion Picture Catalogs by American Producers and Distributors 1894-1908: A Microfilm Edition (1984) He also co-curated, with Jay Leyda, a traveling six-part film program for the American Federation of the Arts: Before Hollywood: American Films from American Archives, 1894-1915 (1986). With Leyda as his dissertation advisor, he completed his Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from NYU in the fall of 1986. He also wrote three books: The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (1990), Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (1991)-a revision of his dissertation and a companion to his documentary, and (with Carol Nelson) High-Class Moving Pictures: Lyman H. Howe and the Forgotten Era of Traveling Exhibition, 1880-1920 (1991). The Emergence of Cinema received the Jay Leyda Prize from Anthology Film Archives, the Katherine Kovacs Prize for best book on film and television, and the Theater Library Book Award. In this period, he loaned his life’s savings to James Schamus so that he could produce his first feature film, Raoul Ruiz’s The Golden Boat (1990). Through James he also met Errol Morris and subsequently wrote an article on new approaches to film truth that Morris pioneered with his documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988).
After teaching as a visiting assistant professor at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television in 1991-92, he returned to Yale as an assistant professor in 1992. As Director of Undergraduate Studies, Charlie ran the Film Studies Program (chaired by Brigitte Peucker) and did much to expand and reorganize its offerings. He taught such courses as Intro to Film Studies, Film Theory & Aesthetics, and the Classical Hollywood Cinema. Charlie also originated Documentary Film Workshop, a year-long course in which students made documentaries for their senior project. The course, which he taught as an overload, was later taken over by D.A. Pennebaker. Penny was soon co-teaching with his partner Chris Hegedus. In 2008, they were succeeded by Laura Poitras.
While teaching at Yale Charlie’s books included Edison Motion Pictures, 1890-1900: An Annotated Filmography (1997), which received Honorable Mentions for both the Katherine Kovacs Prize and the Theater Library Book Award. He also co-edited (with Jane Gaines and Pearl Bowser) Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era (2001), which included his essay on Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1925), which had been recognized with the annual Kovacs Prize for best essay on film and television.
Charlie became a tenured, full professor at Yale in 2000-and co-chaired Yale’s Film Studies Program with Dudley Andrew for the next eight years. He also started the Yale Summer Film Institute with teachers such as Sandra Luckow, Marc Lapadula and Greg Johnson (a producer on Smoke, Squid and the Whale and other indie films). Increasingly Charlie taught critical studies courses on documentary, including the first university-level courses devoted to Errol Morris (in 2008) and D.A. Pennebaker (in 2009). When Yale faced a budget crisis in 2009, Charlie returned to teaching Documentary Film Workshop (first with Ashish Avikunthak, then on his own).
In conjunction with the Yale Summer Film Institute and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, Charlie has curated a weekend of film screenings each summer with visiting filmmakers such as Spike Lee, Karim Chrobog, and Socheata Poeuv. This unexpectedly facilitated Charlie’s return to film production. When Errol Morris was unable to attend a series of screenings devoted to his work, Charlie and cinematographer Carina Tautu traveled to his offices and made a 65-minute documentary (entitled Plan B), which was shown in lieu of a Q & A with the filmmaker. This material was later incorporated into the slightly longer Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch. Charlie has somewhat playfully described it as the third film in his documentary trilogy on important American artists. It also reinvigorated his long-standing commitment to the integration of theory (critical studies) and practice.