Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Sound of Silence

Not a lot of people like silent films (comedies seeming to be the one exception). It's understandable. They can be long, boring, extremely dated, hard to follow, can be disjointed, don't involve, in most cases, waring alien robots, and require, above and beyond all else, our undivided attention. You can't sit doing something else, listening to a silent film and fill in the blanks. You need to read and watch. The other problem is that, in most cases, because no one owns the rights to them, which version do we pick up? Some have missing footage, some have ugly and careless transfers, alternate title cards, and soundtracks that don't touch anywhere near what the original would have sounded like. I think it's safe to bet that, back when Murnau was making Nosferatu he didn't have Type O Negative's Beatles meets Black Sabbath doom metal playing through his head as inspiration.

I'm in the bandwagon. Most of the way at least. I don't outright refuse silent films and have watched many of the titles by the big names: Griffith, Lang, Stroheim, Murnau, Dryer, Eisenstein, Chaplin, Keaton. But these are films mostly reserved for academic study or those film history completests and are, in most cases, easier to admire than outright enjoy.

What inspired all this? Last night I watched D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, his epic, in a way, apology for his previous masterpiece Birth of a Nation, the seminal and hugely racist epic that changed and rewrote film history as we know it. Why did I watch it? Because it is also seminal to film history, it's another notch on my belt, it's something you keep hearing about in film classes, the Babylonian sequences are supposed to be expensive and breathtaking (certainly that tracking shot of the dancers on the steps of Babylonia is one of the best ever committed to film), and all of the above.

Intolerance is, let's admit, long and hard to follow. It's also a visual masterpiece that was, except for Birth of a Nation, like nothing else anyone had ever dare try to attempt before. And as I was watching it, slowly but surely a new realization began to sink in: silent film was the most cinematic film has ever and will ever be. Ah ha. Revelation!

A lot of purists at the time (Munsterberg, Arnheim, etc) thought that sound was the death of film. A lot after that thought colour was the death of film too. Of course it's the standard now and even the huge ambassadors of black and white (Scorsese, Speilberg, Bogdanovich), haven't used it in ages. I think, the major stepping stone that sound and colour contributed, beside the obvious technical breakthrough, is that people felt it was pushing film one step farther away from theatre and one step closer to actual reality.

Reality or realism has always been an issue within film and especially film criticism. Films are criticised because people don't talk or act like that, no one in their right mind would do that and that's just not possible in real life. Fair enough. You've read it plenty in this space as well. But the term is one of those misrepresented critical idioms alongside "interesting" and "flawed." It just doesn't hold sway because it doesn't get used properly.

In that sense, silent films were about as realistic as they needed to be. Realism is not so much about a film's ability to reflect absolute reality (that, you'd have to admit, would be pretty boring), but about creating characters and actions and events that tie believably into the story. There's nothing about Knowing that is believable or realistic, but everything that happens makes sense within the context of the overall narrative. That's realism. That's believability.

The difference between current times and silent times is that, like the theatre, silent films asked their audiences to meet them half way. Just like the physical space of the theatre, which clearly does not take place on the streets, the beach, in front of a sunset, wherever, must be left up to the imagination, much of silent film requires that same leap of faith. We know we are watching a movie, but it's up to us to imbue the imagines with the realism they are trying to depict.

That's important because, at it's essence, silent film is filmmaking broken down into it's purest form: stories told through pictures edited together to create a whole. That's what every silent film was. That's what the medium of film was founded upon.

The pictures themselves, I think, add to the pure cinematic experience. That is, above and beyond all else, the images as captured look like nothing other than filmic images. You will never mistake a silent film as theatre or television or any form of art or reality. The thoughts don't even factor into the equation. When I look at Joseph Gordon Levitt and Seth Rogen (to take the most recent example) in 50/50 I see two actors who I know in a film about getting cancer. When I watch Intolerance, I am transported to an olden time in which the men and women and horses in Babylon look like they could actually be men and women and horses in Babylon. The illusion is seamless. There is no sense of actors on a set in front of a camera. Today Babylon would look like it was created inside a video game that could stretch on forever. In that sense, just maybe, the farther we have moved away from silent film, the farther we have moved from realism after all.

1 comment:

  1. Very thoughtful and interesting piece. I don't have much to add. Except that during the watching of one of my most recent pre-1930 movies -- Pudovkin's Storm Over Asia -- I was indeed cursing the fact that I could not spend part of my attention on multi-tasking on my laptop. Numbed by the glacial pace, I eventually did start emailing/Facebooking, and the next time I looked up, I was lost. For shame.