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Why you should see the silents, part I

Silent movies are to movies in toto as classical Greek and Roman drama is to all of European drama. Of course, cinema is one of the latest progeny of the classical dramatic tradition, so one can’t claim the silents invented any wheels in terms of plot and characterization; those haven’t changed since Euripides and Menander.

What the silents did do was develop the expressive means of the new medium of dramatic presentation that cinema constituted. Those means were afforded by the camera and the film it exposed. The camera enabled infinite points of view upon dramatic action, and the film strip enabled switching among those points of view through editing, the joining of various bits of exposed film to compose a narrative flow. All the other means of dramatic expression—acting, movement (other than of the camera), incidental music, lighting, set design, special effects, and, when synchronized sound arrived, noise as well as speech—were cinema’s inheritances from the stage.

By the advent of the talkies, the distinctive means of cinema—camera placement and movement, and editing or montage—had been fully developed for dramatic purposes. In the normal business of making a movie, both means are used. Film historians usually attribute the flowering of each, however, to particular national film industries. Germany in the 1920’s made camera movement the sine qua non of movie storytelling, while Russia at the same time made editing the queen of movie techniques. These assignments are too neat, for France, America, and Japan picked up the foreign innovations and often the innovators, too. Still, I know no more rapturously mobile a movie than Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney (1928), directed by G. W. Pabst, no more brilliantly—and rapidly!—edited one than Battleship Potemkin (1925), directed by Sergei Eisenstein. In both countries, virtues were made of environment. Germany after the Great War rebuilt itself along industrial lines, creating great movie studios, within which filmmakers could exercise the control necessary for keeping adventurous camera movements pertinent to a story. In the early Soviet Union, Communism was proving itself productive primarily of scarcity. Film stock was hard to come by. Short takes became the rule, longer ones were excerpted for their most effective frames, and how to fill gaps between takes without exposing more (unavailable) stock led to psychologically guided creativity in making one image suggest things about the next. That third practice is known as the Kuleshov effect after filmmaking collective leader Lev Kuleshov determined to use all the film at hand—and no more—to tell the story at hand.

[For the record, the earliest extensive camera movement is in the pre-Soviet Russian work of Evgeni Bauer; see, especially, After Death (1915), available in a DVD, Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer, that includes excellent analytical extra features, from Milestone Films. Bauer died four months before the revolution.]

In general, the later the silent, the more polished it is. The American Frank Borzage’s ravishing love stories starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell—Seventh Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928), and Lucky Star (1929)—yield nothing in mobility and grace to Pabst’s Jeanne Ney; indeed, I think such sound masterpieces as John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) and George Stevens’s I Remember Mama (1948) are descendents in style of the great German silents even as they are developments in theme from the romantic love of Pabst’s and Borzage’s classics to familial love—but see, too, Ford’s echt-Germanic Four Sons (1928), my favorite of his silents. Eisenstein’s Old and New (1929, aka The General Line) is the acme of montage, perhaps too visually dazzling for a plot that has been deprecated as the love story of a girl and her tractor (there’s more to it, I assure you).

Some filmmakers were slow to give in to the talkies, so aesthetically impressive had the silents become. Charles Chaplin famously made two more in the ’30’s, City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936), and the Japanese film industry didn’t make the change until the middle ’30’s. Now and then, someone makes a silent for fun, it seems; Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie (1976) and the recent Oscar-winner, The Artist (2011), come to mind. My favorite anachronistic silents, however, are both shorts, Film (1965), starring Buster Keaton in a screenplay by Samuel Beckett, and The Heart of the World (2000), Canadian independent filmmaker Guy Maddin’s comic tour-de-force consisting of more than 100 shots per minute during an overall duration of six minutes—take that, Sergei Eisenstein!

In my next post, I’ll offer a viewing list, with comments.

Ray Olson

Ray Olson

Ray Olson writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.

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