Monday, March 30, 2009

On The Perils Of Watching Silent Movies

Silent movies are in some essential way not what we think of as movies at all. Yes, you sit in the dark and watch flickering images of light projected through celluloid onto a screen, but watching a silent film is much more akin to watching ballet or kabuki theater than anything like what we think of as the movie-going experience.

They say movies are a visual medium, but silent movies are a
purely visual medium and you'd be surprised how quickly you can tire of interpreting purely visual information—I mean absent a nice-looking redhead in the picture.

Norma Desmond in
Sunset Boulevard famously said, "We didn't need dialogue, we had faces," but let me tell you, a little bit of "faces" goes a long, long way and I don't know about you, but after ten minutes of a typical silent movie, I find myself yearning for dialogue, any dialogue, even dialogue written by Joe Eszterhas. And he wrote Showgirls.

Filmmakers by necessity had to develop ways to convey information without sound (or more specifically,
synchronized sound—a line of dialogue or an aural cue tied to a specific image—there were all sorts of random sounds and musical scores in "silent" movies by the mid-1920s, but none that could be reliably synchronized to the picture).

Like with everything else, some were better at it than others.

Some, such as D.W. Griffith, realized the unique potential of the medium and invented ways to tell stories—with flashbacks, cutting back and forth between two parallel storylines, etc.—that wholly slipped the surly bonds of the stage and continue to influence how movies are made today.

Others, well, not so much.

There are, as far as I can tell, an ungodly number of silent movies that are as talky and dialogue-laden as a Noel Coward play—except without the benefit of any actual, you know,
dialogue. Those are the silent movies that make you want to shoot yourself and if those are the only silent movies you've ever seen, then no wonder you don't want to see any more.

Because actors had to convey everything with their faces and bodies, you wind up seeing a lot of what to modern eyes looks like ham acting. Believe me, this exaggerated style was necessary. Without it, silent movies would implode into incomprehensible stillness. But because of this style of acting, it's the rare drama that doesn't turn unintentionally hilarious, like watching high school students perform
Death Of A Salesman.

The medium lent itself best to slapstick comedy, action-adventure, broad melodrama and grand romance, slapstick and action because you don't need a lot of dialogue to elicit an emotional response, melodrama because the story is as broad and obvious as the acting necessary to convey it, and romance because—let's face it—most of what lovers say to each other in throes of passion sounds pretty silly unless you're lucky enough to be participating in the action.

So the most watchable silent movies—watchable by
me, that is, the only person I can safely vouch for—are comedies starring Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, spectacles such as Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ or The Phantom Of The Opera, or anything with Greta Garbo or Louise Brooks who were, to my refined eye, really hot broads.

Most everything else tends to play as a bitter pill swallowed in the name of a well-rounded film education and I end up fast-forwarding through to the end. Sue me.

That audiences fled silent movies so quickly after the introduction of sound leads me to believe they weren't all that happy about the situation either. They just hadn't had a choice.

That said, I stand by my awards for the Silent Era—with certain caveats—as movies and performances I found accessible as a modern viewer, and which you too might find accessible, if you're so inclined.


rodger eburt said...

I can't believe you'd mention "Sue" in front of . . . .

oh, never mind.

As you know, movies play a healthy role in my activity, and I have some connection to them, but it's not my medium and it's not my wheelhouse.

but you've captured the problem of many silent pictures [but not the really, really celebrated ones] - they're talkies without the talk.

I think, just as it's expensive to mount a spectacle today, it was probably a lot cheaper to write bad little plays, put people in rooms [or outside, with sets to LOOK like rooms, but free sunshine], and then drop in a few title cards.

Meaning I think bad movies are much cheaper to make than good movies, and for a few years, just seieng a movie was pretty damned cool!

Lupner said...

Does anyone remember that show 'Silence Please!" ? The first silent movie I ever saw literally inspired nightmares for weeks -- and sometimes periodically beyond -- as it was so intended, since it was the infamous 'Nosferatu'. Still don't know if I saw the whole thing or not -- think Silence Please! was an hour-long show, so expect the film might have run within that time period? -- just remember being absolutely GLUED in abject horror to the TV -- and for some reason being totally by myself for that period of time and thinking I was perhaps actually having a waking nightmare -- though quite frankly people could have been walking all around me and I'd have been oblivious . . . Anyhow, one of those few examples of a film that -- due to its genre and powerful visual images, needed no words at all to scare the bleedin' bejesus out of anybody, much less a 9-year-old girl. Never did know what it was, only remembered the images too clearly, until the revival of the film later -- in the 80s, was it? Nothing could be scarier than the silent version, no words needed . . .
Later I wondered if they quite knew what they were doing, airing that film during a time when kids could see it. Still haven't had the guts to see it again, perhaps it's not as powerful as I remember. But "Yaaaaaah!"

Favorite silent film experience to date goes to "Phantom of the Opera" accompanied by the NSO at the Kennedy Center in Opera House.

The only other thing I have to add is that my grandmother, born in 1901, reportedly enjoyed providing piano accompaniment for the local movie theatre when she was a teenager/young woman. Always thought that was kinda neat.

Lupner said...

P.S. Find Buster Keaton and Charlie Chapline to both be brilliant. But have always leaned a bit more towards Buster . . .

Mister Parker said...

"Nosferatu" is every bit as good as you remember it. When I publish my very backhanded review of D.W Griffith later this week, I mention "Nosferatu" (directed by F.W. Murnau) and then again in a list of the Must-See movies of the Silent Era.

By the way, there was a pretty good movie a few years back called "Shadow Of The Vampire" starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, the actor who played the vampire in "Nosferatu." The film starts with the conceit that Schreck really was a vampire who starts feasting on the crew. It's sort of a study in how far an artist has to be willing to go to make something great.

Lupner said...

i remember 'Shadow of the Vampire' -- did venture out to see it despite my fear of the subject matter, heh. Very interesting idea and appreciated it to a point, although I do remember thinking the carnage at the end was a bit too much for my taste. But obviously I'm not the best person for an unbiased opinion on things Nosteratu . . .

Lupner said...

Oops, Nosferatu, with an 'f'. My hands must have been shaking a little . . .

Entertainment Blog said...

Really?Bad movies are much cheaper to make than good movies? Like what?

Mythical Monkey said...

Yeah, Eburt, explain yourself!

rodger eburt said...

Really?Bad movies are much cheaper to make than good movies? Like what?

Assuming that this question is serious, I'll respond with the question are you serious?

The syntax obviously leads to further inquiry: was I saying that cheap is always bad? Was I saying that bad will always be cheap?

We'll leave answers to a later time.

If we assume that a "bad" movie either has "bad" performances, bad writing, bead sets, bad sound, bad music, bad lighting, bad directing, or bad editing, then I'll say that a bad movie is cheaper to make. You can get bad actors a lot cheaper than you can get good ones. Ask filmmakers on a limited budget how much they'd like to work with actors with talent, or experience, or both, who can't work on the cheap on their movies. Try to get a paid boom-operator [you know, one of those "good" moviemakers to work for free, and he'll decline; get your friend [you know, "bad"] and you can make the film more cheaply. Ask Michael Ornstein to edit your movie for free, and he'll decline; *I*, on the other hand, will come and do it for mere airfare and a hotel room. Of course, Charles next door will do it for you for less, but probably can't thread the editing reel or boot the Mac Pro and launch FInal Cut Pro. . . .

Ask filmmakers like Dan Sallitt how the limits on budget made their films worse, rather than better; his Diary of a Low-Budget Filmmaker offers some nitty-gritty decision-making where low budgets cut into artistic achievement. There isn't a cause-and-effect relationship, but you can make a bad movie a lot more cheaply than you can make a good one.

Why, I will spend seven dollars and make a bad movie today, proving my point.