Monday, June 2, 2014

When Silents Speak Louder Than Words

In my first blog, I had an entry titled Silent Film 101. It was a post on how to approach silent movies from a 21st Century point of view. I thought it was a topic worth revisiting since silent cinema has had a bit of a resurgence in today's popular film culture. Harold Lloyd pictures and Metropolis screenings have become staples at classic film fests across the map and are making their home video debut thanks to marvelous blu-ray editions. Silent gems are more accessible now than ever giving everyone a chance to celebrate these beautifully unique early films.

But where do you even start?

I feel like silent movies intimidate audiences today and therefore are usually ignored. Because they are devoid of mass amounts of sound effects and spoken dialogue, people feel like they won't be able to relate to the material presented. It's an understandable opinion. Today's culture is bombarded with constant noise. Between IPods, radios, televisions and everyday hustle and bustle, the idea of watching something as stripped down as a silent movie feels foreign and unnatural. The closest comparison I can think of is offering a sushi roll to a cattle farmer... it just doesn't seem like it would make any sense.

But trust me... it's totally worth it! Film has the unmatched ability to screen shot our history.
To watch a movie from the 1920s is to step back in time and see the world as it was. Silents are unique because they were the first films ever to be made, to ever be watched. They cradle this magical energy and exuberance because it was a brand new media... moving pictures! To fully appreciate how far film has come...  it's important to remember how it began: The first directors to ever capture our imaginations, the first collaborations between artists and vaudeville, the first actors to ever shape a generation... this is fascinating stuff!

So if your ready to open your cinematic horizons and try something new, I've assembled a few helpful hints for embarking on silent cinema... trust me, you won't regret it!

1. Prepare Yourself: 

Any avid reader will tell you that books require perspective. For example, you would never read a Jane Austen novel like you would a Shakespeare play. They each require a different approach. The same goes for silent movies. Remember that these films were made prior to sound technology even being in existence. It wasn't even an option yet. This required that film makers use other means to tell their stories. This resulted in films that look and feel differently than products made even within the same decade let alone 90 years down the line. Be aware that the pacing of the story will have been written for a different type of audience. Movie goers of the 1920s were not as cohesive as today's society (That's a whole other post for a whole other blog, and I won't get into it here). Preparation is the first key to enjoying a silent movie... just remember that this movie wasn't made for a child of the computer age and appreciate it within it's given context.

2. Silent Acting Style: 

I have heard so many complaints even from fellow classic movie fans that silent movie acting is "over-done" and "fake". My response to this is always the same... Of course it feels that way! Why wouldn't it? These actors weren't bred in method acting studios nor had they grown up watching movies... they were new to this medium too. They were born and bred on the stage, in vaudeville, in acting traveling troupes. They were given the enormous responsibility of capturing an audience with nothing but their body language and facial expressions because they literally had no voice. They also weren't sure how their performance was going to be viewed or how well it would be understood and received. Imagine an elaborate game of charades with only a few cue cards to help tell your story... and then watch these actors again... they are brilliant! Audiences needed to be spoon fed in the beginning so that they could mature along with the cinema as its story telling developed and grew.

Silent movie actors were decadent and masters at their craft. Greta Garbo shook men to their cores with just one look and Charlie Chaplin knew how to use his whole body, from head to toe, to garner a laugh... these actors knew what it took to conquer the imagination... something our entertainers might have lost sight of over the years. Acting is talent, a gift... not something that can always be manufactured. Accept these actors for what they had to work with and I promise you, the "fake" aspect will fall away and you will begin to see why celebrities were eventually renamed Stars... these people just shine brighter on the big screen...

3. Choose Carefully: 

Don't just watch any silent movie in the beginning. Choose films that you have a

vested interest in seeing. This will give you a reason to push forward even if you are feeling a bit skittish. For example, watch a film with Rudolph Valentino or Clara Bow. They personified the 1920s: the Sheik and the Flapper. Women committed suicide after Valentino's pre-mature death. He was one of the first big sex symbols to ever grace the cover of a fan magazine. There had to have been something special about that guy, right?! Let Clara Bow show you how the girls of the '20s partied. These flappers knew how to have a good time. Women from this era were embracing a new wave of confidence and sexuality. No more corsets or ankle length hemlines... these gals let it all hang loose! Choosing fun and flirty films for your first silent movie experience are a good way to get your feet wet... it will make watching the deeply moving and artistic pieces easier and more palatable.

4. Stay Open Minded: 

Silent films truly are a very specific kind of movie medium. They were unlike anything that had ever been seen before. They impaled our sensibilities, forced us to consider the world outside our front door, encouraged us to see new possibilities and shaped our nation and our world beginning with those few flickering images behind a lit lantern. Be willing to explore silent era films and look at it as an adventure. Once you build up your silent movie muscle, who knows, you might feel like you could even take on a German Expressionist Silent! (Dr. Calligari, Anyone?) Appreciate them for what they are, not what you want or expect them to be.

If you still aren't sure you can do this... my last piece of advice...

5. Watch The Artist (2011):

This film not only won the Academy Award for Best Picture but is truly a throwback masterpiece. The actors in it aren't long gone, it has all the elements of a beautiful romance and it's black and white with an amazing sound track... They were able to capture all the beauty of a silent movie... and proved that silent cinema still has the capability to capture the heart of a sound worshiping culture...

My favorite scene is when Peppy is in George's dressing room. She walks around taking it all in. She is so in love that just being in his room is enough to make her heart fill up. She goes up to his coat hanging up and puts her arm through his sleeve. She stands there and imagines him holding her. It's such a gorgeous scene... emotions that powerful don't need long soliloquies or word laden speeches... just watching her lay her head on the shoulder of that coat speaks volumes... That's the power of an image and why movies not only swept over our landscape but why a century later, they are still the most powerful form of artistic expression...

There you have it! My Silent Film 101 Update... Come on, be adventurous... watch a silent!

Harold Lloyd's A Sailor Made Man (1921)

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