The Return of Silent Cinema from Slate Magazine

John Goodman-the artist

Yesterday Slate magazine ran a piece by Tom Shone titled “The Return of Silent Cinema.” As some one who cares, deeply, about silent cinema it certainly snagged my eye and heartened me. But the article is a bit deeper (and interesting) than noting that we’re in a culturally nostalgic moment based on The Artist and Scorsese’s iteration of George Melies in Hugo. I have yet  to see The Artist, but I’ve read the reviews of people who have and I think I have an outline of how this film indulges in nostalgia and is not a modern iteration of a silent movie, but rather a love song to the classic form. And I haven’t see Hugo either, Scorsese – well, the man is a bottomless well of nostalgia for cinema of yesteryear.

So, does this moment that marks an obvious revival of interest in the silent era tell us something greater about ourselves and how we feel about the medium of cinema? Probably. “The Return of Silent Cinema” posits some thoughts. Agree or don’t, the idea that the summer blockbuster a la Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark was a previous return to some basic silent era precepts is an interesting and compelling notion. I will admit I had never thought of it quite like that. (Score! Guilt free enjoyment of Indy!) And to draw a parallel between our current moment in film technology and the earth rocking introduction of synchronized sound is also a compelling path of fault. As Slate puts it “go-motion, blue screen, green screen, CGI, motion capture, morphing, bullet time, digital compositing, virtual cinematography, 3-D, rotoscoping” might also alter our movie landscape in ways as profound as talkies. Mighn’t it?

I’m personally reserving specific judgement about the validity of these arguments because, as noted, I haven’t seen The Artist or Hugo. I’ve only experienced this alleged revival, this collective longing for a different era of visual storytelling, as a second-hand rumor. But I would love to hear from those of you who have seen the movies or feel provoked by Shone’s specific arguments. What do you think?

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About prettycleverfilmgal

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films. I often watch, consider, and write about movies when I should really be doing other things.

Posted on November 22, 2011, in Miscellany, Readings and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I can’t say for sure if there’s a revival of interest in silent films, but I can say that silent films are more available for viewing than they have been at any time since the advent of talkies. Which tends to suggest that there really is a revival of sorts going on — else there’d be no financial incentive to put them out there.

    And as a form, it makes sense, too — if Hollywood looks mostly to the foreign markets to cover their bottom line, and dialogue gets in the way of selling a film overseas, you’d think a nearly silent movie would be the way to go.

    Anyway, lord knows there are plenty of movies out these days where I wish they’d stop talking …

  2. All very good points, Mr. Monkey. It is true that silents are more widely available than I can remember, though I assume it’s because they’re relatively cheap to release with new scores.

    That said, I desperately want to believe that there’s a renewed interest in silents and that it may affect the kind of visual storytelling current filmmakers indulge it. Here’s to hoping (raises glass)!

    Have you see The Artist or Hugo?

  3. My problem with the Salon article, specifically the argument put forward that certain kinds of modern films are essentially throwbacks to the silent era is that it’s based on a caricature of what silent film was. Saying that “action” films bring movies back to their carnival peep show/Melies trick beginnings may have some validity, but the kind of filmmaking he’s referring to was a dead end (and even the later action films ala Douglas Fairbanks — even slapstick comedy — were specific genres and although works of art in themselves they were not the sole definition of film).

    Motion pictures nearly died as an industry and an art form (or never would have developed into a more complex one) if the earliest “action,” “trick photography,” “chase films” and “actuality/reality” films had been all that movies were or were capable of becoming. Audiences of the late 1890s who loved those quirky little 100 foot films between vaudeville acts were less than ten years later bored shitless. Attendance was briefly buoyed by the nickelodeon craze, but that lasted only a few years. You know one big reason why so little exists of those earliest films? They were thrown away as garbage by the exhibitors who purchased (not rented) them by the foot and by 1907-1908, they were using them as “chasers” at the end of live acts — to chase the lingerers out of the theater after a show.

    And then there’s the argument put forth by the purists who will tell you that silent film was never really “silent,” that the term is a misnomer. They’re right. The more informed ones will also tell you that there was no great technological or scientific breakthrough that resulted in the immediate death of “silent” and instant birth of “sound” motion pictures. They’re also correct. But here’s another you don’t hear every day: Well into the silent era, the word “movies” was considered an epithet by people who cared about the medium and its development and its future. Many people thought these flickering images with spastic action were just that — “movies.” So it’s not hard to understand why the label, “talkies” was not a form of praise.

    But although silent film could have continued and developed further without “talking,” I think it would have gone the way of jazz — into more intellectual, esoteric and increasingly narrow experimental forms (and much of avant-garde, experimental film made during the “sound” era has been silent or without dialog). To me, it seemed that music videos had (many years later) filled that space left by silent movies as a popular, non-talking (though verbal) image and music-driven art form, like silent film. But that was an era that peaked and has essentially disappeared at least as a form of popular entertainment.

    If I have a point in all of this, it is that the combination of image, sound and language combined is what makes cinema an all-encompassing form of art, and as close to a compete form of entertainment that can be had — as a spectator, anyway. I think it’s human to fuss and argue and fight over what is good and bad in current culture. In fifty years people may look back at our time and think, “what an amazing period where an explosion of media, technology and disposable income created more choices and more possibilities that at any other given time before.” Or . . . maybe not.

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