Fact or Film Snobbery?

Silent MoviesMakeYouaBetterPerson

It’s been fun to spectate all of this renewed interest in the medium of silent film. Just as the interest has shined a light into the flickering-shadow filled caves of film nerds, it has also served as an invitation for rampant film snobbery. And hey, I enjoy all these articles and blips and clips that imply fans of silent films are smarter, better-looking, and generally more successful. It’s all very affirming. But there has also been a lot of wild opinionating about how Hollywood can finally be saved from the horrors of CGI and how the intellectual pursuit of silent film viewing can finally be presented to the teeming hordes. At times, even to a die-hard, it gets a little distasteful and more than a little silly.

Case in point… this interview with Bryony Dixon on the BBC. She’s a silent film expert, you see. And she’s here to tell us that silent films are “more rewarding,” that viewers must “work harder” to enjoy them, and that they require “greater concentration.” That just sucks all the fun out the room, doesn’t it. It’s hard to know where to start in teasing apart this expert mess, but fortunately Nick Redfern at Resarch Into Film sets the ball rolling with his excellent post, “Opinion or Fact?” Check out the post, read Mr. Redfern’s post, and jump into the fray with your own expert opinion.

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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 December 17, 2011, in Miscellany and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I’m going to give you my gut response to the “work harder,” “requires more concentration” statements, then I’ll read the other posts. One of the most common issues that you find among early film critics, writers and exhibitors is whether or not a film was successful in “putting across” a story (a very common phrase you’ll encounter in early film reviews). In other words, was the viewer able to understand and follow the plot, the actions and motivations of the characters, or did they leave the theater scratching their heads? Everyone understood that movies without dialog had a much greater likelihood of being confusing or misunderstood by the audience than in live theater where there is plenty of dialog along with the action.

    Being able to follow the plot and its various twists and turns was considered an extremely important element of a good, well-made film. The notion of having to “work harder” or concentrate more in order to understand and appreciate a movie would have been unfathomable to early film audiences and critics alike. A movie that made you work harder to understand it was considered unsuccessful, inferior.

    The idea that silent films are “more rewarding,” seems to imply that because they give less information to the viewer the viewer will receive greater satisfaction from “solving” them. Sort of the way I feel when I am able after many hours of work to translate a page of Italian into English — a feeling of accomplishment. I don’t think translating or “figuring out” a movie makes it more rewarding necessarily. In fact, it might just make it seem tedious.

  2. “more rewarding,” that viewers must “work harder” to enjoy them, and that they require “greater concentration.”

    I confess, I hate this approach to movies. I never think of them as puzzles to solve. Either they appeal to me on an emotional level, or they don’t (or rarely) appeal to me at all. One of things I’ve discovered I like about silent movies is that they aren’t yammering at me; to a degree they bypass the cool, intellectual part of my brain and head straight for the lizard brain.

    I mean, seriously, Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock face — how much interpretation does that require? Anybody over the age of four can feel it in their bones.

  3. Excellent points from both of you. I have to agree with the Mythical Monkey… how much interpretation does Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock face require? Nil. The same is true for most of slapstick, arguably the apotheosis of silent films.

    The thing that really got me hooked on silent films was the emotional impact of watching them. They are exciting and moving and hilarious, requiring little intellectual input at all. It is true, I think, that the contemporary viewer has to do a little adjustment of expectations to get to that state, but again that’s just different, neither better nor worse.

    And Gene is so right. A successful movie, in its day, was measured by how accessible it was, not by how inaccessible it was, or rather would be 80 years later. For me, the glory of a silent movie is how it boils a narrative down to its most basic parts. There’s no room for complication in that formulation.

    I do find Ms. Dixon’s assertions to be the worse kind of intellectual snobbery. The idea that just because something is obtuse it’s far superior is silly.

  4. I think it is somewhat elitist to assume silent films require a greater investment than other classic films or contemporary films (a bit like saying Shakespeare couldn’t have written his plays because they require greater abilities than he possessed). I will say that many of our favorite silent film actors and actresses worked hard behind the scenes to make their work on screen appear effortless. However, they were not elitist and made their films to be enjoyed by every member of the audience. We as an audience haven’t changed all that much; we find humor in and are touched by the same content as those seeing the films for the first time. This doesn’t mean our heroes of the silent screen weren’t capable of errors in judgment when making their films and this tends to disprove the “rarified” approach to the era. I think, in the end, the idea is to encourage enthusiasm for films too often presented as “niche” entertainment. This is, after all, the best means to insure silent films have a future.

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