Back to the Basics: On Silent Cinema

Man with a movie camera

The other day I had a sudden urge to watch Vertov. I was sitting on the train, reading Of Mice and Men (because lately my brain is smoking something) when all I wanted to do was watch Man With A Movie Camera. When I was in college, Man With A Movie Camera was required viewing in the first weeks of every film class I ever took. I watched it. I liked it. I analyzed it. I moved on. But I have never experienced having an overwhelming urge to watch Vertov.

Maybe I shouldn’t be too surprised by this. Lately I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night (thanks to my muddled brain) and in an attempt to fall back asleep, I’ve been watching silent films. On YouTube. With my phone no less. Even though I can hear P. Adams Sitney’s voice lecturing my seminar class: “There’s a special place in hell for YouTube.”

I am not really a fan of silent cinema. I always dreaded when I had to watch a silent film. Yet I am finding myself drawn to silent cinema more and more. Especially early Hollywood silent cinema from the 1910s and 1920s, which I have never been that interested in period. I disregarded them because they weren’t “avant-garde enough” like Un Chien Andalou or Entr’Acte.

Something has changed. I’m watching anything and everything.

In the last couple of weeks I have plowed through the early films by the Lumiere Brothers and D.W. Griffith. I’m watching silent comedies with Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. I’m looking at films starring Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish more closely than ever. I go on these long silent film benders where I will start with the Odsessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin and the next thing I know I’m watching Thomas Edison’s The Kiss.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUyTcpvTPu0]

So what have I finally grasped?

That silent cinema is everything. That modern art and cinema were literally born at the same time in the 1890s. Silent cinema is the foundation for all filmmaking. The first Hollywood productions set into motion everything about the star system. Meanwhile an avant-garde production like Man With A Movie Camera emphasizes the mechanics of filmmaking. Early American cinema emerged at a time of intense moral, social and cultural changes in the United States and in turn, cinema ushered in cultural and social changes. Early cinema established high culture versus mass culture, which is one of the most fundamental elements of art and culture.

Silent cinema is the bones of every and any movie we watch today.

Realizing this helps me and my muddled brain.

My film watching habits are changing. (Again.) I sense it happening. It’s strange yet it is also liberating. It is pulling me out of this rut I’m in. So I’ll stick with going back to the basics for right now.

modern times

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1 thought on “Back to the Basics: On Silent Cinema”

  1. You hit the nail on the head!

    “Silent cinema is the bones of every and any movie we watch today.”

    Film is foremost a visual medium, so one could argue that silent film is the very essence of cinema because it relies on nothing but visual elements to tell the story.
    Sure, technology (especially sound and computers) has enhanced the viewing experience perhaps beyond the imagination of the early pioneers, but every movie is ultimately told in pictures, so in that regard little has changed in the last century.

    As for the stories themselves, you’re absolutely right that silent cinema is the bones of those as well. I understand why older movies, especially silent ones, aren’t very appealing to many people, as they’re generally dismissed as boring and of poor quality compared to what we’ve come to expect in the last few decades. I often agree. However, the ideas of today were influenced by all the ones that came before them, and if you trace them back to their cinematic roots, you’ll find them in those early “boring” films.

    That’s something worth remembering…and watching!

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