• Debunking Silent Film Myths

Here's a piece from the "Indiana Daily Student," a paper published at Indiana University, that makes a lot of good points about the barriers that silent film has to attracting an audience.

My comment: In music, period authenticity is a worthy goal, but what I strive to do is create new music that helps bridge the gap between when the films were made and what audiences expect today. This article gets into just how big that "gap" can be, so I'm posting it here, as it helps explain my approach in film scoring.

Debunking myths about silent films
By Brian Welk | Weekend | October 19, 2011

The last and biggest hurdle to overcome in becoming a real lover of cinema is learning to appreciate silent films.

Stick enough violence or action in a movie and you can get anyone reading subtitles. Show them “Singin’ in the Rain,” and they’ll be able to watch any musical ever made. Watch a movie timeless enough and you’ll forget that it’s in black and white.

But silent films are different. They’re a hard sell for a number of reasons, and there are a few myths and cultural problems to address before we notice a change.

Myth #1: Sound Movies are Better

The biggest misconception about film is that it was once seen as nothing more than a novelty, and only later did it become an art.

Anyone who believes that transition happened between silents to talkies is wrong.

Of course, sound and dialogue are good things. Movies would not be the same if we had been denied the clever dialogue of modern wordsmiths like the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin and more.

Rather, silent films hardly tell stories the same way as talkies, even to the point that storytelling had to be reinvented along with the introduction of sound.

But this form of silent storytelling was not primitive or inferior.

The best directors of the silent screen were gifted at telling a story through purely visual means, minimizing intertitles and composing moods through facial cues and striking shot placement.

Consider the chilling images of “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” the cinematic ballet of any of Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick, the mesmerizing first-ever montage of “The Battleship Potemkin” or the simple love story behind “Sunrise.”

I can’t think of more elegant, poetic or easier ways of telling any of those stories, and I certainly can’t imagine how words would help.

Myth #2: All silent films are dated and old

More so than black and white to color or any other technological advancement of film, the silent era is called an “era” because it can be easily bookended from the birth of cinema to 1927 when “The Jazz Singer” virtually wiped out silents.

This signals to everyone that silent films are old, old, old.

Lots of people dislike things that are old, and there are some who believe film critics like things simply because they are old.

But not all silent films are completely unrelatable. There’s a universal quality to Chaplin or Buster Keaton’s slapstick. The setting may be a relic, but the ideas are as poignant as ever.

On a side note, not all silent films are as racist as “The Birth of a Nation.” Even the first half of “The Birth of a Nation” is not as racist as the rest.

I’m more alienated by horrid ’80s or ’90s fashion, hair styles, expressions and early computer-generated special effects. You can do a lot worse throughout film history than the silent era.

Myth #3: Silent stars were corny actors

Today’s audiences watch silent movies ironically. They view the time as quaint and full of wide-eyed over-actors.

It’s true they weren’t exactly minimalist method actors, but people who apply such a broad, blanket statement to all silent stars are simply naïve.

Keaton is a great example of a performer who has arguably survived the ages better than his rival Chaplin, whose double takes have since become cartoonish. Keaton had the perfect stone face for getting a laugh when a house collapses on him.

Even dramatic actors like George O’Brien in “Sunrise” or Rudolph Valentino, possibly the first ever sex symbol, feel very modern with their messy features and cold, glowering stares.

Some actors even had better luck pushing their way into talkies than did many of their colleagues. Joan Crawford and Mickey Rooney both got their starts in silents, and let’s not forget Lillian Gish’s role in “The Night of the Hunter.”

Why people don’t know silent movies

Anita Page died in 2008. As the star of 1928’s “Our Dancing Daughters,” she was considered the last living silent film actor. Note from me: Well, not quite. Barbara Kent, for instance, just passed away this week (in October, 2011), but the point is still important.

There is simply no one left who participated in or remembers that era. A person born in 1927 when the genre hit its zenith and took a fatal nosedive would be 84 today.

Now, numerous generations have grown up without any awareness of silent film, and barely a soul would think of recommending one for a movie night at home.

This is assuming that watching a silent film at home would be easy. Many silent classics are bundled in strange box sets and do not have proper DVD distribution.

A handful of the titles streaming on Netflix, such as D.W. Griffith’s three-hour-plus “Intolerance,” include no background soundtrack at all, which not even a silent film should be without.

Options are limited to places like the IU Cinema, which just showed “Sunrise” with a piano accompanist on Sunday. This is the real way to watch a silent film, and a good place to start, but these opportunities are few and far between.

Silent films come back

My hope for silent films seeing a revival rests with “The Artist.”

Yes, a French filmmaker has gone all-out in making a black and white, silent motion picture. It was a critical darling at Cannes and is now making a lot of Oscar buzz.

The story is a loose adaptation of the end of the silent era as depicted in “Singin’ in the Rain,” and American audiences should recognize the likes of John Goodman and James Cromwell.

The Weinstein Brothers have purchased the film in hopes that it will sweep awards season and be a box office success.

What “The Artist” spells for me is amateur filmmakers on YouTube and elsewhere trying their hand at silent filmmaking. I’ve always found a tendency to go on a silent film bender after watching just one, and I expect others may do the same.

But if not these obvious changes, we may see more modern filmmakers attempting to tell stories the way silents once did.

Films that favor visuals over dialogue, such as “The Tree of Life” or “The American,” have been polarizing experiences for larger audiences, but many people love and cherish the silent montage in “Up” or whole chapters of “Wall-E.”

Silent films are not dead and gone. They’re not old, outdated, silly, inferior or unentertaining.

Just because they’re silent doesn’t mean they should go unheard.

Copyright © 2011 Indiana Daily Student