Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Defense of the Aesthetics of Silent Film

Silent cinema, amongst those who have taken any time to think about it, largely has a bad rap.  Silent movies lack one of the most basic conventions that the average audience member expects in every movie, namely sound and dialogue.  While I will not complain about sound being in movies, I do feel that there is a strong case for the aesthetic of silence as seen in the films of early cinema and less so in later eras.  For starters, silence can put the viewer in a reflective, almost meditative mode.  Silence can also set our minds into an analytical mode rather than getting "caught up" in things.  This might be the goal in a given moment of a given film.  Intertitles give us an opportunity to use a different part of our brains than we are accustomed to.  On the other side of things, music can be more powerful than words or effects.  Also, silence puts an emphasis on the physical performance of an actor and has contributed greatly to pantomime and slapstick.  These factors can converge to create a not quite realistic "otherworldliness" that is suited to certain subject matter.  The last thing that needs realized is that silent film aesthetics are not intrinsically tied to an era, but can be the product of any era and can be mixed and matched with the aesthetics of subsequent eras.  Silent movies should be looked at with fresh eyes, not in annoyance over their "limitations," but in a spirit of discovery of their common beauty.

Silence can put the viewer in a reflective mode.  It is an escape from the mindless noise of life and movies.  It is an opportunity to quiet our bodies and minds and be engaged by a work of art that finds us at peace and not in a state of constant borderline distraction, having to overstimulate us so it doesn't lose us.  It also can have a spiritual element.  As scripture states:
"And he said, 'Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.' And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice."- 1 Kings 19:11-12
Why is it that movies can't engage us in a peaceful or spiritual way?  Some people would have all interior experiences put in a neat box where only one type of exterior experience engages each feeling.  Some people do not believe that movies should require the sort of discipline that a movie in silence requires, but I personally am not bothered by it when I am in the right mood.  The counterpoint to all this is that many people do "need" the extra stimulation and rather than silence lessening distraction and allowing the mind to let content easily flow into it, the silence creates great distraction of the mind to fill in its own void.  Boredom and full distraction settle in.

Silence can also promote an analytical mode.  An intellectual cinema of ideas and rationality.  The images without sound are more likely to put us in the mode of more objective outside observer of images, analyzing their meaning, as opposed to modern mainstream cinema which is meant to hide the apparatus and pull us emotionally into a story.  Some prominent filmmakers like this Brechtian mode of self-conscious art.  Oftentimes, left-wing filmmakers especially like it because they feel that the classical mode leads to mental complacency and thus becomes an agent of the conservative status quo.

On the other hand, most silent movies were actually meant to be played with music.  Before the days of sound on the film strip this was done by a house band, orchestra, etc.  Music is perhaps the most abstract of all the arts.  A.G. Sertilanges states that music "awakens states of the soul."  It is less precise, but certainly more evocative than words and dialogue.  It usually packs more emotion than other elements anyhow which is why it is so often overused.  On practical matters of story, music can be used to cover all the story beats.  We already use it to accentuate these beats.  In the action-driven Hollywood movie, dialogue and especially exact dialogue is of very little importance anyway.  Imagine a movie like Star Wars, to use an easy example, with a handful of key intertitles and the score carrying the rest.  Lastly, a continuous score can be used to tie all the pieces of a movie together. 

Titles can also provide a meaningful different aesthetic. Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard used titles very often in his (sound) films  because he thought reading engaged a different part of the brain.  This was towards the rationalist aesthetic mentioned earlier.  Titles should impose no problem on a literate audience although nearly no one wants to read a book on the screen.  The other positive thing to note with titles is that, especially nowadays with graphic design, you can do all kinds of neat effects with them that can contribute different meanings.  The titles, rather than being mere necessities of telling a story in silence, can become a part of the visual aesthetic of the work.

Silent movies put a strong emphasis on physical performance.  Many people speak of the faces of silent movie stars.  The lack of sound puts a strong emphasis on visual cues and draws us to see the beautiful nuances of emotion in a person that might otherwise be blandly expressed with words.  It also puts an emphasis on physical, slapstick comedy or other impressive feats of the human body.  Perhaps the greatest physical comedians have come out of the silent era.

The effects of silent movies to a large degree do not contain documentary realism.  This need not be problematic.  The aesthetics of silent movies already mentioned contribute to an otherworldliness.  They are almost like a strange dream, or nightmare.  This otherworldliness is extremely suited to eerie horror movies, fantasies and sublime religious subjects.  It is also suited to archetypal stories that are less in need of the specificity of realism.

Silent cinema need not be just the product of an era.  When movies began, sound was lacking only because the technology had not been invented.  By the time The Jazz Singer, the first "talkie," came around, the technology had come around in the form of Vitaphone which recorded synchronous sound on a record and from there the technology would proceed to sound on the film strip.  Many of the critics of then and later saw silence as a major deficiency, but at the same time, they felt that sound had come too soon and too sudden.  The art of film was quickly evolving in the late 1920's and the novelty of sound had destroyed real art.  But with sound came a wider canvas for the filmmaker.  This canvas could include sound effects, dialogue and more realism, but it could also be used towards silent film techniques.  Silence is a universal aesthetic that can be used at any time, including today.  It was, but is no longer, the technical necessity of an era.  This gives creators the choice to even more consciously make a silent movie for even more conscious purposes.  Silence is not necessarily a "deficiency" if it is the conscious aesthetic choice of a creator.  This shatters any idea of an intrinsic link between silent and black and white.  It also allows creators more control over their soundtrack, which before would have been left to the house band.  The aesthetic of silence can be used with more recent film making techniques to create something entirely new and vibrant rather than just more era homages.  While I personally prefer sound movies, the fact that so many silent movies do hold up and are comparable to great sound movies, as well as all the great pros already mentioned here, says that that silent movies should not just bow out completely.  How can we praise something in practice, but then denounce it in theory?

In conclusion, silent movies, while certainly long past their heyday, need not go away completely.  The medium still has something unique and wonderful to offer us, both in new creations and in its old classics.

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