Sunday, 29 July 2012

Silence Is Golden

Over the past month or so I've taken the time out to revisit some of the classic staples of silent cinema; a belated retrospective I set myself shortly after the release of The Artist as it came around and reinvigorated audience's passion for silent film while introducing many newcomers in the process. The Artist's fleeting success is by no means a gimmick in creating awareness for silent cinema, nor should the genre format be perceived as dated either. Of course some are reluctant to experience films of old, never mind those from as far back as the 1920s omitting dialogue; what must be noted is how these films represent cinema in its purest form, as cinema is a visual medium these filmmakers told their stories with photography as their only tool.

Like the strengthening of one sense after the weakening of another, filmmakers such as FW Murnau, Richard Weine, and Fritz Lang crafted richly dense and exaggerated visuals to guide their narratives and the results are still outstanding today. The visual style later adopting the title German Expressionism would go on to birth film noir as the silent-era passed through the imaginations of cinematic greats of John Ford and Orson Welles. Fritz Lang would make the journey not only from his homeland of Germany to the US but the transition from silent to talking pictures; bringing his expressionistic vibrant style towards what would be the beginning of film noir, a genre perceived more often as product of American though incepted in Germany.

Of all the recently reviewed silent films, I've compiled a list of what I consider my favourites five. Each selection boasts a link to view the film in whole, an option I urge anyone to indulge in.

The Kid (1921, Charles Chaplin)

Picking a favourite Chaplin is no simple task, like the mark of all great filmmakers it's near impossible to pick from a career of such distinguished quality. The Kid is my choice and the one I pick most consistently, though due to many favourites it stands to change on a regular basis. The Kid may lack the  heavenly adventure of The Gold Rush (1925), the social relevance of Modern Times (1936), or the melancholic perfection of City Lights' (1931) finale, but like all Chaplin's films The Kid stems from his own experiences and there is a certain pain to the picture that tears at my heart strings every time. The story finds Chaplin's 'The Tramp' find a neglected baby in the poverty stricken back alleys which he takes in and raises. The chemistry between the young boy and The Tramp is highly touching, the role reversal of father feeding baby cut to years later as the boy cooks them breakfast is heartwarming as well as hilarious. Their two unit family, though in extreme poverty, marks little trouble for them as they live lovingly together. When social services realise the two are not blood relations after the boy falls ill, they take the boy off to be placed in juvenile care; the performance by then 7 year old Jackie Coogan is one of the all time great child performances - his pained face as he's loaded onto the truck to be taken away from his father cuts straight through you. Chaplin himself was taken from his family at the age of 7, from his deeply poor London childhood he was placed in district school by the council and sent to a work house, all due to his family being unable to support themselves. Chaplin was reunited with his family two years later but this experience clearly formed the story and emotional heights present in The Kid. Despite being a joy to watch, like all his films, this one comes from a place of painful memory.

Watch The Kid by clicking here.

The Passion of Joan Of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)

One of my very favourite films, not just of the silent-era but in the whole of cinema. The Passion of Joan Of Arc is one of the most profoundly moving experiences of my life, an emotionally devastating but also rewarding masterpiece of one of the world's most famous martyrs. Burned at the stake for insubordination and heresy at the age of 19, Joan of Arc led French armies to important victories during the Hundred Years' War on the merit of God's orders which she claimed to have received. From taking the actual surviving notes of her trial Dreyer's film recreates the in-court processions almost word for word. Often claimed to be any filmmaker's strongest tool is the close-up and here Dreyer utilises it at any chance as he frames Maria Falconetti's tormented face as Joan wrestles with her soul, fights for her life, and in the end comes to terms with her death. Never has an actress held the screen as strongly as Falconetti, without the power of speech she makes for a deeply affecting presence who although misunderstood sucks both your sympathy and tears. Dreyer's films were largely filled with religious themes and iconography but with The Passion... no matter where your beliefs (whether spiritual or political) stand, this film will not fail to move you. Joan's struggle is an internal one, one fought between herself and the God she believes has spoken to her and professed eternal salvation. She doubts like we all do, she shows moments of weakness and fear, and battles with her destiny, her destiny to burn alive to complete her martyrdom.

Watch The Passion Of Joan Of Arc by clicking here.

Sherlock Jr (1924, Buster Keaton)

Many would argue for The General (1926) as their favourite Buster Keaton film and the crown to his cinematic legacy, while he made many films worthy of masterpiece status I can only choose his Sherlock Jr. which is possibly the best 45 minutes of cinema you're ever likely to see. To say the film was simply ahead of its time just wouldn't do it justice; the many stunts and chase scenes performed and orchestrated by Keaton himself has Sherlock Jr. down as one of the very first (but still very finest) examples of action cinema. It also has one of my favourite endings to any film - an alarmingly prophetic statement on cinema's controlling power over our lives, how we knowingly or subliminally act in accordance to what we intake from the cinema. Of course the film has plenty of laughs from the dead-pan hero but it's the stunt work that truly amazes, especially when you look upon the set piece involving a train's watering tower with prior knowledge that Keaton unknowingly broke his neck performing the stunt. It's amazing considering how hands on and daring Keaton was that he even managed to make it to 70, but he survived and battled on like a trooper leaving behind some of the greatest examples of cinema.  If you've got a spare 45 minutes, do yourself a favour and click below.

Watch Sherlock Jr. by clicking here.

The Last Laugh (1924, F.W. Murnau)

The first of two films from my favourite silent director - The Last Laugh is the sad story of an elderly doorman for a prestigious hotel who is replaced by a younger model after being deemed obsolete. The film follows this man's decent from proud working man to a loathing lying mess with insight into society's fixation and condemnation regarding class values. The doorman wears his uniform proudly as he leaves for work and arrives home to his tenement building, all with the praise and respect of his neighbours. Of course when his uniform is stripped of him and his social status reduced, his life of respectability amongst 'the people' turns to mockery and spitefulness. The character of the doorman is a case for audience sympathy and certainly engages beyond the simple necessities but there is an unsettling sense of materialism that comes with this tragic tale of decrepitude. Director F.W. Murnau uses his striking use of visuals to put forth the notion of society's fetish for materialist gain and social status, at one point even having the hotel lean as if to fall on the recently discarded doorman, the importance of the corporate world and its offerings plagues these characters. In fact The Last Laugh eerily works as a precursor to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, a suppressive force that engulfed individuals into one sadistic mind by emphasis on conformity and uniform, even the film's main star Emil Jannings liaised heavily with the Nazis by starring in several of of Joseph Goebbels' propaganda films. These retrospective connections only add further depth to an already brilliant film full of multiple timeless themes. For some, the film's seemingly 'tacked' on ending is problematic and I can certainly see why those reservations arise; the film only includes two title cards which is unusual for a silent film normally relying heavily on such means for communication. The second title card is produced unexpectedly and turns the story of despair into a happy one through some role reversals and comeuppances; though the fact remains of executives forcing Murnau to give his film a 'happy ending' I believe the film survives the awkward tone and timing of its ending by the sly wink given in its very nature.

Watch The Last Laugh by clicking here.

Sunrise: A Tale Of Two Humans (1927, F.W. Murnau)

The most critically praised of Murnau's films next to the forever iconic imagery of his Nosferatu (1922), Sunrise reaches high at multiple concerns and hits each one with perfection. At first operating as historic commentary somewhere between the utilitarian concerns of Dickins' Hard Times (1854) and the fear of industrial revolution in Steinback's The Grapes Of Wrath (1939); Sunrise works as thriller, comedy, and moving love story all in equal measure. The base story of a rural farmer convinced by a visiting city woman to not only flee his life for her but to murder his loving wife in the process is far from simplistic in practice. Murnau creates (what would come to be known as) the noirish tone of infidelity and murder with his expressive visuals, visuals he pronounced as the "photography of thought". What first starts as a devilish thriller of depravity transforms once the botched murder sees the rural couple travel to the new and thriving city; it's here the film becomes a tender fable, one warning of unrealised love and the dangers of material greed over human affection. The real villain of the piece is the city, incarnated in the form of the serpent like woman out to steal the farmer. We see the couple enjoying the spectacle of the modern metropolis and the husband rediscovering his deep feelings for his wife while coming to terms with his fatalistic impulses. Apart from the technical innovation of Murnau's compositions, it's the seamless switching of tone and the amount of accomplishment in the process that marks Sunrise a pure masterpiece, even managing examples of slapstick humour in places. Sunrise, like the other examples on this list, isn't just an example of one of the best silent features ever made but one of the best films ever made.

Watch Sunrise: A Tale Of Two Humans by clicking here.

Until The Artist brought around a resurgent attitude towards silent cinema most were either uninterested or sadly uninformed towards the unique pleasures of these dialogue free delights, yet it's profoundly lasting influence on contemporary cinema remains. Some might hesitate to sit through a Buster Keaton film but joyfully revisit Pixar's Wall-E, a film that bares all the hallmarks and sheer mastery of Keaton's work, deviating only slightly if you disregard Pixar's divulgence of dialogue in its latter half. David Lynch's cult classic Eraserhead (1977) hardly classifies as a silent picture in the strict sense but the dialogue is vastly sparse, with narrative drive stemming from the rich sound design and striking black and white photography.

In short, my point is merely that silent cinema is consumed by us all in some way and isn't some dead practice that has no place in modern filmmaking; purists may argue that you haven't seen a silent film if you've engaged with and enjoyed Wall-E (2008) or any Wallace & Gromit but I'd argue to an extent that you have. For those that enjoy such films and are perhaps reading this now, I can only hope they feel encouraged to seek out the timeless rewards of Chaplin and Keaton, or even the more formalist works of Murnau and Dreyer in a bid to discover the founding elements of film that still ring loudly across the extremely varied landscape of contemporary cinema.

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