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enjoy the silents- five silent films everybody should see

let's play a round of "shut up"
as i mentioned in my review of "the artist", i'm a big silent movie fan. much like the theatre [which is a form i actually don't enjoy all that much, generally], they're a very different animal than the talking films that came after. the best among them play on almost dreamlike imagery, where situations seem far more tense and dramatic than we generally find in reality, where villains are truly monstrous and science and reason do not necessarily apply.

i was a little disappointed to see cenk uygur of "the young turks" unleash a stram of twitter fury when "the artist" [rightly] took home an armful of oscars, insisting that if silent films were such a great form, we wouldn't have started making films with sound. while it's true that talking pictures certainly allowed a greater sense of realism [even when portraying something that was self-evidently unrealistic], that doesn't remove the merits of the older style. colour films were introduced in the thirties and by the fifties had become dominant, but no one argues that martin scorcese's "raging bull" [1980] is a lesser film because it was shot in black and white.

i think that some of the reticence to grant silent films their due is that most people associate them with short clips they've seen of early melodramas, largely the product of hollywood's early film-making machine, which were more about stars and lavish costumes and ornate sets [sound familiar?], whereas the real gems were harder to come by.

so, as a self-appointed expert in the genre [i'm totally not an expert in any meaningful sense of the word], here's a list of silent films that push the limits of what can be done without sound, in various ways.

lovely lady + gun = big, big trouble
pandora's box [1928] :: even those who aren't film buffs are often familiar with louise brooks and her distinctive straight-cut black bob. for many, she embodies the spirit of the 1920s, when a postwar spirit of hedonism and youthful abandon swept the world in the wake of the great war. although brooks appeared in many films, none captured her beauty and her inner fire like g.e. pabst's "pandora's box". like many german films of the era, it's subject matter is risque by the standards of the time [and one could argue that it accomplishes more by suggestion than modern films do by exploitation]. the ripe sexuality of varying stripes, lust, jealousy, murder... and yet "pandora's box" does not seem overly histrionic, especially for the time. pabst's reliance on close-up photography, particularly of the radiant ms. brooks, allows the actors to accomplish much through subtle changes in expression, a precursor of a more naturalistic style of acting that was still decades away, even with the advent of "talkies".

my dream house
the cabinet of dr. caligari [1919]:: this is silent film at its most oneiric. one of the high-water marks of german expressionism, caligari plays out like a dark fairytale. nothing in it is realistic, everything exaggerated. shafts of light and shadow stab at the overtly cartoonish sets. the characters are caricatures of good and evil, innocence and corruption. even the central character of the somnambulist cesare points directly to the dream-like atmosphere. the deceptively simple-seeming story is really just a backdrop for director robert wiene's moving masterwork of visual art.

interesting side note :: the role of cesare [the prototype of every goth-boi] was played by german actor conrad veidt. veidt was vehemently against the nazi party from well before they rose to power and reportedly identified himself as jewish on a national survey, although he was as aryan as they could have asked. in 1933 he married a jewish woman and wisely moved to england, where he donated a great deal of his money to the british war effort. ironically, his most famous role in spoken films was as the evil nazi commandant in "casablanca". another silent classic that he starred in was "the man who laughs", where he played a man whose face is disfigured into a grotesque smile, an unsettling achievement in early makeup effects that was eventually used as the basis for the character of the joker in "batman". that's quite a lot of cultural influence for a man who died at 50!


feel the pain
the passion of joan of arc [1928] :: if there is any performance that competes with louise brooks as iconic of the silent film era, it is renee jeanne [maria] falconetti, the french stage star, often known simply by her last name, in carl-theodor dreyer's adaptation of the tale of joan of arc. it was not an easy performance. dreyer, whose genius is undisputed, forced his lead actress to endure remarkable physical pain and extraordinarily long shoots, frequently insisting on dozens of takes under harsh lighting in order to achieve a look of inner pain that the audience could see. like pabst, dreyer achieved much of his effect from breaking with tradition and thrusting the camera close to his actors, so that the audience was pushed to a frequently uncomfortable proximity, particularly in this film where there is so much suffering on display. dreyer became known for his technique of back-lighting his actors, in order to surround them with a glowing halo, something used to great effect for this film.

i actually had a hard time figuring out whether to name this or dreyer's "vampyr" [1932], which to my mind is superior to toddd browning's "dracula" and even to murnau's "nosferatu". although technically not a silent film, dreyer was strapped for money [most of the cast in the film were not professional actors] and the film needed to be translated into three languages, so he opted to use only a few words to limit costs. much less macabre than the classic vampire tales, it is nonetheless an unsettling piece.

let's try to list everything wrong with this image
the birth of a nation [1915] :: i'm prepared to take shit for including this one. yes, it is racist. how racist? it's based on a novel called "the clansman". yeah, that kind of klan. and it's generally credited with getting the second wave of the kkk off the ground. how racist? there were protests and riots over the content even when the film came out, which was not exactly the golden era of race relations. how racist? the film's director, d.w. griffith bankrupted his studio making "intolerance", his follow-up film, an almost four-hour epic apology made to illustrate that, at every time in history, intolerance between people has been a really, really bad thing. 

also, more than any other film on this list, it does suffer from the grandiosity of the hollywood epics, with wild overacting, overblown drama and an apparent hatred for the concept of subtlety.

so what the heck makes it worth watching?

well, as a historical document, you won't find an uglier or more honest view of the deep divisions that remained from the civil war fifty years after its end. the romanticization of the old south and the bitterness passed down to its sons [of which griffith was one] clearly persisted beneath the thinnest veneer of civility. the idea that the worst of racism died out with abolition could not be more definitively disproven.

visually, it's also an astonishing accomplishment, bringing the director's huge and wide-ranging vision to life with remarkable beauty. griffith pioneered many modern cinematic techniques, such as the use of lighting and camera placement to augment atmosphere. "the birth of a nation" also represented the establishment of the feature length as the dominant form of film. up until that point, short features were more common. so it's because of this deeply problematic piece of history that you aren't paying $15 a head to go see a section of avatar that's ten minutes long released every month.

modern times [1936] :: "the artist" isn't the first film to meet with public and critical success in a world where sound had become more prominent. charlie chaplin made some of his best known pictures without saying a word well into the era of the talking picture. perhaps it was because the film illustrated rather than shouted its message, or perhaps it was just because chaplin's "tramp" character had simply become so beloved that film censors seemed to miss the film's overt political and anti-industrialist [anti-corporate in today's parlance] message. the mid-thirties was a a time of considerable censorship in film, especially compared to the relatively liberal standards of the twenties. interspersed with the light comedic and romantic story, the film has a lot to say about the desperate circumstances of the poor and the working class during the great depression.

while you may not ever have seen "modern times" in full, i can virtually guarantee that you've seen something from it, or one of hundreds of parodies- the scene where new factory-worker chaplin is literally pressed under the gears of industrial production. it is a moment of comedy genius touched, as his best films were, with a social conscience.

although there is a bit of controversy over the film- chaplin was twice sued and finally settled out of court over the story's similarity to "liberty for us", a rene clair film that predated it by five years- there is no disputing that "modern times" is a classic and, with the resurgent tension between the very rich and the great mass of the population, its message continues to resonate today.

i could go on, but i think that, for those who have an interest and don't know where to start, i think that these will give you something to think about, silently.


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