Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Textbook Celluloid: The Beauty of Silent Movies

My Thoughts on All Things in the Creative World
Every Wednesday


Film is generally taken to be a completely different medium from books, and that's appropriate, as it relies on showing rather than telling. True, all films are scripted and in that sense they come from written words (doubly so if they are adapted from a literary work as well), but for the most part they rely on stimulating our minds with sound and clear-cut picture vision. In contrast, books (written ones, at least), rely on pure silence. We are presented with nothing but words on a page, and it's up to us as readers to decide how things look, sound, and taste.

​But there was a time when these two separate art forms came together seamlessly: in the age of silent movies.

I am a huge fan of these early films, and I'll happily watch them as well as modern movies. My love for them is probably most apparent in my short story Walking With Strangers, which centres around the production of the first cinematic version of Alice in Wonderland. But even for someone who isn't a fan, or who has never seen a silent movie at all, it's hard to mistake the shadow of Count Orlok creeping up the stairs in Nosferatu, or the face of the moon in Le Voyage dans la Lune.

​But originally the 'cinematograph', as it was first known, wasn't even used to create movies as we know them today. The Lumiere brothers' camera made a name for itself as a circus sideshow, simply showing short clips of everyday life for usually no more than several seconds. They were a moving photograph, captured in time, in the same way as their still-life counterparts. It wasn't until a little later that the early filmmakers realised they could use this new medium to tell stories.

Hence, the first movie studios sprung up, eventually growing into a large industry by the 1920s. It was during this period that many of the films still remembered today were made, such as The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and my personal favourite, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. And with no way to capture the actors' voices to accompany the film, title cards were created in order to give them words and help frame the story. It is because of this that I tend to think of silent movies as beautiful moving picture books.
The earliest films which evoke this feeling for me are those made by Georges Melies, who pioneered special effects so spectacular for the time that many of his images are still very well known even in the 21st century - case in point: the face of the moon! But my true love of the silent movies begins with the long ones that came later, with their lavish sets and good character development. And I really get the sense that they straddled a strange void between two completely separate worlds: that of the old era of storytelling through words, and the new one of visibly showing it coming to life.

​When we read a book, the words we see are really nothing more than ink on paper. But yet they still act as a catalyst for our imaginations, to somehow turn these straight lines of shapes into a visceral mental movie. There is nothing we cannot imagine, especially when given such powerful prompts as words. Books force us to think, in order to conjure everything we need to completely believe the story. In film, a lot of those 'responsibilities' are taken away from us, as we are already presented with most of the detail visually and audibly. Even though silent films had no spoken dialogue, they were always accompanied by a musical soundtrack to help add to the experience. But even though both mediums can supply us with different ways of experiencing a story, they both offer something else that is always left completely down to us: how they make us feel.

Whenever I read - or watch - a really good story, I connect with it on a level that goes deeper than simply acknowledging good characters or an intriguing plot. The feelings it evoked are usually the first thing I remember when I think back on the experience. In a similar way to memories of our own lives, this tying in to our personal emotions is the true magic that really turns what is otherwise a literal exchange of words into something living and breathing. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is a good example of this illusion of feeling, incorporating the harsh shapes and shadows of German expressionism to enhance its own very sinister plot. But whether that translates into the intended nervousness is ultimately up to the audience itself - just as what we take away from any experience is based on our own decisions and perceptions of it.

​It is this powerful sense of feeling which I believe fills the void over which silent movies hang in the modern world. They can evoke a sense of the uncanny valley in some people - that strange unease when something doesn't seem quite human. Perhaps it's because these actors often used movements and facial expressions that nowadays we may see as over the top - which makes sense in context, as most of them came from a theatre background where this kind of body language was required to reach a room full of people, and the early cameras were not refined enough to focus on tiny subtle actions. And I admit that can be distracting to someone who hasn't gotten used to the style of pre-1930s cinema. But if you can work through that and watch the films as what they are within themselves, they can evoke some very unique and even nostalgic feelings.

I don't mean nostalgia in the sense of the time period in which the films were made, even though that can happen as well. Instead, I mean that when I sit down to watch one of these, I'm somehow reminded of being a child in bed, reading an illustrated book, maybe one of the fairy tales which I grew up with. I see beautifully executed images which expertly capture what they are trying to say; calligraphic lettering; simple but effective language. The only difference is, this time the images are moving; an invisible hand is turning the pages for me, and while I drink up all the details that are being presented to me, the film still makes me think, conjuring the extra details with my own imagination.
In conclusion, I honestly believe silent films are important - not just for their cultural and historical reasons, but for the powerful feelings they can evoke in us, by being in that grey area that treats us both as viewers and readers. By acknowledging how we don't need to be spoon-fed the entirety of the story, and stimulating our imaginations in such a way that makes watching them a different experience for everyone - just like no two people will read a book in the same way. They will probably never become mainstream again, but there are several modern films that have been made in their style and in homage to their simple yet ingenious beauty.

The Artist is an example of this, as is Bram Stoker's Dracula, to an extent. Even though the latter is still a 'talkie', it used special effects created purely in-camera, the same way such effects would have been achieved during that time period - a short section of the film was even shot using a hand-wound camera. If you want to check out silent movies but feel like you need a bit of a transition period, then I'd recommend watching these ones first. And for a general family film that introduces silent cinema perfectly, go grab yourself Hugo. Out of the three modern movies I've just mentioned, this is the one which I feel truly illustrates my idea of a moving picture book: a strange yet comforting experience of being both shown and told a story. Especially when you see the sections of Melies films which were hand-tinted, frame by frame, into colour.

If those don't look like images you saw in a captivating book as a child, I don't know what does.

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