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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

In Praise of Silent Movies


By Steven Rosen

From The Denver Post

Recently, more than 600 people crowded into Boulder's venerable Chautauqua Auditorium to see an old movie. A really old movie.

   It was a silent movie - Charlie Chaplin's 72-year-old "The 
Circus," with piano accompaniment from Hank Troy.

There were all ages present. Some were old enough to remember when silents were golden; others were toddlers who squealed - loudly - when Chaplin's famous, baggy-trousered Tramp character was chased by an angry mule or harassed by monkeys on a tightrope.

And there were even teens, usually phobic about being seen near anything old - as black-and-white silent movies most certainly are.

Now in its 14th season, which continues on Wednesday evenings through Sept. 6 (with a week off on Aug. 16), Chautauqua's Silent Film Series is the best local example of the enduring appeal of silent movies. (See accompanying schedule.)

"Comedies are our staple, but we like to throw people a curve every now and then," explains Chautauqua's Ray Tuomey. "We bought two new 16-millimeter projectors this year, so what you see on screen is bright. And we've been going to collectors to get the best prints."

There is plenty of other evidence, both here and abroad, that interest in silent movies is strong. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra has had success performing scores to Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" and Carl Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" as accompaniment to showings of restored prints.

The Telluride Film Festival has a tradition of having a musical ensemble perform a new score to a silent classic. In fact, the funniest movie I've seen in recent years was Telluride '97's "Pass the Gravy," a silent short in which a boy kills his neighbor's prize chicken only to discover it will be served at a family dinner honoring that neighbor. The Alloy Orchestra performed an amusing new score.

In Pordenone, Italy, there is an entire festival devoted to restored or rediscovered silent classics. And there are more Web sites devoted to silent-film culture than there are theaters that still show the classics of Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, etc. Search for a site called Silent Movies Page and find links to numerous other pages.

While none of this is a risk to the gross receipts of "Nutty Professor II," "Coyote Ugly" or "Me, Myself & Irene," the ongoing viability of silent films raises questions. In 72 years, will 600 people crowd into Chautauqua, or anywhere, to watch restored versions of this year's high-profile Hollywood comedies as they still do Chaplin?

And why do silent movies still appeal to anyone, anyway? In this age of megaplexes, IMAX screens and stereo movie sound, shouldn't they now be antiquated? Aren't they relics of a long-ago past, suitable for framing - pun intended - only in museums?

Actually, no.

In fact, a case can be made that they represent the epitome of film as a form of modernism. And film, essentially if not technically a 20th century creation, certainly is a modern art form.

The pioneering silent filmmakers had to develop a universal visual language - just like painters and sculptors. And the language came from sources other than speech. Some were adapted from the stage - expressive acting, set design, lighting, costumes.

Others were new and related to cinematography and directorial vision - camera angles, montage, experiments with focus, editing, closeups and panoramic shots. Films also relied on musical scores, usually performed live during the screening, to create mood and express emotions.

All this constituted a great leap forward, especially for anyone who believes this key tenet of enlightened modernism - that which moves us should not also divide us. Because the silents had no spoken dialogue, everyone could understand them. That's why the silent era was far more international than today's movie industry, in which the sounds of Hollywood movies - explosions, gunfire, car crashes, punchouts, as well as the spoken word - dominate the world.

Before the sound era, filmmakers from France, Great Britain, Russia and Scandinavia were as important as Americans, such as D.W. Griffith or "The Crowd's" King Vidor. They did not make "foreign movies," they made movies. (America's vast population and economic power did give it an early edge, especially after Europe exhausted many of its resources and joie de vivre on World War I.)

But where would movies be today without the dark, eerie expressionism of such German silents as "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" or "Nosferatu"? These prefigured - and helped create - film noir, suspense and horror. Today, we take for granted that film has a right to show a distorted, abstracted reality. This happened because silent filmmakers couldn't rely on dialogue.

Surprisingly, among those who believe the silent era was the best is one of cinema's (and theater's) masters of language, David Mamet. In a 1997 interview with The Denver Post, he said, "It works better without words.

"What I'm hired to do (as a screenwriter) is describe pictures. The question is how to tell the story best at any given point. The answer always is to see if I can do it without words, because then I know I'm doing it right. But sometimes I'm not smart enough. But that's my ideal."

Of course, there are great talkies. With time, filmmakers have found authoritative ways to match the rhythm of words to the rhythm of pictures. This can be done with a transfixing deliberativeness, as in post-war European art films. Or it can be done with spitfire speed and alacrity, as in American screwball comedies. But since the sound era started with Al Jolson's 1927 "The Jazz Singer," has there been another movie star with such emotional, universal appeal as Chaplin? In that regard, the movies peaked early.

In "Charlie Chaplin: Comic Genius," David Robinson asserts the Tramp is the most important fictional character created in the 20th century. "One day in the first week of January 1914, he went into the shed ... to select a costume," Robinson writes. "When he emerged, he had created the Tramp figure that remains to this day the world's best-known fictional representation of a human being."

In an age of great poverty, Chaplin's Tramp was the downtrodden underdog everyone could root for. While the British-born actor's creation was an American invention, it spoke to the world.

He wore rags and twirled a cane as frail as his own rail-thin body; he was clumsy, insecure and often inept. Yet he also was romantic, optimistic, resilient and resourceful - and funny. He represented hope and humor.

As the director of his own features, Chaplin had an astoundingly inventive visual sensibility. In "Gold Rush," the Tramp cooks his own boot for a Thanksgiving dinner and improvises a surreal "dance of the dinner rolls." And funny as "Circus" is, the final scene of the Tramp alone in a field of grass is as evocative as a quiet sunset.

Of the few other enduring movie "representations of human beings," success has rested more on power and propensity for violence than Chaplin's humane poetry. A pessimist could track the decline of Western civilization from Chaplin's Tramp to Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo."

James Bond, who first appeared in Ian Fleming's novels but became famous from debonair Sean Connery's portrayal in movies, had a license to kill. So, too, did Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name and Dirty Harry, more or less. And "Rambo" seems more superhuman cartoon character than mortal.

Chaplin, who believed in the power of silent films, tried to sustain them long after the sound era began. His pantomime style of acting owed everything to silence. In the 1930s, he made the essentially silent "City Lights" and "Modern Times." When he finally did adopt dialogue, with 1940's "The Great Dictator," he retired the Tramp. That wasn't a reactionary action - he was right to try to preserve what he knew couldn't be replaced.

Earlier, I wondered if in 72 years a screening of "Nutty Professor II" would be able to draw as many people to Chautauqua as "The Circus" did. Maybe it will - the scene of a giant, feces-flinging hamster is essentially a sight gag, after all. But I doubt it. Somehow, it just lacks the stuff of greatness. But "The Circus" probably will still be drawing big crowds in 72 years - and 72 years after that. Silent films will never lose their appeal.

Steven Rosen's e-mail address is

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