Friday, March 25, 2011

Silent Movies 101

The image most of us get when thinking about silent movies has a lot to do with railroad tracks and mustache-twirling villains. TV shows and commercials use clips of people falling down or being chased by a group of baton-weilding police because they're in the public domain. But those clips probably do nothing to make the average person want to break out an hour long silent movie.

That's exactly what I thought when my mom sat a tween me in front of the TV, put in a cassette of Buster Keaton's The Cameraman, and said, "Watch this. It's funny."

Initially, I was stunned at how much the characters just looked like ordinary people (with a lot of makeup on). They weren't too fast or being tied with rope --  I thought, "Wow, that's what the twenties looked like!" And then I got caught up in the absurd story. Yeah, it was funny, and it also opened a door for me.

Some twenty years later, I've taken the love for the genre and given it to one of my characters (since she's probably the closest I'll come to having a child). Kat Shergill finds a small coil of film in a jewelry box she buys at an estate sale, and after playing it, realizes it's a historic piece from a silent movie, starring her favorite actor.

The idea of finding a lost film (or a lost fragment) is nothing I made up. Unfortunately, because the technology to replay a film at home wasn't really around in the first half of the century, many early films were intentionally destroyed or improperly stored, which caused them to deteriorate.

Occasionally, though, collectors kept films and hid them away. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a good example of a pristine copy of a presumed-lost film being discovered and subsequently distributed on DVD. (The Passion of Joan of Arc (The Criterion Collection) Spine #62)

Silent movies came in all genres, from nearly every country. My personal favorites are from German Expressionism, the first and last generally listed as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and Metropolis (1927). The genre is full of dark themes, interesting, angular sets, and "horror" plots. The stiff acting takes getting used to, but once you suspend your disbelief, they're a nice escape. 

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