The Art of Silence

Chaplin's classic roll dance from "The Gold Rush"

I was seventeen years old when I saw my first silent film. Previously, my only exposure had been the Fractured Flickers segment on The Bullwinkle Show. It was my third or fourth week at college, the occasion was a five-day film festival at a local theater, and the film was The Gold Rush by Charlie Chaplin.

Unfortunately, this occurred just two days after my first viewing of Citizen Kane, which, in the vernacular of the time, completely blew my mind. Two days after I watched the Chaplin film, I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, another mind-blower. Never before or since have any films affected me the way those two did. I couldn’t stop thinking about them for weeks. They changed forever what I looked for in films and how I enjoyed them.

The Gold Rush was primitive and cliché-ish in comparison. I did not give up on silents, however. Years later when I moved to Los Angeles where there were plenty of revival movie houses around, including one that showed only silent films, I tried to develop an appreciation. It took a while. A silent film is a different art form and they seem so antiquated and melodramatic. Well, they are. But one thing I’ve come to realize is that almost everything that’s done in movies now, were done in silent films first.

Silent films are highly stylized and it’s tempting to dismiss the acting performances because of the overacting. At the same time, directors in silent films had a tendency to hold their shots, keeping the camera on actors while reacting for an extended length of time, giving them the opportunity to convey a range of different, and sometimes very subtle, expressions. To appreciate these films you have to adjust your mind to a different pace, a different look, and understand that because it is storytelling based on pantomime, it has its drawbacks but also its advantages. If you can get past the overacting, the clichés, the lack of sound dialogue, a silent film can be a rewarding experience.

I bring all this up for two reasons. One is that earlier this week Turner Classic Movies, the world’s greatest cable channel, presented a number of silent films by the Thomas Edison studio, along with the early work of two other film pioneers, D.W. Griffith and Georges Melies. Some of these were the very first pieces of film ever made, lasting only a minute or less, such as The Kiss. So, I’ve got silent films on my mind.

A scene from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis"

The second reason is that on Sunday night Turner Classic Movies, the world’s greatest cable channel (did I mention that already?), is giving everyone a chance to watch a newly restored version of Metropolis, the 1927 landmark film by Fritz Lang. Following this is a documentary about the discovery of a complete print at a film museum in Argentina. And, if that were not enough, another silent by Lang, Spies, and then, Lang’s classic tale of murder, M, the 1931 film that made a star of Peter Lorre.  A veritable festival of film fun.

I thought I would give a heads up  for any readers who are interested in this film, its director, or silent movies in general, and for anyone who has never cultivated an appreciation but think they might like to. Metropolis is a great introduction to this art form. If you are a sci-fi fan, this is practically a must-see. TCM describes Metropolis as “A futuristic look at the schism created in mankind as industrialization and technological advancement serves to alienate the humans from one another.” I watched it just a few years ago and I looked to tuning in Sunday to see it again and catch the 25 minutes of restored footage.

You can read more about Metropolis at Wikipedia and more about the discovery of the complete print here at Kino. The restored original version “debuted” earlier this year in Berlin, where it premiered in 1927, with showings at the Friedrichstadtpalast in Berlin, the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, on German TV, and at a public showing at the Brandenburg Gate.

Check your local listings for Sunday’s show time, and also in the vernacular we used back in the day, be there or be square.

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