Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sex (1920)

The act of sex—the physical joining of at least two persons for erotic purposes, to put it in the least-sexy way possible—is neither a moral nor an immoral thing. It is a biological thing. Almost all organisms are equipped to do it, to some degree; almost all species must do it to persevere. Sex is a fundamental part of being an animal, and we humans are animals like all the rest.

But we are also social creatures. And the complex societies we build are sustained in part by our ability to define, codify and control our fundamental drives. Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not skip out on thy wife. Breach the bounds of society, polite or otherwise, and you’ll face the consequences.

Sex is a celebration of those consequences. Released in 1920, it looked ahead to a decade of flappers, Jazz and gin-soaked sin that would push against convention a little harder every year—an attitude the wholly opposes. Despite its provocative title, Sex is the most conservative movie I’ve seen in a while—more conservative than many silent films, including some that predate it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Yellow Ticket (1918)

Imagine being told you could not go to school because of your last name. Imagine, even, being barred entry into a city—unless you accepted a legal standing that made you part of a permanent subclass.

I’m not referring to current events, although I could be. That’s the thing about bigotry—it’s always a metaphor for, and a callback to, earlier bigotries. And so, while we turn on the news and see (or simply, live through) today’s hatred, we can also turn to the past and see it manifested there. Even dramatized, as it is in The Yellow Ticket.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

La Voz de Los Silenciados (The Voice of the Voiceless) (2013)

Long ago (in the 90s) I fell in love with a video game called Out of This World. The game’s protagonist was a scientist, transported to an alien planet where he could understand neither the language nor the motives of the natives.

Out of This World was unsettling, because its designer, Éric Chahi, sought to make it art. The game featured a character in isolation, but it also evoked isolation through its game play, using music sparingly—often relying on tones, rather than whole melodies, to make a point about how bad the player’s situation had become. Action sequences were intercut with cinema scenes of dough-headed aliens talking urgently but inscrutably. When the player failed a task—which was often—he returned to the same starting point; usually a prison of some kind, from which he had to escape all over again.

Talk to men and women of my vintage about Out of This World and they’ll tell you it was fun. But what they’ll really want to talk to you about is how it made them feel.

One artwork suggests another. I thought of Out of This World many times while watching La Voz de Los Silenciados (The Voice of the Voiceless), a contemporary silent film by Maximón Monihan, an American director with a background in skateboarding and skateboarding films. Here again we are presented with a protagonist plucked from her own environment and placed in a new one both hostile and difficult to understand. Again we have a narrative broken down into a series of quests, bookended by sameness, repetition. And again there is an undertone of horror. But while the game’s hero was lost among aliens, in this case, our hero is lost among her fellow humans. She is displaced not just geographically, but linguistically. Because she is deaf.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Wind (1928)

You can say a thing a lot of ways. That’s why we watch silent films, isn’t it? To see how, when the sound’s taken away, some great artist got his or her point across. To be reminded of all the options.

Imagine, for example, that you’re watching the story of a man and his wife, both young. They were married under pretences the male party now considers false. They’ve grown estranged. Now he is out on a job and she is home. An intruder muscles his way into the house and attempts to take her away. Realizing, finally, that she would rather stay with her husband than move on, she dispatches the intruder. As his heavy body hits the floor, two dinner plates, set askew on the table behind her, slide into an even stack.

There is no intertitle to tell us their marriage is saved. But it is. The plates said so.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Wild Oranges (1924)

There are moments in Wild Oranges when you wonder what you’re watching. It’s a silent film alright, and it looks like one—but this story of a love affair in a secluded patch of Georgia coast, at times, seems plucked from another period entirely. In form, it’s the early-20s, but in content, often, it feels like something made much later.