Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reflections: Get Serious or Get Real

Powerful silent images populate my memory. They can even inform the way I feel. Facing deadlines, I think of Freder Fredersen contorted under the giant clock in Metropolis (1927). When odd things turn creepy, I remember the vampire rising from its coffin in Nosferatu (1922). For all the laughs in City Lights (1931), the scene that lasts longest for me is the final one, when the blind girl’s sight is restored and she looks for the first time upon Chaplin’s shabbiness. It sums my belief in genuine love. While these scenes come from different kinds of movie, including comedies, the scenes themselves are almost always dramatic.

Yet silent dramas themselves are now an acquired taste. They feel lecturing and old-fashioned. The comedies seem fresher; they work for modern audiences much as they must have in the 1920s. If the measure of a comedy is its ability to make you laugh, then the measure of a drama is its ability to move you—why do silent dramas now struggle to do this?

Such a question needs more than a thousand words, but I believe the absence of speech can be quickly blamed. Without speech, a director must convey information either through the actors’ pantomime or intertitles (word cards), along with pictures of signs, telegrams and letters. This is a balancing act, because pantomime expresses emotion better than precise information, while intertitles, if over-used, make viewing tedious. As a result, most successful silent films have simple plots, exploring common themes requiring little explanation.

With simple plots come simple characters. Silent characters are often archetypes (hoodlum, girl-next-door, bully, fool), and can proceed through the movie quite plausibly without much development. Nevertheless, silent actors put tremendous work into these roles; one of the joys of watching silent films is seeing the humanity imbued into a being with no name, odd clothes, and perhaps a singular goal: win the girl’s love; make friends; get a job.

However, an archetype’s dramatic power relies on the viewer’s ability to relate to it—that is, to believe the archetype is drawn from life. This is crucial if the viewer is expected to take a further step and actually empathize with the character. I argue that to empathize with an archetype is really to feel empathy for the social element that archetype represents.

Some archetypes still work pretty well. Consider the social ill of poverty: Silent drama’s Orphans, Beggars, and Labourers are all emblems of Poverty, and while we may possess only the barest of backstories about these characters, our belief in the regrettability of poverty and the suffering it causes allows us to fill in the rest. When archetypes fail, it is because the viewer’s conception of the world cannot be reconciled with them. If they no longer represent universal truths (or even widely held assumptions), the suffering the actor exhibits can seem overwrought, silly, or even obnoxious. This is ever more likely as years pass, societies evolve, and the archetypes remain fixed.


Aside from racial stereotypes, it is women’s roles that build the most dissonance between silent dramas and modern viewers. Clamped into their pre-feminist roles, these women are typically victims, and may provide little more than a male character’s obligations. A man might want to marry his sweetheart, but cannot propose until he’s made his fortune. Once married, her expressions of jealousy, fear or devotion may indict him as a failed husband. As virginal characters, women are often the sought-after ideal; when ‘fallen,’ they are tempters to corruption. Finally, they are a treasure—to be protected against whatever depredation the director felt plausible at the time. When D.W. Griffith’s Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) is threatened with sexual assault in The Birth of a Nation (1915), she’s embodying the women he saw as imperilled after Reconstruction. Notably, if the silent female is a spunky tomboy (like many of Mary Pickford’s characters), it is usually due to poor upbringing.

Yes, it’s possible to contextualize these characters and understand why they act as they do; it’s certainly possible to dislike the ‘fallen’ woman, even if her only real crime, by today’s standards, is sexual liberation. However, it is very difficult to place oneself so fully into someone else’s shoes that you can be hurt or offended by something that today seems backward or trivial.


This is even more difficult when the movie resolves itself according to the morality of its time, rather than ours. Among the many silent features I’ve seen about cheating or deadbeat husbands, almost all conclude with the man returning to his wife. The wife remains in love with her husband and devoted to the marriage, though certainly wounded. Her faith symbolizes her purity and his foolishness. However, even if we accept that divorce was not an option, there is something off-putting about a woman who unconditionally loves such a slimeball. The story of the man’s redemption, which may be the point of the film, seems beside the point to us. We’d rather pity the wife, but to side with her is to support him, which feels wrong. She becomes hard to respect. Their happy marriage seems false.

......and Married Life.

Silent characters are given life through facial expression and gesture. They speak, too; but we can’t hear it, only see it, so the issue is usually not what they’re saying, but rather, how they feel as they say it. The relationship between character and viewer is therefore an emotional one, with the film relying on a shared value system to answer certain questions in advance. That assumption cannot always be made today.

* * *

I don’t mean to paint all silent dramas with the same brush—many of them are still successful, at least aesthetically. There are also silents, especially from the 1920s, that allow for greater moral ambiguity. Nevertheless, when recommending silent film to a newbie, it’s usually comedies I suggest first. Next week, I’ll examine why this genre seems to have aged so well.

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