Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Reflections: Etiquette and the Non-fan

Let’s call you a noble kind of movie lover—someone who wants to expand minds, not just entertain yourself. Your BFF? She loves movies too, just as much as you! Just, nothing too old.

Hearing that feels like a spider bite; it hurts and it festers; you want it gone, along with the thing that caused it. Well then, why not watch something new on Movie Night? By which you mean, something old.

She seems a little pissed when you suggest that. Four of the five Best Picture noms are out on video now—three of which she hasn’t seen, and two of which are apparently amazing. Why not rent one of them? The old films aren’t going anywhere anyway. And the old actors? They really aren’t going anywhere.

If only it wasn’t your turn to pick. Oh, you’re going to make her pay for her close-mindedness—not only will the film be old, it’ll be silent! BFF is going to learn the hard way.

Maybe so. While you can’t manufacture love, you can encourage appreciation, no matter how resistant your friends are to a type of art. They deserve the chance to enjoy a silent movie at least once. Here’s how you can make that happen:

Tip #1: Don’t be a snob. Many people resist silent films not because they dislike them, but because they’ve never seen one. This strikes fans as judgemental, and how do they respond? By being judgemental right back.

Look at it this way: If you’d never seen a silent movie before, what would you be most apprehensive about? Probably the lack of sound. They’re called ‘silent,’ after all—isn’t that tedious to watch? Those familiar with sound films (that is, everybody) may still view silent film as alien because it communicates information without speech. They may have similar reservations about opera or ballet. While you needn’t admire this attitude, you can still deal with it gently; there’s no downside to consideration.

Tip #2: Keep it short and funny. Silent films demand more concentration than most sound films do; this is why some people find them boring. Show your initiate something funny (silent comedy ages better) and for god’s sake, keep it under 90 minutes. You may even choose a couple of short comedies, which will clock in, combined, at under an hour.

Tip #3: Avoid the cringes. Silent films are a product of their time. Some are sexist, racist or patronizing by today’s standards. However, most are not offensive at all, so start with one of those. Your first goal should be to dissolve your friend’s preconceptions, not add to them.

Tip #4: Keep to an audience of two. A silent movie can seem goofy to first-time viewers. Developing an appreciation for it will require them to overcome many barriers, including the inherent silliness of the acting and plots. Unfortunately, we’re all tempted to mock things we find strange or challenging. This is easier when you have two or more non-fans watching the same film.

Again, is this so different from laughing at the pranciness of male ballet dancers, or the absurdity of singing one’s way through a problem? The peculiarities of silent film can be absorbed and eventually, ignored. It just takes time.

Tip #5: Keep distractions to a minimum. Don’t check your Blackberry, answer the phone, or hold a conversation while the movie’s on. This is basic etiquette when watching any movie, of course. And remember: if you aren’t looking at a silent movie, it might as well not be on.

Tip #6: Know your movie and be a guide to it. First, pick a film you’ve seen before, taking account of tips (2) and (3). Then consider what might appear off-putting or confusing to a first-time silent film viewer. Address these things before the movie starts. Summarize the plot, but don’t give it away. Explain, briefly, how this film has similarities to movies you know your friend likes. The goal is not to lecture, but rather, to enforce the truth: This is just another kind of movie, not a different medium altogether.

Tip #7: Be awake. Silent films are a bad choice when everybody’s over-tired. Sleepy days are a job for Stallone, Damon and company; so relax, open a beer, and let them do their job.


These tactics are probably your best chance to turn a loud sceptic into a silent convert. Use them with my blessing. And if they don’t work, you’ve still got bottomless charm to fall back on, or at least bottomless bottles. Ever seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari drunk? The actors all walk in straight lines.*

*It’s funny, trust me.

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