Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Balloonatic (1923)

Scene: Man climbs atop hot-air balloon, moored near fairground. Balloon un-tethers and takes to the sky.

So begins comedic magic, at least in theory. The theory presumes that such a promising premise, executed by Buster Keaton, can only soar. And why not? The man could build a gag out of any situation; the more static, the less animated, the more limited, the better. Surely a balloon basket would be Keaton’s ultimate creative outlet—slung as it is beneath a fragile airbag, at the mercy of weather, birds, planes, leaking pouches of sand; all of them posing lethal consequences. A man in a balloon must do anything to keep aloft—anything—and that means The Balloonatic could have gone anywhere Keaton wished. So why does it only go down?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Target: Audience

Robin Hood is under siege. Critics have gone medieval over its length, its indifference to fact, its morose direction, Russell Crowe's dour archer with a Welsh-today, Scot-tomorrow accent... et cetera. While I've seen worse than a 44% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it seems like a lot of support is coming from critics who appreciated the action sequences, and a lot of flamery from critics who wished those action sequences weren't so far apart. Not good.

What do I say? Dark isn't drab. Nolan's Batman franchise is dark; Scott's Robin Hood, like Gladiator before it, is drab. Grey pallette, grey characters, grey, depressing story. Crowe's merry man is unrelentingly grim, and so too are we, because we know everything he does about the situation, plus a whole lot more, all of it worse than even he imagines. Moments of humour--rare, and book-ended by tragedy or guilt--are shouldered by supporting characters, none of whom have a full grasp of events. If they did (we're forced to conclude), they'd have nothing to be joyful about. Just like we don't.

Now that my own quiver's empty, I'll point out something good about Robin Hood: the opening intertitles. I dug the throw-back feel of these screens, which prepped us, silent-movie style, for a familar tale delivered in new and spectacular fashion:

"This is the story of his return home, where, for defending the weak against the strong, he will be condemned to live outside the law."

My movie-going companion bitched about this, calling it a spoiler, but for me, it added power to a film for which predictability is both a blessing and curse. Robin Hood's ground is well-trod--like any remake, reboot, or revisioning of classic material, from Superman to Sophocles to James Bond, half the joy's in seeing how a new generation adapts the material. Robin Hood's opening intertitle acknowledges that the Robin Hood legend is part of our shared popular history; it brings us together and, for a few seconds, reminds us that we are witnessing a retelling of something bigger.

Many silent films open this way--with a brief summation of what's to come, or even, in the case of comedic shorts, a thematic platitude that sums up the absurdity ahead of time. For better (and worse), silent scriptwriters and directors assumed a common background among their audiences, and so seemed less afraid to begin with a shared idea, attitude, or understanding of facts.

Robin Hood isn't great filmmaking. But it could be a portent, if only because it assumes people of various socio-economic backgrounds, nationalities, ethnicities and ages share a common knowledge of the Robin Hood tale.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Tabu (1931)

In Tahitian, a tabu is a designation of sacredness. Anything—object, place, or person—can be declared tabu, and it’s a serious matter. Break a tabu and things will go badly for you. Try to escape the consequences, and they will follow you. So take a hint and stay within your bounds.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Why I do this.

Updated manifesto, to go with the new look:

I've been watching silent films since my teens. Now I write about them. And now you can read about them. Lots and lots of 'em.

"But God... WHY?"

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lammys Announced

Thanks to the good folks (or at least one good, anonymous person) at the Large Association of Movie Blogs (LAMB). Silent Volume has been nominated for a Lammy for Best Classic Film Blog.

And to think, when I decided to join the cinema-blogosphere more than a year ago, I was considering a blog dedicated solely to Chinese zombie films. Lucky I went with a more obscure choice. Always follow your passion, readers; the results are lush and fruity.


Hopefully I will win my category, but this is unlikely. Partly because my dreams have a way of fizzling, like so many ballgames near-won by Charlie Brown. But mostly because the competition is strong--I'm particularly outclassed by Lolita's Classics, the proprietor of which can write better than moi in at least two languages, one of them my own. Fortunately, She Focuses Far Less On Silent Film Than I Do, so if you need silent film commentary at all times, you simply have to keep reading me.

Should I win, I will keep my acceptance speech to 10,000 words, single-spaced, rich text format. Should I lose, the speech will be no more than 12,000 words, to be delivered by my agent, as I get wasted, crash an after-party before the chairs are set up, phone an ex-wife, then throw up in a limo... ideally my own.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Right sTUFF

Oh, I am NOT famous for my title-writing skills. But no matter. With this post, let me guide you to the official website of the Toronto Urban Film Festival (TUFF); an event showcasing something near and dear to me: modern silent films.

TUFF films, one minute long, can be seen on the speakerless video boards that sit overhead of Toronto subway riders. The boards' mundane, but necessary purpose is to convey information to subway riders--arrival times, track delays, weather, etc. But the men and women who submit their films to TUFF do so out of pure artistic intent, and so the boards become canvasses for them. Best of all, the films are designed for these boards, not simply adapted to them, so the directors are deliberately working in the silent medium.

I'll write much more about TUFF in this space--the festival doesn't begin until September 10, 2010--but please have a look at the website now. Not just because the call for entries has begun, but because my writing now appears there. You can check out my essay, 'Heirs to a Great Tradition,' by clicking HERE.

See? Told you silent films weren't dead.  ;)

New Look

Yup, time for some image manipulation. The legume-shaped object above is my head. The text above the legume will persist in its current, bland-font form, until I can get my fat little paws on a copy of Fireworks. And if Purply-Teal is not your bag, rest assured that colour will be an evolving element on Silent Volume from now on. It has to be this way. Do you know how many classic movie blogs have white type against black backgrounds? Well, I do.

Happy reading!


Monday, May 17, 2010

Washerwomen on the River (1896)

Seems I’ve written an article about a movie that can’t be downloaded from YouTube, or anywhere else! In fact, I can’t even find an image to show you. So please accept my apology and let your imagination run wild…

…We’ll call this one a ‘hidden gem.’

Film history has been both kind and cruel to the Lumières. Yes, the French brothers are assured their place in the pantheon of cinematic pioneers--their names, and the minute-long slices of life they commissioned and directed, appear whenever the milestones of cinema are discussed. Auguste and Louis Lumière’s mastery of the cinématograph, a film camera that could also project and develop film, pointed the way to a new century dominated by the movie medium.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

30 Second Review: The Son of the Sheik

    Top Star Rudolph Valentino     Date 1926     Category Romance

The Story
Shirtless Valentino plays son, father, and feminine heartstrings aplenty in Saudi Arabia.

The Verdict
Don’t think, just watch; you’ll be fine.

Best Scene
Ahmed (Valentino) easily kidnaps Yasmin (Vilma Banky) from the thieves (mostly idiots) and transports her to his tent. He flings her on his bed like a piece of laundry. She recoils, then protests her innocence. Ahmed raises his arm to her (an uncovered bicep, specifically), then declines to strike. Instead, he strolls the room with a cigarette, and she grows enraged. Though there is no intertitle to confirm it, Ahmed clearly considers Yasmin a whore, and since she is not one, she fights him strongly as he grabs her for a kiss. “For once your kisses are free,” he tells her as the scene fades.

For the full-length Silent Volume article, click HERE.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The White Desert (1925)

The White Desert devolves me to one of those studio-paid ultra-shills: the men and women who tell you about The Smash Hit of the Summer! before the movie’s drawn a dime; the writers of screaming poster text; the names stuck beneath hyperbole. That’s how this movie makes me feel.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

30 Second Review: Jeanne d'Arc

Date 1899      Category Historical Epic

The Story
C’mon, you know... it’s Joan of Arc.

The Verdict
Transition ’tween stage and screen. Ten minutes’ lean.

Best Scene
In this sequence of about two minutes, French soldiers storm a castle, which is presented as a backdrop against the fixed camera. There is fencing (that is, a fence) in the foreground. Joan appears first, on horseback. She is huge before the camera (especially by the standards of this film) and then we see the castle gate open. Burgundian soldiers spill from inside, drag Joan off her horse and into the castle. Now the French arrive, frantic, spilling into the frame from either side. They, too, are close to the camera—at a proximity no stage show could provide us—and so we are pulled into the scene as they tear down the fencing and, through a bit of falsified perspective in the form of a second stage level, appear to charge into the distance and scale the walls. A smoke-filled battle ensues.

For the full-length Silent Volume article, click HERE.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Check out the newsletter...

...because, this week's edition lists Silent Volume as one of 'three cool blogs to visit.' At last, I am cool. This is the product of hard work and much de-nerding therapy.

Access HERE.

Sign up for's newsletter HERE. And be cool.

The other two cool and featured blogs are my fellow LAMB-members, Detailed Criticisms and Encore's World Of Film & TV. Both are well worth your time, so give them a look, too.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Tale of Two Worlds (1921)

Yutaka ‘Jack’ Abe gives the best performance in A Tale of Two Worlds. Abe, a Japanese actor, plays The Worm, a young Chinese-American shop clerk. Though The Worm is a rascal, he proves his courage more than once, and Abe’s expert body language ensures we see this boy’s real feelings of regret, pain, and longing. The character is wonderful, and a Japanese man playing a Chinese one isn’t too much of a stretch, visually. But what if a white man does it? Can a bad illusion still pull us in?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

I am now a 'Star Reviewer' for This means my reviews of silent films and the occasional talkie, like King Kong and Avatar, will now be available on as well as here, searchable by title or my name.

You can't ask 7tavern to be a reviewer--they ask you. So please have a look at some of my fellow reviewers on the site, many of whom have well-written, thoughtful and unique viewpoints on movies of all kinds.