Film and Television Features

Teach Yourself Silent Film in One Afternoon

It was inevitable that, following its awards-season success, The Artist would be in the running for a bit of a retrospective kicking, that's just the way that popularity works (although, I'd like to think that we here at No Ripcord are, at least slightly, above such things). What is interesting, and actually, sort of true, about this particular backlash though is that a lot of it has boiled down to afficianados pointing out that, by the standards of the films it was homaging, it was only bog-standard.

Have you found yourself in that situation yourself yet? Eager to join in to condemn, or defend the film but not able to you as you don't feel your knowledge of silent cinema is up to scratch? Well, then this list is for you, aiming to provide a viewing guide to the form, which you can start after lunch and by done with by tea-time. While there have been plenty of interesting, informed, often bang-on-the-money lists of the greatest silent films ever made, what these lists generally overlook is that most of us have neither the inclination, nor the time to dive straight in and wrestle with its more daunting aspects. What this article serves to do is merely form an introduction; to cover a fairly broad range in a fairly short space of time (and not stray too far from the entertaining). It doesn't serve to go particularly deep or to embrace the more obscure, and a fair few generally accepted “classics” have been looked over, largely because of their length, and, well, thank god for that; DW Griffith may have been a technical genius, but if there's one thing more boring than justifying the morally dubious views of his films, it's having to sit through him spending a small fortune and taking three and a half hours to do so himself, as he attempted on Intolerance.

Perhaps the most obvious starting point is Georges Méliès' short Le Voyage dans la Lune, not just for it forming the focal point of another of this year's Oscar winners, in Scorsese's Hugo, or (more relevantly for this site) its musical links; inspiring a Smashing Pumpkins video and a (merely ok) re-score from Air earlier this year, but because it's incredibly charming and, unlike much of today's film-making, still jaw-droppingly impressive in a “How did they do that?” sort of way.

Almost equally technically astounding is The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, ostensibly a full-length feature, but it's only just over an hour and rattles along at a fair pace. Combine a sinister pot-boiler of a plot revolving around sleep-walking and hypnotism with incredibly OTT 'German Expressionist' set-design and it still has the power to grip. I won't say any more, so as not to risk giving anything away (it's almost impossible to know something of the film without knowing its ending now, but if you don't, read absolutely nothing else about it and just sit down and watch it now).

Of a similar length, and even more inventive, is Dziga Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera. The standard choice for Soviet propaganda film is Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin, possibly because it was ripped-off (homaged) by Brian de Palma in The Untouchables (but also because it's really good), but Vertov's work is considerably less didactic, and more unique, and, for the purposes of this list, marginally shorter. It's also entirely devoid of inter-titles (unless you count the waffle that proceeds the film, but that's easily skipped), instead being an uninterrupted flow of ridiculously elaborate trick photography. As an account of everyday Russian life, as it was intended, it leaves something to be desired, but as a mad rush of sheer style, it can't be beat, which might explain why the work has had such an allure for composers in recent years; there are plenty of great scores to choose from (although I'd probably go for Michael Nyman's).

Silent comedy is a bit of a weird one, and not least because it's taken so damn seriously. Dim memories of Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy films played on weekend afternoons on BBC2 or Channel 4, often at the wrong speed, were enough to keep me away from silent cinema for years (although, ironically I'd kill for either of those two channels to screen those films now). Also, the uncanny effect of the overly made-up faces and exaggerated movement, that can work to heighten the thrill of melodrama when viewed today, just makes these supposedly loveable scamps seem thoroughly dodgy (skipping over the Hitler-Chaplin resemblance, there's also the fact that Buster Keaton looks slightly unhinged, or that Harold Lloyd comes across as a ghostly pervert) and, as with clowns, you do wonder why anybody found them funny in the first place.

Understandably though, physical comedy came naturally to the wordless medium, with one of the very first narrative shorts being a take on the old standing on a garden hose prank. As film's commercial prospects grew, so did the scale of the comedy, until you end up with Lloyd dangling precariously off a clock face, for real; it's sort of like what Hollywood would get up to if health and safety was of no concern (considering that disregard for personal safety, and the proliferation of “does what it says on the tin” titles like Laurel and Hardy's first short as a double act Putting Pants on Philip, it's tempting to see the whole thing as a more professional version of youtube). Also, Chaplin's importance as an artist really can't be ignored, even if his work is something of an acquired taste; not only was the man a star, and has since become an icon, but he took such a ridiculous amount of control over his films that if any filmmaker could be called an auteur, it's him.

I'd be tempted to say just watch one of the out-of-context clips that are up on youtube from his features; the lion cage stunt from The Circus perhaps as, withdrawn from the overwrought plot machinations that surrounded them, it's easier to admire what a daring, talented performer he was, such corner-cutting is possibly tantamount to sacrilege though. If you do fancy trying a short, you can't really go wrong with The Immigrant (for a start, it's the only one selected for the US National Film Archive), as it encapsulates both his gift for slapstick, and his tendencies to lean towards the maudlin, and to be overly obsessive about his work. The fact that it was cobbled together from a couple of different plots while filming is fairly obvious, and the ending is a bit dubious but, as far as slapstick goes, it's compellingly dark and it tries to distil an entire romantic comedy plot into three locations and twenty minutes, which is quite an achievement.

One thing that actually has seemed quite galling about The Artist's success is that it's been viewed as a ground-breaking foray into a long-forgotten art, conveniently overlooking those who were working on the same thing years before Hazanavicius and Dujardin got there. In particular, Canadian maverick Guy Maddin has been eagerly beavering away at reviving the art of early cinema (not just silents, but also the aesthetic of early sound film) since the eighties. While his subjects of choice (most often paranoia and sexual dysfunction) are hardly the stuff of the mainstream, there is something deliriously entertaining about his silent works, perhaps best seen in The Heart of the World, a six minute short, commissioned to celebrate the Toronto Film Festival's silver jubilee. Copping much of the delirious technique of The Man with a Movie Camera (and others), the short aims to combine a ménage-à-trois narrative with charmingly naïve sci-fi (think the film within a film that opens The Artist) to somehow come up with an argument as to why cinema is important. Like Vertov's film, it doesn't exactly make sense, but is wonderfully entertaining all the same.

If you have a spare minute (actually, 55 seconds) after that, why not check out David Lynch's Premonition Following an Evil Deed? As a whole the Lumière project – where prominent filmmakers were invited to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of cinema by taking the technology and limitations of the Lumière brothers' first shorts; a replica of their camera; a reel of film and one take – was a bit of a bust, but Lynch, true to form turned in another incomprehensible yet creepy piece of 1950s suburban melodrama (with arguably gratuitous nudity). This time with a little extra added Méliès-style magic.

Finally, as it's generally acknowledged you have to put some effort in if you're going to do anything successfully, a film that could almost be considered long at just under two hours (depending on the version you watch). But, my god is it worth it as The Passion of Joan of Arc is not only the probably the greatest silent film, but arguably the greatest film ever made full stop. Not that you'd think so from the description; an account of the Saint's trial by the English, based entirely on the court records, whose only action is (SPOILER ALERT) her getting burnt at the stake at the end. That's not considering Carl Theodor Dreyer's technical skill though, or Rudolph Maté's genuinely radiant photography, or most importantly, the stunning performances, captured mostly in unforgiving (but beautiful, not least because the choice of film-stock meant the usual painted on make-up wasn't needed) close-up. Of course such work didn't come easy; Dreyer's working methods bordered on the tortuous (it's not difficult to see what drew his fellow Dane Lars Von Trier to Dreyer's unfilmed Medea script) and lead Maria Falconetti never worked in film again, but, despite the tragic ending to her story, there are few legacies in cinema quite so brilliant.