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The Rapture of the Silents

The Artist

a film directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Blu-Ray $35.99; DVD $30.99

Hugo

a film directed by Martin Scorsese
Paramount, Blu-Ray $44.99; DVD $29.99

The Phantom Carriage

a film directed by Victor Sjöström
Criterion Collection, Blu-Ray $39.95; DVD $29.95
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Weinstein Company
Jean Dujardin as a silent film star in Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist

By last year it became fully apparent that the long-heralded death of film as we have known it was definitively at hand. The age of celluloid was rapidly giving way—had essentially already given way—to an unpredictable digital future. Projectors and thirty-five-millimeter film prints were being replaced in American theaters by hard drives known as DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages). The manufacturing of movie cameras and movie film was slowing to a halt. (Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy in January.) Movie studios showed increasing reluctance to strike new prints of old films.

These were clearly only minor portents of much larger changes to come, but it was foreseeable that the whole heritage of films made up until now would soon need to pass through a further technological conversion to be accessible at all, a conversion both very expensive and with little long-term reliability. Economics and past history suggested that a great deal would eventually be lost in the process. You had only to look at the fate of the majority of silent films, lost for many reasons but above all because there was no commercial incentive to preserve them.1

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist

As if to acknowledge this most significant sea change in filmmaking, exhibition, and preservation since the end of the silent era—to mark the closure of one era with a toast to the closure of another—the ghost of silent film was summoned up in two of the year’s most widely noted films. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist pulled off the stunt of making an almost entirely silent black-and-white film that took the Oscar for best picture. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo—Scorsese’s first 3-D feature—embedded a retrospective of images created near the dawn of cinema by one of its first great formal inventors.

I approached the Hazanavicius film with a certain dread, half-expecting a confection that would wrap silent movies in an aura of adorable quaintness. But if The Artist was pure pastiche, and undeniably cute right down to an audience-charming Jack Russell terrier (who even got to vigorously reenact the ancient Rescued by Rover trick of saving his master from imminent disaster), it was made with a care so loving as to be almost didactic in spirit. It might have been conceived as a primer in the appreciation of silent movies—not singular classics like Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) or Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) but the run-of-the-mill movie palace fodder of the mid- to late 1920s. Hazanavicius was determined to make the old devices work again, and he succeeded. Audience reaction to The Artist tended to mirror a phenomenon I have observed many times at revivals of silent movies: the initial uncertainty, punctuated by nervous laughter, giving way to emotional engagement and finally to a kind of rapture.

The Artist translates its meticulous interest in modes of silent storytelling into a source of wonder, wonder perhaps above all that so rudimentary a story line—a fallen screen idol saved by love—should hold the attention. It does after all seem that the mind behaves differently when watching a silent film. With sound, the viewer gets his bearings from what the characters say and what tone they say it in; watching the movie is a kind of eavesdropping.

The silent films foster a different, prelinguistic mode of apprehension. A peculiar kind of attentiveness results that has something of the intensity of meditation, a wordless and intimate absorption in which the flow goes both ways: the spectator completes the people on the screen, inwardly speaks their words for them rather than listening in. It is always surprising to experience, yet again, the sense of loss when a silent picture ends, the sudden awareness of how intently one has been staring at the people who have now vanished into air. In that same instant there may also be the awareness of how slender was the story on which that intentness was strung. A movie like The Kiss (1929)—Greta Garbo’s last silent vehicle, directed by Jacques Feyder—stirs up deep feeling with a plot line of such nullity that it is almost embarrassing to recall. Yet the feeling is real enough, and lingers naggingly.

Greta Garbo and Lew Ayres in The Kiss

If Hazanavicius does not rise to the level of Garbo and Feyder, he persuasively demonstrates the possibility of such responses. But The Artist is finally a movie about the irreversibility of the past. However wonderful the cinematic form it evokes may have been, however wonderful the 1920s may even have been, there is no going back; and so in this film the Douglas Fairbanks–like silent movie idol and his Clara Bow–like jazz baby rival will have to reinvent themselves as all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing stars of the early 1930s. We are invited to admire the irreplaceable beauties of the old movies one more time (or more likely, for many viewers, for the first time) before closing the door forever. The movie has the effect of a perfected and unrepeatable gesture. One wonders whether The Artist will provide an opening into further explorations for the audiences so taken with it, or whether this will be a case where for many a single film will come to stand for a whole era: a silent movie for people who will never see another one as long as they live.

Hugo, as might be expected, turned out to be something very different. For Scorsese the door to the past is never closed. Hugo does not so much revisit the past as reveal that it is still alive, elaborately disguised as the present. Brian Selznick’s marvelous children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) provided an intrigue centering around a lost key with the power to animate a mysterious automaton; but the heart of the mystery turned out to be the invention of cinema, or at least the part played in that origin by Georges Méliès with his films of magical trickery. The perennial pursuit, in fantasy tales, of the all-powerful secret becomes in Hugo identical with the project of a film archive, and the mystical revelation at the center nothing more or less than the screening of a restored print of Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902)—and, in the film’s most ecstatic indulgence, a recreation of Méliès and his crew in his glass-walled studio, industriously at work making the impossible visible.

An excerpt from Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon

By filming the filming of Méliès’s films, with the fullest resources of sound and color and wide screen and 3-D, Scorsese instills the illusion that Méliès is still at work, merely availing himself of new tools, as if the whole of cinema continued to exist in one never-ending present. The true magic turns out to be not the illusion conjured up by this metaproduction but the work (carried on over generations) of creating it. The Jules Vernian capsule in which A Trip to the Moon’s explorers achieve their voyage would be merely a metaphor for the cinematic capsule that contains all of us and inside which we head toward an unknown destination.

Thus Scorsese averts, just barely, the antiquarian melancholy that otherwise tends to cling to the contemplation of silent movies. From the moment they disappeared they have been a metaphor for grandeur turned abruptly obsolete, a metaphor burned into cinematic tradition by Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Gloria Swanson’s “we had faces” became a Gothic epitaph rather than a justified celebration. To linger over the glossies of forgotten silent idols might almost be the definition of obsessive estrangement from the present, the faithful-unto-death adoration of what will never again be marketable. Nita Naldi? Betty Bronson? Lou Tellegen? The sudden and irrevocable outmodedness of the silents, those hypnotic gazes thrown over for the brash noisiness of the living, seem to bring us close to the domain of Edgar Allan Poe or Miss Havisham.

That Gothic edge finds an outlet in the work of Guy Maddin, the Canadian filmmaker who in such movies as The Heart of the World (2000) and Brand Upon the Brain! (2006) has been using the methods and historical associations of silent film as materials for an intimate autobiography, by turns hilarious and scary and emotionally raw. Maddin proceeds as if his unconscious consisted precisely of an archive of obsolete and sometimes damaged footage where alternately mesmeric and hysterical acting styles become the most appropriate possible expression for buried psychic archetypes. If The Artist evokes the formal elegance of silent film and Hugo its heritage of dreamy enchantment, Maddin’s films derive an almost shamanistic power from their grasp of what is most eerie about those old images: their power to bring what is demonstrably dead and gone into flickering and still-potent life.

Guy Maddin’s short film The Heart of the World

Most people, it is fair to guess, do not find it difficult to ignore silent movies altogether. Beyond the circle of specialized film viewers I rarely encounter an extensive familiarity with silents or much regret at that fact. Outside of film schools there has never been a particularly wide standard repertoire of silent films, because most people don’t watch them. A sampling, however brief, of Griffith’s huge body of work; Chaplin and Keaton, and Harold Lloyd clinging to the hands of the clock; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis; and a smattering of Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo, Lon Chaney, and Louise Brooks would pretty much cover the field. There is after all so much else, far too much of it, to look at. A friend once confided that she “didn’t get” how to look at silent films, and before I could offer glib assurance of how easy it is to just sit back and let the images have their way, I remembered how many times I too had been stymied or irked when starting down that road.

First of all there was, in those days before digital restoration, the frequent necessity of contending with inadequate prints whose washed-out, broken, splotched, or shaky images gave the impression not of a film but of the grossly damaged remnant of a film. But beyond such barriers there were filmic practices that took getting used to: mimed interchanges hard or at least tedious to interpret, plot developments unperceived for want of verbal cues, tableau-like presentations in which shots were held long after the point seemed to have been made, not to mention (especially in American films) wordy intertitles that brought the film to a dead halt while the slowest readers in the audience were given time to absorb them—and, famously, there was the acting, built on a vocabulary of gestures and postures and gazes that had bit by bit become as remote as the Rosetta Stone.

There were of course aspects of silent movies that had become archaic even before sound came in. No sooner was an effect achieved than some comic set about burlesquing it. The three and a half decades of silent cinema are a history of mercurially swift absorptions and readjustments.

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Criterion Collection
A scene from Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage, 1921

Anyone who does set out now to explore the silents finds that we are living in a golden age, or at least golden moment, of film restoration and, through DVD and Blu-Ray disks, a golden age of accessibility. (It remains to be seen whether such accessibility will continue to be the case in the wake of the total digital conversion now underway.) An immersion that once required travel to distant archives can now be accomplished on one’s couch.

It is a very different sort of viewing experience. These restored and digitized editions are often a transformation of the originals they undertake to reproduce, collating disparate elements and restoring a look of wholeness to torn or decayed images. They are in some instances cleaner than any print ever was. The film speed has been calibrated and adjusted with a precision that would have been unlikely when they were first shown. (At times the images unfold with a voluptuous smoothness and slowness so beautiful and revealing that I cannot help wondering if this is as much a product of the restorer’s art as of the filmmaker’s.) They are accompanied by modern soundtracks that—sometimes more intrusively and anachronistically than one might wish—tease out new implications of feeling and cadence. We watch them in carefully controlled settings of our own choosing, with no hint of the raucous world of vulgar entertainment or mass propaganda into which they were originally beamed.

More significant than these seductive accoutrements is the dramatically expanded repertoire we are now privileged to experience. Newly discovered and restored films rarely or barely discussed in general film histories have been emerging at such a pace that it is hard to keep up. In recent years there has been a stunning procession of rescued films that turn out to be of far more than historic interest: Lé- once Perret’s L’Enfant de Paris (1913), George Loane Tucker’s Traffic in Souls (1913), Gustavo Serena’s Assunta Spina (1915), Evgeni Bauer’s The Dying Swan (1917), Mauritz Stiller’s Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919), Ernst Lubitsch’s Die Bergkatze (1921), F.W. Murnau’s Phantom (1922), John Ford’s Hangman’s House (1928), Frank Borzage’s Street Angel (1928), Franz Osten’s A Throw of Dice (1929), George Schnéevoigt’s Laila (1929), Mikhail Kalatozov’s Salt for Svanetia (1930), Hiroshi Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933).

How could we not have heard about Laila, with its extraordinary scenes of wolves chasing a reindeer-driven sled across a sub-arctic landscape, or Salt for Svanetia with its sublime contemplation of Central Asian isolation and unforgiving folkways? The list may seem long, but it only scratches the surface. There is much more still to come, films already restored and films just recovered in archives from Russia to New Zealand. The inevitable decay of nitrate film has apparently not in every case been as swift as feared, and so there are still opportunities to uncover, here and there, what was thought lost forever.

An excerpt from George Schnéevoigt’s Laila

The seduction of silent cinema is the seduction of a form as unique as opera or kabuki, a peculiar way of organizing one’s attention. It is a perpetual learning how to see, and a way of coming to the truth of one of Emerson’s observations: “The eye is final.”2 But there is the further peculiarity that what you see takes place in a world no longer there. Here are cities since reduced to rubble and rebuilt, stretches of countryside by now turned into interstates and strip malls, glaciated wilderness that has probably succumbed to climate change—and of course the faces of those now long dead, something too easily taken for granted but that haunts movies from the start. The inventors of the medium were already thinking about recording the living as a future consolation for their survivors.

It is a property that will only get stranger. People have had millennia to get used to the idea of the ancientness of written texts; we have not yet seen truly ancient films, having got just a little beyond the century mark. A passenger—a babe in arms—who got off the train at La Ciotat station as the Lumières were filming it in 1895 may well have lived on into the age of television and 3-D. In time everything prior to that may come to seem prehistoric, dating from the era before people could see the vanished generations moving in something like real time through a world also in movement.

The reality of their world included of course the desire to escape from that reality by means of the very movies we are watching. Two goals are at work from the beginning of film: to move in as close to the world as possible, and to move as far away from it as possible. They are not always contradictory goals. Even the most banal of natural settings became exotic when filmed; wind-blown trees and eddying waves were primordial special effects. A city street photographed at random, if it was someone else’s city, might be as unreal as any studio concoction.

Audiences came not necessarily to relish the fact of existing in 1912 or 1927 but to explore precisely the possibilities denied by that present moment, to look at something else, a distant steppe or the palace of a rajah, the deck of a millionaire’s yacht or the interior of a midtown brothel in the midst of a police raid, a world seen from above the clouds or a world entirely taken over by comical acrobats. The abstraction and stylization fostered by silent film were uniquely suited for establishing an obverse zone lying just within the well-named dream palaces, liberated from history and even from logic.

Every film becomes a documentary, even if it is a documentary on the making of illusions. To become aware of the exceptional artistry of the greatest silent filmmakers—of D.W. Griffith or Victor Sjöström or Ernst Lubitsch—is in the same instant to become sensitive to the living material, that is to say people and their habitat, that they are working with. The sense of how the filmmaker is operating in the world cannot be separated from the film. You can read King Lear without having to give a thought to Richard Burbage; you cannot watch The Birth of a Nation without registering the presence of every member of its large cast and by extension the precise time and place in which they go through their paces.

We feel for them because we see them and in the same moment measure their distance from us. I have not read Selma Lagerlöf’s novel The Phantom Carriage (1912), a tale of an alcoholic reprobate redeemed in the manner of Ebenezer Scrooge by ghostly visions, and so cannot judge whether it exerts as powerful an effect as Sjöström’s 1921 film version, which the Criterion Collection has just issued in a Blu-Ray edition. But whatever the suggestiveness of the fable, the film works on us with the bare palpability of its elements—even of its visual tricks.

An excerpt from The Phantom Carriage

The carriage of the title, sent to collect the souls of the dead and driven by the last soul to die on New Year’s Eve, is a superimposed image gliding over natural scenes. The dead souls, once extracted from their corpses, are likewise superimpositions wandering through otherwise solid settings. The transparent carriage pauses to collect a vagrant dead of exposure in a marsh. It moves over a rocky coastline to retrieve drowned bodies from a boat half sunk beneath the waves. A simpler trick is unimaginable.

Yet these forlorn images are made even more so by the very impossibility of those transparent forms, as if we were being given a demonstration of what is humanly unattainable. In counterpoint to these supernatural scenes there is the film’s other kind of special effect: the human face exposed by lighting designed to bring out expressions of fear, anguish, malicious anger, resigned devotion. Faces look at faces, or toward the empty space that is the audience. Sjöström, playing the abusive protagonist in what may, according to an accompanying essay by Paul Mayersberg, be an imitation of his own brutal father, turns himself into the most indelible of visual devices by capturing the demonic glint in his own eyes.

That glint carries across time in the most unnerving way. But it had to be captured in the first place. The authentic artists of silent cinema—and the list gets longer as more films are retrieved—touch us by the deliberateness with which they directed our eyes toward what was there, or rather to what still is there in their work. Such viewing can easily create odd moments of temporal displacement. If 1912 can become the present, 2012 can just as easily become the remote past. Watching the recent and disastrously received Disney release John Carter, with its digitized frames densely packed with thousands of battling Martians and swirling airships, I found myself looking at it as if it were the artifact of a long-vanished era that devoted itself to such curious spectacles. The people of that time, it seemed, had sought to make images that mutated so rapidly that no single image could be looked at long enough to become fixed in the mind. If they had been looked at that long, it would have become too obvious that there was nothing there to see.

A movie like The Phantom Carriage, by contrast, was made to be peered into with unwavering attention. Shots were prolonged so that nothing of importance would be lost. Dying faces were photographed as if to bridge the gap between life and death. Silent cinema had perhaps the advantage that the spectator cannot look away. The rapt gaze is the only suitable mode for watching it at all.

  1. 1

    See David Bordwell, “Pandora’s Digital Box: In the Multiplex,” December 1, 2011, at www.davidbordwell.net, along with subsequent postings by Bordwell; Kent Jones, “This is Not (a) Film Either,” Film Comment, January–February 2012; Leah Churner, “‘This is DCP ’: The Big Screen Test,” The Village Voice, February 29, 2012; Gendy Alimurung, “Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm Film. But the Consequences of Going Digital Are Vast, and Troubling,” LA Weekly, April 12, 2012. 

  2. 2

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Journals, 1841–1877 (Library of America, 2010), p. 688. 

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