Amidst Sound and Fury, Silent Films Still Resonate
By Ethan Gates '12, A&L Section Editor
The story of how I discovered silent cinema is one I generally avoid telling. It was four years ago, in a high school course entitled “American History through Film.” Though I had already developed a fondness for Hitchcock and Welles and other classic auteurs, I still, like so many others my age, generally associated the word “silent” with “boring” when it came to film. Several battle scenes and a heart-pounding climactic ride to the rescue later, I no longer suffered under such delusions. I saw that silent film was just as capable of grabbing our attention and capturing our imagination as any talkie. By the next day I was recording “The General,” a silent comedic masterpiece, on my home DVR and scouring Wikipedia for information about King Vidor and Douglas Fairbanks.

That’s a reasonably cute story, right? What’s that? You say I haven’t told you the name of the film that started all this? Well, yes. Therein lies my problem with relating this tale. The film was D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.”

All qualms about being lured to silent film by a piece of KKK-glorifying propaganda aside, I can’t deny the sense of excitement I felt upon encountering this new medium, this previously unknown (or at least misunderstood) art form, for myself. A whole world had suddenly opened itself to me, and I was eager to investigate its potential. I know this probably sounds ridiculously ludicrous and pompous, but I was hooked by the thrill of discovery, a feeling that has entranced countless explorers, scientists, dreamers and pioneers over the years.

It’s a feeling that would’ve been shared by those early filmmakers of the silent era. Their medium was so young; they had little in the way of a canon to draw on, few masterworks with which to compare and scrutinize their own work. The entire concept of cinema was theirs to build, and thanks to their creativity and innovation a foundation was laid for every other great director, screenwriter and actor to come. Without Lillian Gish, there would be no Meryl Streep; without Sergei Eisenstein there would be no Steven Spielberg. If you don’t understand a single word I’m saying, Amherst Cinema has got you covered: our local theater is making a point of displaying the talents of some of the first titans of the silver screen.

For a limited run, you can catch Fritz Lang’s science-fiction classic, “Metropolis,” finally restored to almost-complete status after 80 years. Cut and re-edited by studio goons after being deemed “too long” at its 1927 debut, “Metropolis” has been shown in truncated, confusing prints for decades; about 30 minutes of original footage was thought to be permanently lost. Astoundingly, a near-complete version was discovered in the basement archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires two years ago (a private collector from Argentina had apparently been present at the film’s debut and was so taken with Lang’s work that he immediately requested a print, before the edits were made). The new footage was badly damaged, but extensive restoration efforts have finally provided a sense of continuity that “Metropolis” heretofore sorely lacked.

The Museo del Cine’s discovery was a cinematic godsend, as Lang’s bold, daring vision not only deserves but demands to be seen in its entirety. A sprawling tale of class struggle and romance set in an enormous futuristic city, “Metropolis” was the most expensive silent film ever made, and every penny (sorry, Reichspfennig) shows. Thousands of extras, towering sets and every in-camera special effect known to man (many invented by Lang and his crew) populate each frame of this ambitious piece. Almost every single sci-fi film released since can trace its elements back to “Metropolis”: here is the mad scientist’s lair we would later see in “Frankenstein” and countless B-movies; here are the grungy city streets that made up the world of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner;” here is a robot that bears a suspicious resemblance to C-3PO of “Star Wars” (I grow less impressed with George Lucas by the day). This is epic filmmaking at its finest.

But, say you’re not in the mood for overwhelming grandeur, and would prefer a nice, quiet comedy. Well, you can’t get much better than the work of Charlie Chaplin, on display throughout the month of October in a series of new 35mm prints (check the Amherst Cinema website for showtimes). All of the comedic legend’s best works are on display: “The Circus,” “The Gold Rush,” “City Lights,” “The Kid,” “Modern Times,” “The Great Dictator.” Through them all (with the exception of “The Great Dictator,” the actor-director’s first sound picture), Chaplin’s famous character, the Little Tramp, bumbles good-naturedly from one fix to another.

Chaplin’s films are remarkable not only for their lasting humor (and believe me, these are some of the funniest films ever) but for their sly social commentary. The Tramp, despite his generally down-and-out circumstances, is defined by an insistence on gentlemanly behavior and ceaseless optimism. Chaplin’s gifts as a physical comedian remain entirely unique, but he is also unmatched in his overt respect and love for the working man.

So-called “silent” films are anything but. Lacking the technology to record dialogue, filmmakers simply found other ways to speak to their audience. They saw the opportunities of a visual medium and grabbed them, making themselves understood through means of pure invention and originality; in essence, they discovered cinema. Now you can re-discover them.

Issue 03, Submitted 2010-09-22 01:56:43