As many cinemas move into the future with advances in 3D technology and high definition screenings, there is a simultaneous movement happening, in another direction entirely. The academy award winning film ‘The Artist’ brought silent cinema back to the mainstream in 2011, but the gradual revival of silent cinema is something that had been going on for a while.
Journalist and silent film buff Pamela Hutchinson started Silent London in 2010, a site for silent film fans with a terrific listings section detailing what’s on in the capital. But the revival isn’t limited to this city; Pamela recently reported on the 32nd Giornate del Cinema Muto, the world’s most prestigious silent-film festival. Held in the tiny Italian town of Pordenone, Pamela wrote that ‘In this corner of the world, for one week only, it is not quite as if the talkies never arrived, but rather that they failed to stop the party. Silent cinema continues to reinvent itself, to surprise even its most protective guardians, and to multiply.’
Highlights from this year’s festival include a previously-thought-lost Orson Welles film and a new, altogether alternative take on the tale of Snow White; the Spanish-made Blancanieves which features the heroine as a plucky bull-fighter.
So what is it that is luring us back to those old black and white movies, to the extent that people are going out and creating new films, silent through choice?
The novelty of nostalgia certainly has something to do with our affection for old films, but surely one of the most appealing aspects of new silent movies is the fact that there’s a part of your brain you feel you can ’switch-off’- something that is sorely needed in these times of over-stimulation. You know that you’ll be able to follow the plot just by watching the film, so for once you can relax one of your senses.
But the reality is that silent films are rarely actually silent- and I think this leads us to one of the real reasons for their rise in popularity. Many of the screenings you’ll see listed on Silent London involve films being shown with live soundtracks performed by bands and musicians. Sometimes they’ll be playing the original score, other times they’ll have composed a new one, or if they really want to do it like the old days, they’ll be improvising as they go along.
Film Critic Mark Kermode plays in a band called The Dodge Brothers who have adopted this style of ‘making it up as they go along’ to accompany a silent film. They have a few regular films that they work with and perform alongside- Bryony Dixon, curator of silent film at the BFI says of one of their regular numbers, a Louise Brooks silent film ‘Beggars of Life’:
“Never has a film and a band been more perfectly matched than ‘Beggars of Life’ and the Dodge Brothers – deep-dish Americana, rail-riding hobos and Louise Brooks – they were made for each other.”
Their aim is to make cinema a theatrical performance again, something the audience feels actively involved in rather than passively experiences. You can see The Dodge Brothers playing live accompaniment to a selection of clips from short films at The Cornwall Film Festival on 9th November.
Perhaps, that’s one of the keys to Silent Cinema’s success- despite not needing you to listen for plot or dialogue, it succeeds in holding your attention, either through wonderful visuals, or an atmospheric score, or both. Often when one is watching a DVD at home in the evenings, they may find themselves checking their laptop at the same time, or looking at their phone while still half-heartedly listening to what’s happening on the television. However, that’s not possible while watching a silent film - you cannot look away for fear of missing something important- just listening to the sound won’t tell you enough. You need to do both. It requires your full attention. Which is something we’ve all got very bad at giving.
So next time you go to see a silent film, you can also think of it as good training- it’s making you better at giving things the kind of attention they deserve, so you don’t end up as one of those people who tries to send a text whilst having a conversation, or checks twitter over dinner. Maybe silent movies are back to make us remember our manners.
Our pick of the coming silent screenings in London:
As part of the BFI’s Gothic season- silence can be scarier than any scream- and the original horror film Nosferatu is still terrifying. Until November 7th.
Get into the festive spirit with The Snowman’s classic animation, with live music from the orchestra of Saint Paul’s- 21st December
The Artist is a wonderfully heart-warming affair, perfect for Christmas, especially in the setting of the Royal Albert Hall with live music by The London Symphony Orchestra.
30th and 31st December
And finally check out Pamela Hutchinson’s own screenings at the West London Trades Union Club featuring a great range of films including the new version of Metropolis with rediscovered footage, and the charismatic Clara Bow in ‘It’, the 1927 film that coined the term ‘It girl’.