Friday, 31 January 2014

Guest Post: Silent Movies & The Birth of a Revolution (by Paul Jensen)

Paul Jensen is a film historian and instructor at Vancouver Film School. He's also a good friend who makes one helluva martini! We invited him to share his expert opinion on the subject of his choice.

One shot, one minute! Film began as documentary (Louis Lumière's Exiting the Factory), capturing life in a way that had never been done before. To watch living things move on screen: was this some weird kind of immortality? Characters doomed to repeat the same gestures over and over again like ghosts haunting our theaters? The experience it offered was groundbreaking.

It’s incredible to think that, at the time, many people were skeptical of this new gimmick called "movies", convinced it was a fad or some fading trend that would disappear within a few years.  Others questioned the point or value of it, assuming it was only good for slapstick comedy at best or pornography at worst. For twenty years the debate raged back and forth. Meanwhile, countless short films continued to be released and loved.  

Then came D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in 1915, a game-changer that would elevate the potential of film to a whole new level. At well over 3-hours long, Birth of a Nation proved to producers and theatre owners that people were not only willing to watch a linear story from beginning to end, but also invest a good chunk of time doing so. It also proved that audiences were more sophisticated than some may have thought, able to make sense of Griffith’s avant-garde editing style which had been influenced by movies like Edwin Porter’s Great Train Robbery and the 1914 Italian epic Cabiria.

What was it that captured audiences so?  In a word, it was the story. Griffith (along with the Lumiere brothers and Porter) understood this, making story increasingly prominent in their films and inventing a vocabulary for film that is still being used today by directors who stand on the shoulders of film's early pioneers. True, Birth of a Nation contains racists views that feel incredibly dated and offensive today, so one must view it with a grain of salt, remembering to consider it in the context of its time.  What makes the film unique is not its political views so much as its revolutionary narrative approach. For this reason, Griffith's masterpiece deserves an important place in the canon of film.
During the 33 years of Silent Cinema’s rein, many great artists pushed the envelope of visual storytelling, rendering the term ‘motion picture’ in its fullest sense.  It’s easy to lump all silent films into one category but it is important to note the variety it offered.  Consider Carl Dreyer's 1928 epic The Passion of Joan of Arc which told its story almost entirely in close-ups.  Charlie Chaplin, easily the silent era’s greatest figure, created one of the world’s much loved characters in The Tramp, a universally relatable soul who broke national boundaries in classics like The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936).  Then there was legendary daredevil Buster Keaton, whose masterpiece The General (1926) sees him perform his own dangerous stunts, often at real risk of injury or death.  All to make an audience laugh.

While many filmgoers today might struggle sitting through a silent film, there are a few worth taking a peek at.  

Victor Sjostrum’s The Wind (1928) and King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) have managed to stand the test of time, continuing to move and inspire.  Full of emotion and intense drama, both films break universal boundaries. 

 Greed (1924) by Erich Von Stroheim is another one you shouldn't miss.  Granted, its 4-hour cut may sound like an endurance test, but its story is so full of dramatic highs and lows, one quickly becomes engrossed in it. (Be warned, though: it's not a great "first date" movie!)


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