Back at the start of the year silent movies were all that anyone – who was talking about movies – was talking about. No one could believe that a film without words or colour had charged through the familiar ranks of fast-talking, post-Technicolor, 3D movies and grabbed almost every award in sight.
The Artist was nominated for more Baftas and Golden Globes than any other film from 2011 and won Best Picture, Director, and Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Surely, the buzz went, a wild success like this heralded a new age for silent film.
But then the buzz, as buzzes do, died down, wandered off and found something new to get excited about – comic book movies like The Avengers or sci-fi blockbusters like Prometheus. It seemed like silent films had once again been forgotten.
That’s not the case. The silent film scene is thriving. As Pamela Hutchinson, the editor of Silent London explains “The Artist is a symptom of a growing awareness of and enthusiasm for silent cinema, rather than a trigger for a quick boom starting now.”
In the UK the silent film scene has been quietly growing ever since the early 1980s, when early film enthusiasts like the director Kevin Brownlow and the critic David Robinson started campaigning for more films to be restored and played on a big screen with live accompaniments.
“It’s the way they are meant to be seen,” says Hutchinson “and it’s a fantastic experience. London now has a phenomenal number of screenings.” Silent London, the website that Hutchinson writes and edits, provides a full schedule of all screenings that take place in the city.
This summer’s listings include the classical epic Ben Hur at the Royal Festival Hall, the mysterious Piccadilly at the Prince Charles and an open air screening of the famous vampire horror Nosferatu in Spitalfields Market.
Hutchinson believes that silent films offer: “a kind of visual story-telling that we still see, in places, in the very best talkies – where the pictures tell the story, rather than the dialogue. Only the worst kind of sound films ignore the lessons of the silent era and layer banal dialogue over lazy, uninspired images.”
Watching a fully silent film, with live music and an audience can be, Hutchinson says, a mind-altering immersive experience. The very term “silent film” can be misleading for those who have never seen a real screening. Early cinema was almost never silent – it was accompanied by elaborate scores or music improvised on the night, played by a single piano player or a vast orchestra.
The fact that these films have become known as “silent” can create some amusing juxtapositions when discussing the period. Dr. Julie Brown, a music academic at Royal Holloway University, has a book coming out with the paradoxical title, The Sounds of the Silents in Britain.
Dr Brown stresses that silent films were always performances. “The technical history of film itself is very important. But the history of cinema in performance is really a branch of theatre history. With some rare exceptions, films always had some sort of live accompaniment, whether music performed by one or more musicians, live sound effects, or live voices of some sort.”
Stephen Horne is one of the UK’s leading silent film accompanists. He says that he prefers the term used in other countries – ‘mute film’. “Cinema muet in France, muto in Italian, stummfilm in German (as in ‘keep schtum’!)”
“I think that gives the proper emphasis to the fact that this is cinema without dialogue rather than sound. It also underlines one of the advantages of the medium: its universality. All you have to do is translate a few intertitles and the film can be understood anywhere without having to suffer from awful dubbing.”
As a musician, Horne discovered the genre quite by chance, when one of his old teachers asked him to provide the music for a screening at a local film club. Like Hutchinson, Horne credits dedicated cinephiles in the 1980s and 1990s for bringing silent film back into the limelight, with the beautiful restoration work that was done on many early features.
Horne says that there are more musicians than ever getting involved in silent film scene, bringing with them an exciting range of new musical approaches. The new generation of musicians have been inspired by veteran accompanists like Horne or Neil Brand, both of whom are based at Southbank’s BFI.
Brand not only accompanies films but writes critically acclaimed new scores. The first feature he ever played was Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jnr. “It’s a lovely character piece which gives a musician loads to get his teeth into, but what blew me away was the effect the audience response had on the music. Every laugh changed the music I was improvising. The playing got better and the film got funnier.
The really big laughs you went silent for and picked up as they died away, like a stand-up comic. It was an amazing learning experience and I have particularly loved Keaton ever since. He is so mature in his observations, and he never patronises the audience.
One of the best gags in Steamboat is a very small one. By accident his hand knocks a lifebelt off the boat into the water where it sinks like a stone. His stunned reaction, then quick glances round while stamping his foot to test the strength of the deck he’s standing on, is comedy gold.”
In 1998 Brand, the BFI curator Bryony Dixon and the film academic Laraine Porter set up the British Silent Film Festival. All three had spent years going to Pordenone, Italy for the world’s biggest silent film festival and all three of them were fed up with the poor reputation that British silent film had amongst the international community.
In particular, says Laraine Porter, “we took issue with a bunch of American film historians, who at the 1997 Italian festival who claimed that British silent film was static, pictorial, bereft of good story-telling and rather dull.
Basically, these guys were so convinced of the supremacy of Hollywood and they hadn’t seen many British silent films at all. So we set out to redress this by getting the films out of the archive. The BFI is the biggest national archive in the world, so there was plenty of material to work with.”
Thanks to the festival they created, the incredible riches of the archive – it’s fabulous British features, superb documentaries, wonderful comedies – have now been picked up and seen around the world. As Neil Brand says “The British made superb cinema before sound came in and it has been a privilege to be part of discovering that.”
Brand was playing as a rookie pianist at the first silent film Laraine Porter ever saw. “It was Guy Newall’s Fox Farm at a BFI Summer School at Stirling University back in the mid 1980s. Brand was brilliant and it was such a lovely experience. We were both new to silent film then, and got chatting – I just fell in love with it from that point onwards.”
What Porter thinks is so exciting about the genre is that it’s live cinema – two art forms for the price of one. “That the combination of live music and silent film is mesmerizing. With its unique visual language, silent films invoke a different relationship between screen and viewer – one that is more open to interpretation, I think.”
Brand is just as passionate as Porter: “People are realizing that in modern cinema one of the things that gets lost is visual storytelling – and that is all the silents are about, purely visual storytelling – you can got lost in character, mood, action, to a far deeper level when it plays out only in pictures, not words.
You are lost in reading the signals, the hints and subtleties that tell you so much – when Chaplin meets The Girl again in The Immigrant and she is crying and holding a headscarf we know her mother has died – their acting to each other is perfectly normal and truthful, and making those discoveries for ourselves is very satisfying. I love cinema today and yesterday, but I really believe silent cinema is more involving than sound cinema.”
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