For a long time I thought I didn’t like silent cinema. It’s easy to be prejudiced against an era or a genre of film when your first encounter had you looking through the wrong keyhole.
It was about seven or eight years ago that I went to a silent film screening in Bristol. I can’t remember which film it was but I know it was a slapstick comedy with either Chaplin or Keaton, and it featured blackface. I was horrified and, quite honestly, shocked. I’d never seen a film with blackface exhibited publicly before and there had been no trigger warning before the screening. There was no context given and there I was, amidst a room full of white middle-class folk laughing their asses off.
On a less serious but still ultimately off-putting note, the music was poorly matched to the film. It was jaunty, whimsical and upbeat all the while. I hated everything about the screening and, as a result, was pretty much turned off silent cinema for life.
Or so I thought.
Several years later I met Dr Peter Walsh. He’s a feminist and a film scholar. His expertise is in early and silent cinema. He seemed immediately like a great guy who doesn’t endorse jaunty, inappropriate, crap music – or blackface. So, I thought, maybe there’s more to this silent cinema malarkey than I’ve given it credit for…
And so, with curiosity and hope, I invited Pete to run a silent cinema course at Flicks. I was first to enroll.
The course exceeded the foolishness of my keyhole metaphor and opened an actual door to previously inaccessible cinema. Throughout the course I was introduced to The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors (1993) which included the totally amazing Alice Guy who experimented with Gaumont’s sync sound system known as the Chronophone until such time as she got married and had to resign. She continued to work elsewhere after Gaumont gave her the boot but her husband kinda got in the way.
While a woman being nudged out of the way by dudes is an all too familiar story in film history it was great to at least hear about some of the women who made a mark before the patriarchy pushed them aside because documentaries (un)like this one far too often have us believing that women were altogether absent. Turns out it’s not just funny white dudes doing blackface after all. In fact, Lois Weber, who also features in the documentary, refused to work on one particular film, taking a stand against blackface – yep, there were heroes fighting for what’s right even in the early era.
Course, I can’t help but wonder why The Silent Feminists, a forty-five minute documentary about women in a field where women are often absent from the dominant historical narrative, has yet to be released on DVD or BluRay. Please, BFI, help a sister out?
I also discovered that not all silent cinema is scored with unimaginative organ playing (like The Lost World, 1925) or jaunty piano. Having seen clips from Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) many times before, I was amazed to discover that I have never seen the full film, restored, coloured, and gloriously scored by Air. I was also amazed at how many inappropriate scores have been recorded and released with Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). Personally, I like it properly silent: no score. We also had a series of great, and divisive, discussions after watching Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) with a Giorgio Moroder score.
Perhaps most surprisingly was that I chose, of my own volition, to watch silent movies at home – not so much for homework or even extra curricular viewing, but just for the fun of it and with a genuine interest. Jean Painlevé’s wonderful sea urchins on our old never-before-rented VHS of Surrealism and Science (1925) and a beautifully scored, visually exciting and honestly suspenseful Swedish horror film, The Phantom Carriage (1921) were two such treats.
Silent Studies in the Kino was our first foray into adult education courses at Flicks and, from the perspective of both student and course administrator, I can honestly say that it was so darn good it not only makes me want to schedule more classes in the Kino but it also changed my previously rigid opinion of an entire era of cinema. Cheers, Pete.