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The Reason Silent Film “Still Works”: Your Brain

People who haven’t seen Silent Film — or experienced it — are always surprised to know there’s an interest in it. When I tell people kids eat it up when I show Keaton in schools they are amazed. They shouldn’t be. But it’s because they’re thinking of the wrong side of the brain.

Walter Kerr succinctly articulates the basics of what is at the core of the aesthetic of Silent Film in the first four or five chapters of his The Silent Clowns (Knopf, 1975). One of the main points he makes is that art exists in a taking away. Of a leaving out of various elements.

Based on this and on having done thousands of silent films shows over the last forty years I have come to believe that it is our right-brain function as humans that is what makes Silent Film hold up. The mistake most people make is that they assume the left-brain will be the road block.

There’s no sound, no dialog. There’s no color. Data one would assume would be necessary for left-brain intake in order for the onscreen storytelling to work. But it’s precisely what’s missing, what remains for our rightW-brain to fill in and fuse together in our brain’s cognitive yin-yang, that enables Silent Film to be as accessible a form of entertainment as “regular” film or video.

The next post in this series is here.

The Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr is way out of print, but affordable copies turn up on eBay. Aim for the original hard-cover, or the Knopf paperback. The photo reproductions in the purple cover 1990s paperback reissue by Da Capo Press, are not all that great.

9 thoughts on “The Reason Silent Film “Still Works”: Your Brain”

    1. Fellow Silent Clowners: I have 3 hardcover Kerr SC. I snatch them up wherever I find them online. My all-time favorite book. Next need to get Steve’s hefty Roscoe “Fatty” tome.

      1. I do the same with The Silent Clowns. Every once in a while I’ll check ebay and invariably there’s at least one copy of the original HB edition for $10-$15. A couple months ago I won a copy in excellent condition for $3.

    1. My only experience with McLuhan is from watching “Annie Hall”. This is the first in what I am hoping will be a long string of posts about the aesthetics of the language of silent film, what it is and isn’t. I may get some of it wrong but it will at least be out there.

          1. Great talk 2/21 with Steve on Keaton’s “doll house” set for HIGH SIGN. Revived years later in 1960s by talkie Silent Clowns: J. Lewis massive set for “The Ladies Man” and J. Tati picture window adjacent apartments in “Playtime.” Also “Hollywood Ending” with Woody Allen as a director on a doll house set.

  1. Maybe this will revive silent films, when you and others show the films to children. if they see them when young and are captured by the films, they will bring others to it.

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