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.