Silent Film’s visual shorthand can also ask us to conjure up an event or physical act by not showing it at all. Films in the 1930s, or earlier, might avoid depicting something particularly nasty by cutting to a shot showing a wall silhouette. Silent Film, because of its absence of recorded synch-sound, has the ability to remove any visual depiction of the event.
In an early scene in The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks, Zorro is almost literally conjured up by some locals in a pub and Sergeant Gonzales. All you have to do to make Zorro appears, one of his men tells the Sergeant, is to harm one of the “natives”. Gonzales reacts — cut to a group of indigenous locals across the room, frightened — Gonzales moves toward them — his men watch — we see one of the locals, post-assault, on the floor.
Not only are we not shown an act of violence, it is one that ought to have some loud and anguished sounds with it. The moment when it takes place happens in less time than it would have, realistically or even elided in screen time through edits had it actually been shown. Gonzales’ men do not “get over” that they’re seeing an assault or that they’re hearing the victim cry out.
But we know exactly what has happened. When I show this film to my university students in our unit on Fairbanks, they have no trouble understanding what has happened, without the 10-15 years of being exposed to Silent Film storytelling that audiences of 1920 would have had in their memory banks.
There’s a similar moment in Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928). It’s one I’m still working on as far as how I underscore and support it. [Spoiler alert!] Toward the end, there has been a contentious scene between Lewis’s character and Betty Compson’s. He seems to be advancing on her, pressuring or maybe threatening her. We cut to a doorway, and the man’s wife — played by Olga Baclanova — has her back to us, and slowly enters the room, closing the door behind her.
Cut to a window inside the room. There are seagulls at the window. After a second or two the seagulls fly away. Cut to George Bancroft in a café, who looks up, reacting to something outside. There is a commotion outside, people running about, people and police rushing up to the apartment. The shots that follow do not spell out for us clearly what has just happened. There isn’t a shot of Baclanova or Compson holding a smoldering pistol, nodding in smug satisfaction, or of Lewis clutching a wound, falling to the ground.
It is not for another thirty seconds of screen time before it becomes clear to us viewers that the man’s been shot, but it’s almost left to us during the few shots that follow to figure it out. By which time you’re almost too caught up in the flow of the excitement that follows this to go back in your mind and realize…”oh, that’s why we saw the seagulls”.
And not until three minutes of screen time after that until we are informed that it is Baclanova’s character who shot the man.
It’s possible that, watching this film, you might wonder about the visual near-non-sequitur of a shot of a window with seagulls in it. Well, their reaction of flying away is in reaction to the loud gunshot. We’re asked by the filmmakers to infer just from the tension in the room that the reason the birds suddenly fly away that a gun’s been fired.
I’ve often wondered about this sequence and how it might have been understood by 1928 audiences. Did someone in the orchestra pit hit a rim-shot? Did a pianist smack a cluster of keys? Or, more probably, was the accompaniment just continuing along with the agitato indicated in the cue sheet?
Since scoring was done in the theaters by the local musicians, either making their own choices or following the issued cue-sheet, it was probably a range of these options.
When I’ve played for the film I’ve leaned toward something in the middle, building tension toward a panic chord — but not a sound effect key-slam — that coincides with the birds taking off. In case a contemporary audience might not have been able to synthesize all this. Sometimes you’re supporting the audience, as well as the film.
But both of these sequences point to the poetry of Silent Film and its reliance on the viewers’ imagination and right-brain experience to tell a story moment.