Silent Filmmaking Then and Now

Is Silent Movie “Cosplay” Necessary?

I don’t spend a lot of time watching silent films made recently or any time after sound came in. Maybe I should. In pondering the idea of making one myself, I’ve often wondered how important it is that the film look like it was made during the “silent era”.

Silent movies look like the 1920s or 1910s because that’s when they were made. At the time, the clothes and cars and makeup etc etc were contemporary to the time. Because that’s when it was, when they were making the movies. But is replicating the culture of the era part of the language of silent cinema?

When watching a 1920s film, we are aware of the fact that we are watching something that was made in the 1920s. When watching a 1920s-looking film made in the last few years, we’re also aware of when that film was made, that it is a new film trying its darnedest to look like a much, much older one. There’s something about our expectation of reality that gets skewed in the latter case, I think. An aesthetic element that we need to unwittingly forget about while watching the new silent film. Maybe most people don’t notice it or are aware of it.

My own thinking is that the culture of the 1912-1929 era is of its time and that a silent film would work best set in the time in which it’s made. It’s certainly what works about the vintage silents. This includes story tropes as well.

Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, filmed in color and real-time speed. although the story’s setting and even the title card style is of the era in which it was made. Technically, I’d say it’s a pantomime film. IMHO, Marty Feldman should have been cast in Mel’s part.

There have been attempts at this over the years, with varying results —results whose success or not are linked to the filmmakers’ understanding of the basics of the language of silent film. Everyone has their own idea of what that is, but I’d say the core elements are: the silence, filming in B&W, a certain amount of speed-up that is compensated by the performances…and perhaps also setting the film culturally and in storytelling tropes of the time in which it’s been made.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but those aspects are subjects for other future posts.

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Kerr Lockhart

Both BIANCANIEVES and THE ARTIST spefically invoke the silent era, the latter quite literally. And then there are completely modern films which have little or no dialogue. ALL IS LOST comes to mind, a color synch sound film which has no old-timey tropes at all, but partakes of the silent aesthetic. Also, prestige horror films like UNDER THE SKIN and A QUIET PLACE.