Silent Film Is Something That Happens

There are three key elements that make up what Silent Film truly is. It’s the overlapping presence of these live factors, at a show, that make the full experience. It’s the reason I refer to Silent Film as a medium and not a genre. It’s a medium that’s a close relation to sound film, but it’s what happens in the theater that makes it what it is.

I’ve heard or seen this described as a triangular or three-way blending, which works. I took a clown workshop several years ago, and learned some great basics of what Clown really is. I’ve done improv, sketch and stand-up — a long time ago — and have been learning about how physical comedy is and was created by connecting, creating and playing with people I’ve gotten to know in the NYC clown and circus community.

One of the key elements of Clown is that it is something that happens with the audience. Literally, with the audience. A key part of clown performance involves checking in with the people in the theater, connecting with them, reacting and sharing with them interpersonally. What was explained to those of us who took the multi-day workshop was that if you imagine two overlapping circles — one for the performer or clown, and one for the audience — where those two circles overlap is where Clown happens. I may be paraphrasing or misremembering some of this, but I’ve had several opportunities at my own shows where little glimmers of this have happened.

My awareness of this triangular process during hundreds of silent film shows has led me to understand that there is a similar “happening” that is what Silent Film is, where it happens.

Silent Film Experience Venn Diagram by Ben Model
While never planned deliberately, this is what happened in cinemas, and what is what works about silent film.

What I teach in my course on silent cinema at Wesleyan is the progression in the development of visual storytelling during the silent era from 1911-1929. As the years went by, and filmmakers developed their craft, more and more was left to the audience to synthesize in their imaginations from what they were seeing. This is the overlap between the audience and the film.

As a film accompanist I’m watching the film but am also sensing out of the corner of my brain what the vibe in the room is, and adjusting or helping the audience decode the film. It’s one of the upsides to creating a score live during a show, but I think unconscious (subliminal?) interaction between the audience and the live, performance element of the musical score is still a factor, even when the music is written out and scored for and performed by an ensemble.

There is just something about knowing there are musicians in the room with you, making the music happen during the show, that helps send your brain into that dream-state. It’s almost trance-like, with Silent Film.

It’s the group experience of the “happening” of the overlap between and among the film onscreen, the live-performed or live-created music, and the audience assembling the film and music in their right-brain that is truly what Silent Film is. This is why making shows with live music happen, attending them and bringing people to them is so important.

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Donald Sosin

This is a really excellent and profound analysis, Ben, thanks so much!