Saturday, 9 October 2010

On Great Silence

My world is a noisy one; I work with large groups of children who are at the peak of their powers in this respect, and when I come home it it is to a small boy with little appetite for restfulness and vocal chords similar in strength to the famously loud ones his father possesses. The streets of Jakarta are always awash with racket, and it really is a city that never sleeps. Something that I feel will be a contributing factor to an early grave for me are the two-stroke engined bajaj and the occasional races they have under my apartment window at 2 a.m. Going to the cinema is an experience often marred by people taken by the need to joke and giggle throughout a feature, loudly. Ironically, I recently sat through a sparsely inhabited screening of The Ghost (Roman Polanski), during which a couple of middle-aged ladies talked incessantly, but their banter took the form of a running commentary of on-screen events, so they couldn't be accused of not paying attention. Ewan MacGregor's unsheathed derriere drew particular interest. And then there has been occasion when I've been party to what I felt was very encouraging noise during a trip to a cinema, in the form of gasps of admiration when I sat amongst a full house on a Saturday night for a showing of Spike Lee's Inside Man, its dazzling sleights of hand having the power to impress the audience to the point where they became lost in themselves en masse.

When the cinema was still in its infancy, in an age before netbooks, ipods and smartphones, how did people behave? Like the bicycle and the radio, is it possible that silent film is actually more suitable to the modern pundit than its successors? Would someone's annoying ringtone be less irksome if it weren't interfering with some choice dialogue by David Mamet? Given that ringtones have the ability to arouse one's inner vandal whatever the setting, it seems unlikely. I only get to see silent films at festivals and art-house screenings where audiences tend to behave with greater composure than your typical crowd. It would seem that until it is realized by financiers and audiences alike that the medium would only be further enriched by implementing all of its possibilites, we will only get an extremely limited idea of how interestingly devices such as black & white and narratives sans spoken dialogue might be applied by today's filmmakers, and film will continue to be the art-form most glaringly ignorant of its past.

Silent films represent my greatest gap in knowledge of the movies, although I've watched a few, and most of them have been memorable experiences. Some films that stand out as must-see items: The Crowd (King Vidor), The Last Laugh (F.W. Murnau), The General (Buster Keaton), Metropolis (Fritz Lang), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene), City Lights (Charlie Chaplin), The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer) and Pandora's Box (G.W. Pabst)

I once struggled through D.W. Griffith's controversial, but much lauded, silent epic The Birth of a Nation, and felt nonchalant about whatever innovative worth it bears, its repugnant racism being the only thing capable of holding my attention. Even if you're that interested in the craft of cinema, the film could be left very low down on the list of priority. While I've heard it mentioned as a counterpart technical watershed to Citizen Kane and Star Wars, both of those films are infinitely more enjoyable; perhaps consequently making their innovations similarly easier to appreciate.

Apart from Chaplin and Dreyer, the names on the above list of silent classics are all German and American, and even Chaplin, long before he was unjustly flung out of the country, worked from within the Hollywood studio system. It would seem true that at the birth of cinema, these two nations were leaders and while Germany's UFA studios floundered after the silent era (for obvious reasons), the Hollywood juggernaut continued to capture the imaginations of people around the world for long afterward despite the difficulties of language the 'talkies' presented. Somewhere during the 80s Hollywood finally lost its way, unable to maintain the fine balance of enduring quality versus instant success at the box office. Its big budget films have got worse and worse to the point where we now appear to live in a much more democratized landscape of cinema, where small films made on small budgets from big and small countries compete against one another on the same playing field.

Louise Brooks

But back to those silent classics, and it is a German-American collaboration that to my mind is a strong contender for best silent of them all. Pandora's Box with its German director and iconic American star Louise Brooks. Many of the hallmarks of German silent expressionism are well utilized by Pabst and his status as a director would have been solidified had he made this film alone, but it must be said that the film belongs to Brooks. I am uncertain that any star, male or female, has ever had the same amount of diabolical magnetism as Louise Brooks. Every frame that she is in (most of them) is set on fire by her mysterious seductive charm. There is something about her sculpted face with its lush lips and penetrating gaze that put her in a category of greatness of which she is the only member. Some find it difficult to keep track of a silent film's narrative, and it is true that, as with books, when you are not receiving a full frontal assault to the senses, a little more patience is required. However, in the case of Pandora's Box, the story is clear enough, and its plays on morality are enough to raise the eyebrow of a modern viewer, as Lulu, the 'Pandora' of the story, essentially uses her sexuality to make her way through life, to the detriment of the men whom she encounters. This tale of a woman possessed of such spellbinding powers is wholly convincing, given that we, as viewers,  are completely taken in by the silent imagery of Louise Brooks who is captivating at every turn.

The spectacle of cinema in 2010 is bigger and better special effects, which when they first began arriving on the scene were a sight to behold. But now that precedent has been set, computer generated imagery is usually perfunctory. I have no desire to watch any more 3D films having sat through a handful of blurry ones, and suffering from very bad headaches due to at least a couple of them. 

But these vivid documents from the past, with the knowledge that what we are seeing was filmed nearly a century ago, actors and directors who manage to conjure mystique in ways that are often inexplicable - I am always surprised by the fact that the most surprising films I watch are the ones that were made long before I was born.

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