An Evolving Discussion on Silent Cinema

[a discussion that began quite a few years ago on the NG google group and then continued down the years]

“I agree with the proposition that the grammar of cinema must be learnt from silent films. One could be a bit more provocative and suggest that silent cinema might even afford the medium ‘truer’ opportunities as an art form. In any case the great auteurs were all well-schooled in this tradition and all seem to have profited from it.”

“I think a few points could be made here:

To the extent that cilent cinema does not rely on the crutch of sound
(remember that films at the time often played with different
soundtracks in different theaters; at times a specific soundtrack would
be used but with no guarantee that everyone would use it. Also films
were at times even screened without sound, even today it is not unusual to find a video of a silent movie without any sound at all. But no matter what kind of sound is used later the director is not quite able to use this medium in a useful way when the film is actually being
made) the director has to rely more purely on the image doing all the
work. I mentioned music but of course there is no dialogue. The
inter-titles serve a very different function, supplying a very bare bones
narrative but by virtue of this fact ‘interpreting’ the film at the
same time. One could argue that a soundtrack also does this but I think that here the added nature of sound stands out less unless you have a director drawing attention to this element (this is rare even among great directors). So if cinema is primarily a ‘poetry of the image’ it could be argued that sound and dialogue and even narrative (in the novelistic sense of the term) serve to hamstring the medium. Not that this is illegitimate by any means. But you run the risk (which I think is most of motion picture history) of thinking like a writer or at the very least translating the written word into an image. While the last might not be humanly possible to entirely avoid there might be a
vigilance exerted by the director if the silent cinema is always kept
as a model in mind. The test case of such an idea is of course almost
tautologically the very existence of silent cinema. For cinema to work
at all in this way suggests that sound is in a sense superfluous to the
potential success of the medium. To put it another way for cinema to
realise its ‘effects’ sound is not necessarily needed. I think that the
directors who have been most successful in this sense when working with sound are those who have not taken the aural medium for granted. Nor for that matter (and this would form an analogous argument) the technology of color. The argument could be made about both sound and color that these elements serve to naturalize the medium for us to a degree where the cinema is supposed to be a simply reflection of reality and one that when then joined to the standard Hollywood codes of image-making (stable, unproblematic visual dynamics, matching shots and so forth — textbook film-making if you will) serve to drown out its ‘essential’ nature.

Watching silent films more and more I have certainly learnt to appreciate the possibilities of the medium to the extent that one wants to think in terms of images as such. I do not at all mean that sound ought not to be present, or that there should not be films in color. I just think that the temptation to simply illustrate scripts becomes too great with both these resources. It is actually interesting to speculate how the cinema would/could have developed if the advances in sound had been delayed a number of years.I personally though tend to rate directors more highly when they are more sensitive to the constructed nature of the film in question in every sense and moreover when they are even more alert to the purely visual possibilities of the medium.”

“As a very good and very radical example of all of the above I would
suggest (if you have not already seen it) Last year in Marienbad (Alain
Resnais). Talking about the script of this the famed novelist (he also
wrote the script) Alain Robbe-Grillet commented on something
interesting that is perhaps tangentially connected to what I am saying
in some ways. He said that the flashback as it was used in much of
cinema was very problematic. This is because according to him all
cinema happens in the “present”. The filmmaker does not have at his
disposal a grammar of the camera that would be past to present as there are verbal forms available in the written language. So you entered from present to past, using a dissolve or what have you and then again those images from the ‘past’ are as real as the ones we have just ‘exited’ because both are equally of the ‘present’. I have paraphrased much of his response but the question of course is: how does a filmmaker deal with this problem? Robbe-Grillet also uses the example of courtroom testimonies where all accounts are presently in exactly the same ‘filmic’ ways. I would add that an interesting way of dealing with this occurred in Rashomon where Kurosawa uses the ‘filmic’ images in exactly the same way in each segment but destabilizes it entirely towards the end by making the film’s ‘meta-narrator’ unreliable. Also the testimonies are presented in somewhat Kafkaesque fashion before interlocutors (the ‘law’) who cannot be seen.”


I read Satyam’s comment as going to the notion that cinema used to be a medium of gesture; silent cinema highlights this by means of
gestures that might even seem exaggerated to us in the present (though in my view to read them as exaggerated is to miss the point; they are not exaggerated or outlandish so much as they are cinematic). To put it another way, because silent cinema relied on an inherently unrealistic constraint (the absence of speech), it invented a gestural language, that was not the language of theater or books. Over time, taking Hollywood as an example, the introduction of speech has meant that the centrality of gesture has been lost, as films have become ever more normalized and assimilated to the pattern of art forms like novels (more accurately, 19th century novels with linear narratives). There are exceptions even in Hollywood, such as the films of Sergio Leone and (today) Quentin Tarantino, where there is no attempt at naturalism when it comes to speech patterns. In other words, whereas the conceit of a film like “The Insider” is that people talk and act as they would in real life (or that they talk and act as ordinary people would if placed in extraordinary situations), the conceit of a “Once Upon a Time in the West” is quite different: the film’s protagonists quite deliberately speak in a manner that is out of the ordinary. The film never lets the viewer lose sight of the artifice
that is part and parcel of cinema. Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” is in that
vein (contrast it with the sort of hyper-realistic conceit of films
like “Dances With Wolves”; I don’t mean to suggest the latter IS
realistic so much as that it presents its world as world that might be
real, and the result is that the viewer is not expected to find the
transition to the world of the movie surprising or unexpected in any
way). I would argue that traditionally “Bollywood” movies also used
to be in that vein: with the focus on actors and actresses,
dialogues, body language, etc., one was never permitted to lose sight
of the deliberate artifice involved. Contemporary Hindi films (even
really good ones like “Lagaan”) have increasingly lost this sense of
the cinematic (indeed in India it has also been accompanied by a loss
of the mythological-in-cinema), in favor of a more Hollywoodized, more
“realistic” style. I repeat, it is not that the these films ARE more
realistic, rather they are more naturalized, and their conceit is that
this is how “normal” people would act/speak/think if they were in the
situations depicted, however idealized those situations might be. The
best of the latter breed is of course Mani Ratnam, with a focus on
incorporating naturalistic dialogue and speech patterns in his movies.
Whereas with a “Ghulami,” when (the boy who will become Dharmendra) says to the Thakur “Dekh rahan hoon Jagat ki maa ke pairon par phool hain, aur meri maa ke sar par jooti” JP Dutta is operating in the context of a tradition where there is absolutely no expectation that on-screen actors sound like idealized versions of ourselves. One could go on and on with examples (Rajni’s cigarette-antics in Tamil cinema come to mind, the elaborate song and dance

sequences; the latter are perhaps contemporary Bollywood’s last surviving nod to the old ways). In a nutshell, silent cinema, and Hindi cinema until about the 1980s, relied upon a language that was cinematic above all (in this it was akin to the opera, which also makes no concessions to the “realistic”); by contrast the conceit of much contemporary cinema (though hardly all) is that it is “real” and “believable,” even if the story isn’t. To make the cinematic worlds plausible, contemporary cinema has incorporated modes of narrative from journalism, naturalistic novels, etc. (it cuts both ways of course: TV journalism and comic books have for their part adopted much from cinema too), in a sense LOSING the difference that cinema used to be.

The above, with its focus on the gestural, merits an important
qualification: a focus on the gesture implies a focus on the actor,
which is fair as far as American silent cinema, contemporary
Hollywood, or Indian popular cinema is concerned. But I don’t mean to
suggest that the gestural is the only “purely cinematic” language.
The great directors of the last few decades have showed us other
avenues: think of Fellini’s films like “Roma” or “Satyricon,” where
the structure of the narrative, the physical setting, the frankly
non-naturalistic nature of various scenes, are hallmarks of a cinema
that never wishes to conceal the fact of artifice from the audience.
Films like “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” or “The Matrix” also fall
in this category. What is that category? Simply: films that draw
viewers into their world, which is not our world, and is often not
even structured like our world (which is not to say that it has no
bearing on or connection to our world), and is a world where that
which would otherwise seem outlandish is in fact appropriate (the song and dance sequence is a perfect example).

Unfortunately, these days in India there is much embarrassment and
impatience with traditional Hindi cinema, and quite frankly much
misunderstanding. The result is that deviation from the realistic is
deemed to be inferiority (indeed when most people speak of the “New
Bollywood” what they simply mean is that the products of this
Bollywood are comparable to, in the sense that they occur in the same
world as, the films made by Hollywood). In America, over the last
couple of decades there has been increasing appreciation for the fact
that the B-movie preserved the gestural, the sense of being “over the
top” far longer than the A-movies did. Tarantino gets this, but is
enough of a child of his era to realize that the only way to persist
with the B-movie routine is by incorporating a tongue-in-cheek
allusiveness (”hey it’s hokey, but WE KNOW that it’s hokey”), a
knowingness that strives to be at the edge of hip. It is not an
achievement to sneer at, but one should be clear that the result is
also emphatically neither A- nor B-movie, but something else entirely.
Perhaps the likes of Tarantino have given up on the mode a little too
soon– the popularity of Hong Kong cinema (which takes itself very
seriously) is a case in point. Indeed this is also the irony of desis
who strive desperately to make “crossover” films like Bride &
prejudice or Bollywood/Hollywood: embarrassed by the world of
traditional Bollywood yet also informed by that world, these directors
try and innoculate themselves against the charge of unsophistication
by adding a spoofish tone, a nod and wink that seeks to welcome the
audience into a joke. Hardly surprising that such crossover films
mostly fail, since they have lost precisely that magical sense– of a
difference that is confidently itself and needs to make no
concessions– that potentially draws “foreigners” to Bollywood in the
first place.


“Outstanding set of thoughts here. I would just add that it would also
be fruitful to trace this appearance and later eclipse of the
‘gestural’ in Western cinema with a sociological study that could
parallel this with the disappearance of the gestural in Western society
itself. And these movements could be traced in different art form but
choosing one I am more comfortable with the novel. Proust for example is from a certain perspective the encyclopaedist of the receding (perhaps demise) of the gestural. Then again the other question that must be asked is: what really happens to the gestural? Is this a symptom of late capitalism in some way? A profound response would be needed that is beyond my abilities.

An interesting addition to some of the things discussed here. I was
recently watching Murnau’s Sunrise (justifiably called one of the
greatest silent films) on DVD and on the commentary track it is pointed
out that by the mid to late 20s inter-titles had just about disappeared
in German silent cinema. Murnau himself made the Last laugh (the film
he made right before going to Hollywood for Sunrise) without
inter-titles. In Sunrise (presumably under studio pressure) he used some inter-titles but again (and all of this is pointed out by the
commentator) these just about disappear in the second half of the film. The point here is that silent cinema was at least in the work of some influential filmmakers moving away even from inter-titles, therefore in my book toward a more purely visual language. But then of course sound arrived on the scene and that particular trajectory (even if you don’t believe this would have become the norm) was cut off forever.”

“The one point I would add to this ‘today’ is that from the perspective of an audience that’s grown up with ‘talkies’ (all of us!) silent cinema always marks a ‘lack’ and as such it takes a great deal of getting used to. Even we are in some limited sense comfortable with it we can never quite get ‘naturalized’ to it. In other words it’s hard to watch a silent the way one watches a ‘talkie’.

There’s a related point here. A lot of times one ends up watching these silents without any sort of soundtrack; in these instances one is only ‘looking’ at the images; in such cases the ’silence’ can often seem deafening.

Of course silents were used played with the accompaniment of a live performance. Nonetheless this always leave open the possibility of no sound. Also the silent work is in a sense more ‘open’ because one can watch it different times with different soundtracks, thereby altering the viewing experience.

Finally I also find it interesting that when a supposed ‘talkie’ operates on ’silent’ principles, the psychological effect is not the same. In other words I can think of movies where barely anything is ’spoken’ through the movie and yet we react to such films quite ‘naturally’ because the possibility of ’speech’ is always present as opposed to a silent where the possibility of speech is ‘foreclosed’.

One might risk saying therefore that a silent is about the absence of speech and not the absence of a soundtrack as such. This is why we react differently when we feel speech might occur (however sparsely) as opposed to when we think speech cannot occur.”

“The one problem that I have with ‘rating’ silent films even if I myself consider some very great is that we can only ever relate to these films as either ‘archaeological digs’ or as another art form complementary to ‘cinema’. We cannot receive these films the way contemporary audiences did. And this makes a very big difference. It is not useful to establish a continuum between silent and sound cinema even if the technology suggests such a linear graph. Much as writing on tablets is not at all the same as writing ‘books’. of course the difference here is that even the tablets are accessible to us only in book form with the relevant scholarly apparatus and so on.

But getting back to silent cinema I think that in many ways this was cinema at its most revolutionary in terms of playing out its possibilities. With the advent of sound cinema has been for the most part ‘filmed literature’. Hence also inadequate for the same reasons. There is something about the theater that can never be ‘reduced’ to the act of reading a play (barring Shakespeare and a few others where it can be both). Plays are ‘written’ primarily to be performed. But with the cinema scripts have rarely been entirely free of the ‘novelistic’, specially given the commercial aspect of things. Even the simplest story in silent cinema often exhibits a certain purity in terms of the potential of the medium being played out that a ’sound’ movie only intermittently does.

To repeat my earlier point somewhat differently silent cinema offers the museum experience but this is as it should be from our vantage point. The lack of ‘original access’ to this art form is an enabling factor because it contains its history. To engage with silent cinema is to always also engage with its history and perhaps also the history of the art form. But with sound cinema has been busy being more ‘mimetic’ and the mimetic ambition in cinema is far more problematic in some respects than in the other arts whether literature or painting. Plato considered Homer objectionable on such grounds. Few have been able to go along with his rationale (though it is not easy to unpack). Homer is already a little ‘cinematic’! Perhaps the ‘mimetic’ that Plato objects to is really another name for the ‘cinematic’.

But one must be careful to separate the historically significant archive from ‘art’. The boundary lines are sometimes difficult to establish of course. I think there are many films (much as in other art forms) that are ‘overrated’ because of the importance of the historical archive. La Ciotat for example is a film where the ‘art’ is considered to be its very ‘possibility’. Not illegitimate but problematic. Would we consider the first person who wrote in verse to be a great poet? I doubt it. The cave paintings in Lascaux (France) are part of most art history books as evidence of the ‘urge to paint’ but people don’t necessarily consider them ‘great art’ otherwise. Not least because we don’t have other such etchings from the period to compare these with.

Leaving this aside there are artists who are masters of their time and also considered as such otherwise. But this does not mean that they cannot be compared with others. Raphael would be considered greater than Giotto in most contexts. Homer would be consider greater than Pope in most as well. Because there is something about art that transcends specific contexts even if no art work can survive unscathed from the loss of its world and therefore contexts.

Getting back to silent cinema I would argue two seemingly paradoxical positions. Silent cinema lays out purer possibilities for the cinema. The ‘average’ silent film in this sense often seems more interesting than the average sound film. But I would also say that this does not necessarily make silent films greater works of art than the best sound films. The historical archive is important but it cannot substitute for art even as I said before that the margins are sometimes blurred.

All these questions are very tangled. There is very little room for certitudes in matters of art.

[To clarify an earlier point, I did not intend to suggest that Bresson was trying to ‘return’ to silent cinema just that his cinema displayed a certain kind of purity that in some ways brought him closer to silent cinema than most other directors. But I would add that the relation of sight to sound in his cinema often reminds me of silent films.]”

7 Responses to “An Evolving Discussion on Silent Cinema”

  1. iffrononfire Says:

    fantastic piece thanks for posting this up


  2. Satyam: re-visiting this discussion it is difficult to tell where one person’s comments end and where another’s begin. Perhaps you could add some labeling?


  3. Yes. This is a magnificent piece nevertheless, but I had some trouble tracking the discussion.


  4. Qalandar: Everything that is in quotes here is mine. I have indicated in bold where your comments begin (with your name) and these aren’t in quotes. I did however sometimes close quotes and introduce new ones where the comments were mine in succession but not necessarily part of the same flow of thoughts.


  5. I’ve added my name as well now to make it clearer.. essentially I’ve said everything here (so much for the discussion!) except for that one long comment by Qalandar.


  6. This is one of the most fascinating and persuasive discussions ever conducted at this site. Bravo Satyam and Qalandar!!!!


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