Peter Hoskin says that thanks to the DVD and advances in film restoration there has never been a better time for movie fans
Whatever happened to silent cinema? Oh, yes, that’s right, it was supplanted by the talkies in the late Twenties and early Thirties, until it suddenly came back to life in time for the Academy Awards next week. Never since the first Oscars were handed over in 1929 has a silent film looked more likely to win the Best Picture statuette. And even if The Artist doesn’t achieve what every bookie expects it to, then there’s always Martin Scorsese’s Hugo; not itself a silent film but — perhaps a first for a 3D kids’ film — it does revolve around the work of the early cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès. No wonder people are already talking about a ‘silent film revival’, and brushing up on their Méliès and their Chaplins, their Keatons and their Murnaus.
But the truth about this revival is that it has been going on in the background for years. I was lying when I used the word ‘suddenly’; ‘gradually’ is more like it. Silent cinema has been making ground for at least the past decade. This isn’t in terms of the movies being produced by Hollywood, of course, but in the range of silent films available to view. It hasn’t been this easy to see a silent film since silent films were all there was to see.
The American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has a neat phrase for it: ‘Goodbye cinema, hello cinephilia’. It is hard to be optimistic for traditional film culture, he suggests, but there has never been a better time to be a film-lover. And much of it is down to an unassuming silvery disc, about 12 centimetres in diameter: the DVD. The technology of home cinema may be one of the dullest topics in town, but it really matters for film fans. Thanks to the DVD, and its high-definition successor Blu Ray, the number of old films on the market has proliferated. DVDs are cheaper to mass produce than the old VHS tapes, hold more content and — crucially — take up less space in shops and warehouses. What was once hundreds can now be thousands.
And so DVD labels such as Britain’s own Masters of Cinema have arisen to feed our junkie-like cravings for film. Its catalogue alone feels like a guide to silent cinema: F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent (1928), the short films that Buster Keaton slapped his stick across between 1917 and 1923, and plenty more. But that is far from the sum total of what’s out there in this Age of Availability. If you point your mouse and keyboard in the direction of foreign retailers, the results can be tremendous. A box set containing three silent films by Josef von Sternberg, released by America’s Criterion Collection, is one of the best digital transactions I’ve ever made. That’s how it is for us film-dependents.
Other technological developments have helped, too, particularly in film restoration and upkeep. The past few years have given us several crystalline examples of what can now be achieved, particularly with the theatrical rereleases of Metropolis (1927) and The Great White Silence (1924). This latter — Herbert Ponting’s documentary account of that final, fatal Scott expedition — contained more beautiful imagery than most other films in cinemas last year: cliffs and pinnacles of ice, oblivious to the men wrapped up in furs before them. The crowd I saw it with was mesmerised. And, what’s more, most of them were young. These films are not being restored for the nostalgia circuit, not least because there are now so few people who might feel nostalgic about them.
But why, then? Filmgoers won’t just watch silent films because they are available on DVD or restored into cinemas — it has to be something more than that. One factor may be that the word is more easily spread nowadays, thanks to websites such as Silent London (http://silentlondon.co.uk) and Shadowplay (dcairns.wordpress.com) that focus wholly or heavily on silent cinema. Another may be simple fashion. Perhaps the same unfathomable impulses that are currently creating bars called ‘speakeasies’, and putting first world war-era dramas on our television screens, are drawing us back to the pre-talkie dawn…
The main reason, however, has to be silent cinema itself. It’s not that the silents are necessarily ‘better’ than the talkies — there are, of course, many horrible silent films, even among the relatively few that survive. But they are certainly different, and in ways that go beyond the obviously contrasting acting styles, camerawork and, well, use of sound. For me, the allure often lies in these less obvious differences.
Among these is the primordial innocence of many silent films. They are all — good or bad — from a time when cinema was still finding its feet. Imagine if we could watch the very first performances of the very first operas or ballets — that is the joy of the silents. We are watching an artform as it began, and before many of its ideas and methods were settled. There is no ‘Oscars movie’, there is no B-movie. There is no crowd scene too big, nor emotion too small to be wrung for all its dramatic worth. And this throws up some delicious oddities, such as Louis Feuillade’s ten-part exercise in high pulp Les Vampires (1915), which was cherished by the Surrealists. Or the quite disturbing Leaves from Satan’s Book (1921).
It is strange to think that these films came only a decade or two before ones that would star James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart or Bette Davies, and which still feel resolutely modern. From The Birth of a Nation (1915) to Casablanca (1942) in only 27 years: you can trace the lineage, but you wouldn’t be surprised if it stretched across a century. Silent films have not ossified, but they are from a different age. And, like any cultural artefact, they need preserving.
This current, ongoing revival is glorious but, because of the financial pressures on cinemas, DVD publishers and consumers, it is also precarious. Here’s hoping that, once the Oscars shimmer out of memory, we don’t need to change Mr Rosenbaum’s words. ‘Goodbye cinema; please, please stay cinephilia.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 18, 2012