Archive for the ‘Silent film’ Category

Silent Film – Implications for contemporary film practice


Silent film, or mute film, as Chion prefers to call it, since the only element missing was dialogue – silent film is still relevant today.

First, long before film technology was invented and technically realised, certain inventors (Muybridge, Nadar et al.) had a dream: to capture movement, colour and sound, as we perceive them every day.

The French film critic and theorist André Bazin quotes Nadar in his essay The Myth of the Total Cinema:

“My dream is to see the photograph register the bodily movements and the facial expressions of a speaker while the phonograph is recording his speech” (February, 1887). (Bazin 1971, Vol 1: p.20)

Bazin continues:

If the origins of an art reveal something of its nature, then one may legitimately consider the silent and the sound film as stages of a technical development that little by little made a reality out of theoriginal myth.” It is understandable from this point of view that it would be absurd to take the silent film as a state of primal perfection which has gradually been forsaken by the realism of sound and color. The primacy of the image is both historically and technically accidental. The nostalgia that some still feel for the silent screen does not go far enough back into the childhood of the seventh art.The real primitives of the cinema, existing only in the imaginations of a few men of the nineteenth century, are in complete imitation of nature. Every new development added to the cinema must, paradoxically, take it nearer and nearer to its origins. In short, cinema has not yet been invented! (Bazin, Andre, and Hugh Gray. What Is Cinema? Vol. 1 + 2. Berkeley ; London: University of California Press, 1971. (Vol. 1; p. 21)

The gradual technical realisation of this dream meant, that the inventions of moving image and sound reproduction technologies happened at different historical stages. Interestingly this separation is still maintained today in professional film production: sound and image are recorded and processed separately.

Which practices of silent film are still in use today?

  • Silent film has defined how music was used with moving images. Even today composers, e.g. John Williams pursue such an aesthetic in their music.
  • The viewer can easily imagine implied sound which are evoked by images, gestures, music or intertitles. Not everything we see in the images has to be duplicated by sound.
  • Intertitles are an elegant way of indicating a change of scenery or promoting the narrative. By contrast, a voice over explaining e.g. in a documentary what is going on is extraneous to the location soundtrack.

The vococentrism of many films has been criticised since the commercial introduction of sound film around 1927. René Clair despised the talkies as photographed theatre. “It (the talkie) has conquered the world of voices, but it has lost the world of dreams.” (in: Weis & Belton, 1985: 95).

So how did later film makers respond to such criticism through their films?

Two examples come to my mind: Play Time (1967) by Jacques Tati; and Belleville Rendezvous (2003) by Sylvain Chomet.

Both films don’t use dialogue. If one hears voices, as in Play Time, they are just sounds like any other and don’t carry much semantic meaning.

The two films follow opposing strategies in their sound usage. Play Time has realistic images, which through their careful selection and mise-en-scène feel hyper-real: they depict a glittering, shiny and steril modern world. The sounds, on the other hand, are completely reconstructed in the studio. The atmospheres and environmental sounds are highly reduced in their realistic detail. Tati focusses instead on carefully selected sound events, which augment certain realities which are normally overheard. This has a comical effect.

In Belleville Rendezvous Sylvain Chomet has used animation of drawn images. The image track is rich, but reduced compared to photo-realistic images. This visual reduction is compensated by a hyper-real soundtrack with beautifully recorded environmental sound, synchronised and mixed to the image track in a highly flexible and dynamic way. It is a mute film, i.e there are no dialogues.

The transition from silent to sound film has been successfully dramatised in films, e.g. in the classic comedy Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor) and more recently in the Oscar winning film The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius).