by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
September 1, 2003
AT CINECON 2003, A WINDOW ON THE PAST
HOLLYWOOD, Calif -- The early history of motion pictures may help us understand the modern mass media, as I learned in Hollywood over Labor Day weekend, when several hundred film scholars, historians and enthusiasts were gathered at the historic Egyptian Theater here for 39th annual Cinecon film festival. Run by the Society of Cinephiles, Cinecon attracts people from all over the United States and Europe who gather to watch films, compare notes on film history and illuminate its future in the light of the past.
The television and movies that we experience today are the result of an evolution in form and technique that began more than a century ago. The silent film era (roughly 1895-1928 in Western countries, a little longer in Japan) is now largely forgotten, but it was a period of remarkable inventiveness, robust experimentation, and artistic genius.
One example from films screened this weekend at Cinecon illustrate the era. The most impressive was a film made in 1924 called The Turmoil, directed by Hobart Henley for Universal studios. Based on a Booth Tarkington novel and recently restored by the UCLA Film Archive, this is a remarkably good film I had never heard of and has not screened for the public in the past 79 years.
The point bears repeating. Much of what was popular at the time is long since forgotten by most of us, and some is worth saving and viewing. It is a legitimate part of our cultural history.
This particular picture demonstrates the mature form of the silent film in which well groomed and costumed actors and actresses move around impressive looking sets under expert lighting. The mid to late 1920s was the culmination of three decades of development of production values including sets, costumes, lighting, and the ability to move the camera around. Prior to 1919, cameras were fairly immobile so films shot earlier lack the fluidity of camera movement that we have taken for granted ever since.
This is a subtle but important point: The ability of modern movies and television to be persuasive depends on a lot of techniques which cause the image to look believable to us. In reality, it is a complex and artificial system which we think of as "looking real," but that "realistic" look is something we have abstracted out of the movie style. Normal people in normal clothing and lacking makeup who appear on television seem drab to modern viewers. They look drab because we have come to expect the look that comes from using makeup and expensive clothes. Reality and media reality are two different things.
Like many other films of the mid-1920's, The Turmoil involves themes of social consciousness: Sheridan, the family patriarch and wealthy self made industrialist is rebuked early in the film for allowing his factory's chimneys to pollute the area. Sheridan is proud of what he has accomplished as a businessman. He walks to a window, notices the dirt on the window sill, and remarks to himself, "Soot. Good clean soot - God bless it." There is a long tortured love affair between his bookish youngest son and the socially desirable but secretly impoverished girl next door. The love affair is of course completely chaste in keeping with the social norms of the time (at least in the movies anyway). The father is dictatorial and demanding, and this is accepted as his due.
The Turmoil shows social attitudes that by and large do not exist today. We do not accept the idea that parents have unlimited, unchallenged authority over their children. We do not demand that adult women remain eternally chaste in order to be worthy of our respect. The film manages to maintain a certain ambivalence about the capitalist system that would likely be deemed anachronistic in the post-Keynesian era. What we need to understand is that the film is not a satire (it would be today). Rather, it represents attitudes that were accepted then, even if they seem strange to us.
Sam Gill, Archivist Emeritus of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, suggested why we should be interested in old film. It's simple: "I don't know how you can really understand things unless you know your history." A reverence for the past is reason enough for studying film history, he says.
Gill went on to raise a different issue: Our heritage of old film is a window on the past. He points out that it is like a time capsule that allows us to see people and the way they lived "exactly as it was at that time." Film scholarship, he points out, has been expanding into nonfictional material such as newsreels and educational films, and even into collecting and preserving old home movies as historically interesting.
Gill also points out that we are lucky to be the first generation that has photographic evidence of life a century ago, as well as phonograph recordings of speeches and songs of the past century.
Other films presented at Cinecon go even further back than The Turmoil to illustrate Gill's points, including some short comedies and filmn fragments from between about 1904 and about 1918. It is a curious experience to look at a world which still uses horses and buggies alongside cars, lacks our plastic conveniences, is entirely lacking in the antibiotics we take so much for granted and where death in childbirth is a commonplace.
From the artistic standpoint, these earlier films (such as the Keystone comedies) show people in dirty and dusty clothes and without elaborate makeup, acting on crude sets or out in the street. Apparently the idea that media reality requires perfectly made up hair, clothing, and furnishings is something that developed only slowly. We might contrast the audience expectations of those days with the present: Anyone seen in dusty clothes and without makeup on present day television has two strikes against him, whereas it was considered within the norm in a film of the year 1915.
By attending a silent film presentation, we can revisit a remarkable era. Just by turning out the lights, we can take a trip to 1901 or 1924.
That era was the period in which the visual language of film was invented. Without having the ability to use spoken dialog on a sound track, film pioneers such as David Wark Griffith, Serge Eisenstein, and Buster Keaton were forced to invent ways to communicate by picture, gesture and the occasional intertitle. In so doing, they established the techniques which modern artists and advertisers still use to move, amuse and manipulate us - the cuts and splices, the establishing shot and the closeup, the process known as intercutting, and the montage, to mention but a few.
Some silent film enthusiasts believe that films of that era were better than present-day movies. Michael Blake, author of three books on Lon Chaney, says that silent films were better than the current crop because they had good stories, did not rely on special effects, and had producers who cared about the product. He refers scathingly to current films as being produced in order to sell toys and publicize theme parks. It is a thought worthy of consideration.