Silent Days and Nights
Discovering Live Cinema... Again
Director Herbert Brenon during the production of Peter Pan (1924)
For 14 years now, in an Italian town 50 miles northeast of Venice, there has occurred one of the world's most unique film festivals: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. During nine days in the middle of October, this festival celebrates silent movies.
That's right, it is dedicated to those cinematic antiques which most people encounter only in film history classes or cheap TV ads. They're silent because they were made before 1930, before movies got synched with true, noisy reality. When my son was five, he explained one of them to a friend as "a funny movie made in days when people hadn't learned to talk and everything was still in black and white." It has always been easy to feel sorry for these early movies. The common examples have soupy images which move at clumsy speeds to a hokey piano soundtrack or, worse, no sound at all. Silents.
That's what they're called at Pordenone, too, officially: cinema muto. But they are presented as they were meant to be seen, and over the years, as attendance at the festival has increased, as it has continued to prove how narrow or flat wrong our assumptions about them have been, another term has become popular. These aren't silent movies anymore, they're "live cinema."
The term was coined by Kevin Brownlow, a British film scholar. His books and video series on early Hollywood have contributed to a growing interest in this cinema, which clearly has been mishandled and misrepresented for years by poor copying and canned music. It is not a primitive art at all, but a marvelously vivid style of cinema that disappeared after 1930. When their style is reproduced with respect for their virtues, silents can amaze you. At the festival, they run for 10 hours a day in the Teatro Cinema Verdi, an art-nouveau movie house with a huge screen. The best movies have been carefully restored from nitrate originals, so that viewers watch uniquely brilliant images while they enjoy the unique improvisations of musicians who converse with the images as they occur. It is, indeed, live cinema.
Such experience got scant attention in the past because, as film teachers all knew and passed on to their students, only 10 percent of the old movies had survived anyway. Such a small percentage of films hardly seemed to merit more than occasional homages by esoteric film groups. But that was before 1982 when three young Italians began this festival.
Livio Jacob, his wife Piera Patat, and Paolo Cherchi Usai had been students at the University of Genoa, where they were inspired by Angelo Cumuda, a film scholar and collector of silent films. In Pordenone they found a theatre and backers. The first festival, a retrospective on French comedian Max Linder, drew only a handful of people, but the founders struggled on. They widened the financial support from city to province to cultural ministry, and they built a broader clientele. Today the festival draws from across the world, bringing together people who wouldn't talk to each other under other circumstances: buffs with special tastes, academics excavating esthetic or social attitudes, curators displaying their success at restoration, and ordinary viewers, too. Many come to Pordenone simply for nine days' saturation in a different cinema. And there is plenty of material to draw from.
"It's true," says Cherchi, "that only 10 percent of the silents survive, but almost 200,000 films were produced between 1895 and 1930. Ten percent is 20,000 films, which presently exist in archives and other collections around the world. They include shorts and cartoons as well as features. We select only about 250 films for the typical festival, so we can go on for another 80 years before we have to repeat ourselves. We are only scratching the surface."
The first festivals were in-depth retrospectives -- of Linder, Mack Sennett, Thomas Ince, animated cartoons, Italian comedians -- but the focus broadened. Last October, attention went to rare Soviet and Hungarian films as well as to the work of director Herbert Brenon and animator Gregory La Cava, and there was an array of other surprising films from a variety of countries. The peak volume was in 1995, the centenary of motion pictures, when the festival showed 600 films, including the first French and English documentaries, Chinese melodramas, and the work of Henry King and Max Fleischer. "We used to start from scratch every year," says Cherchi, "but not anymore. We have many dishes being prepared in the kitchen, and we don't serve them until they're ready. Quality is our major concern."
Emergencies developed four years ago, when money seemed to be drying up and Livio Jacob's persuasive skills were taxed to new limits. J. Paul Getty came through as a major backer, and new respect was forged between the festival and the town. The latest worry, that the Teatro Verdi might be razed, seems to have passed, and attendance keeps growing. "We're turning people away in a 1,200-seat theatre," but Cherchi is not altogether pleased. He doesn't want success to damage quality.
It isn't quite a revolution, although renaissance is a good word. Rebirth in Italy. Nothing new. Five years ago, after the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel were cleaned, amazed art historians had to revise their opinions of Michelangelo's style. That sort of thing has been going on in Pordenone for 14 years. The festival rediscovers an art we never quite realized was there all the time. Fans, students, and teachers of film are forced into new opinions about the silents in particular and cinema in general.
Lon Chaney in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)
I know what he means. The 1995 festival opened with Louis Lumière's shots of daily life at the turn of the century. On video monitors these scenes can look crude, but beautifully restored upon the Verdi's screen they made modern movies look mushy by comparison. Watching these scenes was like moving through etchings. I saw as I never had before. In one shot, a sober cyclist does fancy riding for the cameraman while a handful of neighbors looks on. A woman passes, ignoring the cyclist, wheeling a baby carriage down a lonely road that moves to infinity. In a minute I could reflect upon a dozen things because every detail -- the rider's expression, the folds of the woman's dress, the neighbors' glances -- is etched there fresh, a new step in visual art.
Our educational biases have led us away from this insight. As Cherchi notes, film courses which analyze cultural impact tend to outdraw those in aesthetic history. Few can experience the quality of Lumière's images, but off of videotape it is easy to study them for encoded social attitudes.
Time and again at Pordenone, it is visual pleasure that counts. Last year's program even included a warning from Cherchi: "Open your eyes and forget about the story." It was for Herbert Brenon's The Breaking Point (1924), in which a suspected killer, who has suffered amnesia and become a surgeon, looks into a patient's eye to find a brain clot, operates right there in the living room, then slips in and out of amnesia a few more times before he is proven innocent of the original crime. This may be the period's most ridiculous plot, but it is served by James (not yet also Wong) Howe, whose exquisite cinematography suggests Ansel Adams. This aesthetic predicament must give us pause. Literary issues are always there for the seeking in silent films, of course, but for such richly visual forms the approach ignores the obvious.
Pordenone also reveals more silent stars than we have charted in our heavens. We all remember Cecil B. DeMille, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and maybe Theda Bara and Douglas Fairbanks for fun. But whoever heard of Ruan Lingyu, a powerful young actress in Chinese melodramas? Her work is all the more startling once we learn she killed herself at the height of her popularity. Or we rediscover Betty Bronson and Lon Chaney. She is celebrated as film's first Peter Pan (for Herbert Brenon in 1924), but she is far more impressive in A Kiss for Cinderella (Brenon, 1925), an unheralded feature, where she plays an optimist who looks after orphans in the London slums. She has a dream, the movie's most extravagant sequence, as she is starving to death. Yes, a handsome cop does save and marry her, but not before the movie has laid out genuinely disturbing images.
We all know Chaney, the "Man of a Thousand Faces," the first phantom of the opera, but in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (Brenon, 1928) he consumes the screen as a Pagliaccio hopelessly in love with his ward. Chaney does awesome turns of comedy and despair. There isn't a dry spot in the house when he finishes. "The comedy is over," says the title card, and we're exhausted.
There are plenty of revelations to come. One dish in the kitchen is "the Griffith project": a festival to include all the films of D.W. Griffith. "One day," smiles Cherchi, "we can say, `I have seen Griffith!'" We can decide then if the touted DWG (aka The Father of Hollywood) is more impressive as a director than Monta Bell, featured some years ago, or Maurice Tourneur, also waiting in the kitchen: two visual stylists who remain little more than footnotes in history.
The fact is, we really don't know much about the silent cinema. We've lived on clichés and empty descriptions. Pordenone offers immersion in films -- not to mention conversations (there are no panels or papers) and cappuccini. For me, as a result, early Soviet cinema means something very different now that I have seen a lot of it. There was one of Lev Kuleshov's famed editing experiments: the creation of a non-existent city from disparate shots. It was 10 seconds long and not nearly so startling as my teachers led me to hope; but now I know. Likewise, I have heard a combo play Dziga Vertov's score for The Man With a Movie Camera (1929): a wonderful chaos of sound pounding around his images of a young Russia full of promise for the proletariat. Later I saw Vertov onscreen in a documentary, inviting children inside his agit train that would propagandize the new Soviet order all across Russia. He looks young and hopeful. So does Sergei Eisenstein, who doffs his cap to us at the end of his first film, a fragment of political comedy. These filmmakers both died in exile from the art they loved, but in Pordenone they're alive again. I've seen them.
The renaissance may be spreading. An American who has been mailing out a quarterly calendar of silent film events as a favor to fellow enthusiasts can no longer handle his popularity. The mailing list is over 200; his latest calendar lists more than 500 screenings across the country. The list continues to grow, although public screenings of classic sound films are in decline. Television runs a lot of the sound repertory, but it still can't match the experience of watching a live performer accompany a movie.
Musicians of the silent film are gaining more attention as artists. At Pordenone, where seven pianists take turns working the films, the most powerful masters of improvisation, such as Antonio Coppola (who laments he is no relation to that prosperous American Coppola), Aljoscha Zimmermann, and the American Phil Carli, develop a following among the cognoscenti. These are artists who appreciate what this cinema expects. Carli also arranges and composes music for silent films. Perhaps the time is coming when this music will have its own value, like concerti, and we will find Carli CDs, just as we now find Bill Frisell's jazz accompaniments for Keaton comedies.
When they're not at Pordenone, both Phil Carli and Paolo Cherchi Usai work at George Eastman House and the University of Rochester, chipping away at our ignorance of silents. Cherchi smiles. "One day we can prove we were right, but not anytime soon." He knows that film students can't easily experience this cinema in its full glory. They have to study it like Renaissance painting, from poor copies, and wait for a chance to see originals.
"Pordenone is one answer to the problem: Come see what you can see." Other answers are developing at archives or at film centers like Eastman House and the American Film Institute. Cherchi, who has written Burning Passions, an excellent introduction to silent cinema, is committed now to preserving the image less than to writing about it. "Articles disappear; the films remain. I take cheer in such matters as getting a variable-speed projector, lower temperatures in the film vaults, a new cataloging system: anything to help others see these films."
And so, silents can revive one's delight in cinema. Their style has nothing to do with our pretenses to realism, yet we rediscover the wonder of all movies in seeing these first ones. It is the same wonder that a silent documentary once captured in Indochina. Children are running ahead of a chaise being carried through a village. They are shouting to the cameraman, falling, crying, knocking each other down. But one child keeps on coming, huge eyes bright at this wonderful thing taking his picture as he runs toward it. It is 1899 and it is cinema, an experience to leave you... how else can I put it? Speechless.
George Wead is a professor of film and theatre at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia and has published books and articles on silent comedian Buster Keaton. Once upon a time, Wead taught at the University of Texas at Austin where he also served as advisor to the CinemaTexas film program.