A Modern Miracle

Once more with feeling! Yes, it took about a century, but silent film is back. Witness the enthusiastic audiences at the ninth Silent Film Days festival in Tromsø (September 3rd to 6th). So what is the big deal about silent film..?

It’s the unofficial opening of ‘Silent Film Days’ and Verdensteatret, Tromsø’s original purpose-built cinema, from 1916, is packed to overflowing. It seems even busier than last year. The punters are just pouring into the café to join the queue for a 1914 Fatty Arbuckle comedy. Everybody’s favourite pianist, Ben Model, is here and there’s every reason to expect a terrific show. What’s wrong with this picture (if you’ll pardon the expression)? Did nobody tell them this is a medium that’s been totally out of date for nigh on a century?

Never mind, let the feast begin! There are some delightful moments of cinema history packed into The Knockout, Charles Avery’s 27-minute comedy from 1914. It’s a Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle vehicle, but it features an early cameo appearance by none other than Charlie Chaplin. His dramatic-comic entrance as the contest’s referee even raised a small cheer. (Admittedly, it did appear to come from the festival director herself, Martha Otte.) The Knockout also features an exquisite sequence where Arbuckle, needing to change for the fight, persuades the cameraman to protect his modesty by raising the camera to a more discrete angle. Apart from its comedic brilliance this scene could be one of the very first transgressions of the boundary between the viewer and the viewed. I can guess what you’re thinking: I’m starting to sound like one of them.

Aficionados of silent film are a small but determined minority. The true fanatics may even devise their own scores to accompany their favourite movie classics. Then there’s the ubiquitous Ben Model, from New York. He’s made his career as a silent-film score-composer and accompanist. That’s what he does, and he’s back again in Tromsø now to play at Stumfilmdager, as he was doing long before the heyday of silent film, at that first festival way back in 2006.

Ben Model. (Photo: Stina Gronbech.)
Ben Model. (Photo: Stina Gronbech)

I suppose a confession is in order. I sound like one of them because I am one of them, and have been since I attended that very first festival.  Against my better judgement, I decided to give it a try, and one film later I was hooked. I admit it, I’m a fan and now, it seems, I’m also part of a trend. In recent years we’ve entered a strange new golden age for this long outmoded form of expression. It’s not quite mainstream yet, whatever the popularity of Michel HazanaviciusThe Artist, but silent-film lovers have become a formidable subculture. So what lies at the root of this unlikely fascination?

It’s partly explained by the sharpening or our perspective on a bygone age as it recedes into an ever more distant past. This year’s mini-festival celebrates the centenary of the cinematic debut of the first global film-star, the immortal Charlie Chaplin. Historical distance may make early movies less relevant but it also accentuates their charm, their expression of something which the passage of time and its de-familiarisation have rendered strange and exotic, even other-worldly.

This only works if you go back a ways, of course. There’s nothing other-worldly about the recent past. That’s just passé and a bit pathetic. Consider the way people must have felt about silent film in, say, 1935, or the way we feel today about DVDs or CDs. Of course vinyl (as we never used to call it) is another matter! Any modern amenity quickly become passé and hence obsolete, but then one day it might just rise again like a phoenix as kitsch, retro or, best of all, vintage: still eminently useful but with the extra cache of a collector’s item or even an object d’art.

Hence Britain’s Prince Charles strikes a chord with his easy derision of ‘ugly’ modern buildings (many built as long ago as the 1960s) and unswerving devotion to the ‘beautiful’ constructions of the past. There is something about the transparency of a modern building that is readily equated with ugliness, and I’m not talking about the literal transparency afforded by all that glass. What Charlie (the prince, not the superstar) is really reacting to is the banality of familiar modern materials in the service of commonplace goals. Modernism’s seamless equation of form with function only exacerbates the problem. It’s just too obvious – and cheap – and that somehow also strikes us (rulers and subjects alike) as ugly. It’s the inscrutability of the projects of the past that renders them fascinating and even beautiful.

One A.M. (Charlie Chaplin).
One A.M. (Charlie Chaplin).

As curious creatures we are prone to a fascination with the half-forgotten past, then, but this general human propensity is heightened by the character of our times. This may sound strange, living as we do in a modern and profoundly modernist age, embracing the new, dismissing the old. And yet ironically it is precisely this ‘dogma of progress’ that heightens the pathos of the past and our melancholy attraction to it, which so readily and monotonously finds expression in the worst kind of adolescent verse, that is, the kind written by adults.

Industrial society has ushered in an epoch of flux, an automated production-line of permanent renewal and annihilation. We live in the golden age of both the urge to create and the urge to destroy. (We also live with an associated litany of wasted resources the like of which the world has never seen.) It’s as though we’re cut adrift on the accelerating river of time, and as each of us is carried remorselessly onwards we also find ourselves increasingly isolated. As Marx famously put it, ‘All that is solid melts into air.’ Nothing is safe; nothing stays the same; and the people who, in increasingly impersonal ways, populate our lives are certainly no exception.

Perhaps the most profound consequence of our madcap industrial turnover and its perfect storm of social mobility and change (albeit rarely self-determined) is a society of individuals with – historically speaking – a unique sensitivity to their own mortality. This expresses itself, paradoxically but also unsurprisingly, in an extraordinary death taboo. We, the modern, the Westerners or the Westernised, shield ourselves assiduously from the sight of death, employ elaborate procedures to mask and hide the condition of all corpses, and prefer euphemisms to the dreaded ‘d-word’, as we sorrowfully lament the ‘passing away’ of our ‘dearly departed.’ Thus a glimpse of immortality in a figure such as Chaplin, and the connection it provides to a pre-natal past, is quite important. It affords us the kind of temporal anchoring that is terribly rare in the modern human condition of fleeting, vulnerable life, denuded of many of those broader trappings of context and meaning, including the spiritual, associated with a more traditional society.

The Knockout.
The Knockout (Charles Avery).

As Ben Model introduced The Knockout he invoked a sense of reverence for an unbroken tradition. He was about to play accompaniment, in a style learned directly from a veteran of the silent era, here in a largely unspoiled cinema from the same time. This constitutes a remarkable continuity, certainly. I was nonetheless struck by how different our experience of silent film is now compared to those who, all those years ago, may have sat in this very cinema and even watched this very film.

What we see when the reels start spinning – or the digital copy is loaded – really does depend on our historical vantage-point, our point of perspective. The original audiences witnessed a modern marvel of mechanised entertainment, a technology so extraordinary one might have suspected the intervention of magical powers. We can never recapture their sense of wonder, and if we are to gain any insight at all into their experience of this new diversion it is probably by means of an analogy.

Just as the internet today seems to pander to the limits of our powers of concentration, so, long ago, did the novelty of moving pictures. They didn’t tax the human attention-span in a way imposed by the limits of live performance. The technology opened up new possibilities, like ‘sub-cranking.’ Sequences were regularly filmed at around 12 to 14 frames-per-minute and then replayed as fast as 26. This allowed filmmakers to give the players greater control over their stunts, and the action a superhuman pace, something to which the human attention-span is surprisingly well-disposed. Film was just one of the many ways early-20th-century technological innovation was testing the limits of human adaptability. American factories were the scene of the most aggressive boundary-testing of all, as managers cranked up the pace of their new, automated assembly-lines, to see how far they could push the tempo and productivity of their labour-force.

Behind the Screen (Charlie Chaplin).
Behind the Screen (Charlie Chaplin).

Silent films have lost their role as consumable and marketable diversions of the industrial age. We return to them now as curiosities. Our focus inverts that of those early audiences. The films’ striking technological component recedes into the background, and the human element comes to the fore. We nurture an appreciation for the craft of the players – actors and musicians alike – and overlook how this craft is actually partially eclipsed by the mechanised form that they were (in the case of the actors) and are (in the case of the accompanists) forced to accommodate. Thus, out of the detritus of an earlier technological era emerge new art-forms, not least the soundtrack as a collaborative re-imagination of a received cinematic ‘sketch.’

Cleaning Women. (Photo: Stina Gronbech)
Cleaning Women. (Photo: Stina Gronbech)

The burgeoning novelty of this can be observed in the variety of accompaniments typically featured at silent-film screenings. Some, like the structured improvisations of a master like Ben Model, are more true to the craftsmanship of a kind of heritage restoration. Others, like Cleaning Women, give expression to a kind of emerging, self-conscious art-form. The former is closer to an attempt to represent the original film, the latter to treat the film and its film-makers as unwitting partners in a new collaboration.

Cleaning Women’s ‘neo-industrial’ interpretation did something strange and wonderful to the classic slapstick of Chaplin’s One A.M. (from 1916), for example, highlighting its latent surrealistic undertones. The contrast may be overdrawn but the two different musical approaches do occupy different points on a continuum: from a modern division of labour to a postmodern artistic intervention. The contemporary appreciation of vintage silent movies draws us inexorably towards the latter.

Perhaps the real beauty of silent film is how, in the here and now at any rate, it releases the forces of human freedom and creativity. This kind of artistic liberation is a rare historical novelty whose causes are complex. We will probably never know precisely how the brilliance of the Renaissance was released from the dogmatic craftsmanship of the late Middle Ages, for example, but its brilliance was at any rate unmistakable, and continues to shine like a beacon through the ages.

Last week at Silent Film Days, when Ben Model responded to the chemistry of the crowd and expressed through improvisation the mutual experience of Chaplin’s Behind the Screen, from 1916, I felt a similar historical miracle at work. I’m not talking about the century-old miracle of moving pictures but a miracle of our own time, here in the early 21st Century. The rediscovery of those old movies only provided the spark.

A Dog's Life (Charlie Chaplin).
A Dog’s Life (Charlie Chaplin).