IDEA #53. Watch a silent feature film from start to finish without stopping it, and discuss or write down your thoughts on the experience.
The idea of watching a two-hour film without spoken dialogue is shocking to many young people. Accustomed as they are to having the plot carried forward by word, young audiences of today are actually often resistant to the concept of the “silent” film—and of course the fact that virtually every minute of surviving silents is in black and white robs them of even more prospective appeal. All young people can imagine are scratchy figures jerking across a screen to the remorselessly insipid accompaniment of a tinny piano.
But yet, there are any number of powerful films made before the age of talkies that can still compel a room full of twenty-first-century adolescent viewers. Chaplin’s features, especially Modern Times, can win over an audience today every bit as effectively as they did nearly 80 years ago, and such archetypal “horror flicks” as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu still chill the spine. Other classics—Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or D. W. Griffith’s epics like Intolerance or Birth of a Nation—remain compelling and even controversial—especially Birth, which is still best viewed with some strong caveats and much historical context supplied. Other genres, including even the better of the Griffith weepers—Orphans of the Storm or Broken Blossoms—can hold their own, as well. In 2011 there was even a successful attempt, The Artist, to create a “modern” silent; it won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
What often comes as a surprise to contemporary viewers is that the silent film actually has a very clear narrative structure, helped along by title cards, exaggerated facial expressions—the “over-acting” that can look so dated in out-of-context clips of these old films—and musical sound tracks that, if played by a master and not just dubbed in with no attempt to match the story, effectively cue the audience as to the mood and tempo of the action. If the young viewer should see one of these films at one of the many revivals or festivals that feature serious artists performing the musical accompaniment, the effect is every bit as powerful as a modern film. The black-and-white issue soon fades; it might even be suggested that “cultural literacy” in our society includes a familiarity with some of the classic sound films of the pre-color era as well as silents.
By all means, encourage the young viewer to figure out the narrative techniques militated by the medium and find ways for him or her to share observations—perhaps in a school newspaper review. And why not encourage a language arts or social studies teacher to screen a silent film as part of a class or as an out-of-class treat—to spread the gospel?