Monday, 7 December 2009

Silence Is Golden

I have to admit, I was more than a little bit apprehensive when Andy told us we'd be watching silent films as part of our Friday screenings. The only silent film I'd seen before then was DW Griffith's Way Down East (1920), a 2-hour long silent melodrama, which moved along with all the pace of a glacier and mostly involved Lillian Gish reprising her wide-eyed waif routine. Apparently it's an all-time classic... if only it hadn't outstayed its welcome by about 30 minutes.

I'm happy to report, then, that there were no such problems with the films we watched in class- Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1925), and Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr (1924). I'd heard of both Chaplin and Keaton, but never actually seen any of their films. I was actually pleasantly surprised- although I think it definitely helped that we watched Richard Attenborough's 1992 biopic, Chaplin. Yeah, it's a pretty flawed film- lurching from Big Drama to Big Drama in Chaplin's life, it tries to cram far too much into its running time. However, the marvellous Robert Downey Jr (who rarely puts a foot wrong anyway) is just brilliant, delivering a powerhouse performance in his first big leading role.

The film was a good introduction to Chaplin, his works and his life, from his poor childhood, his first steps in variety theatre and his big break into film. Despite being a bit far-reaching and ambitious, I absolutely loved it- and not just because of amount of time RDJ is on the screen... It showed a man obsessed with his work, who understood the needs of the common people and understood what his audience wanted despite the phenomenal wealth and success his career brought him. His 'Little Tramp' character was a downtrodden everyman who struggled to get by via a number of comic cirumstances.

The following week, we watched The Kid. In this, the Little Tramp finds a baby boy, abandoned by his unwed mother along with a note pleading with the finder to care for the baby. After several attempts to fob the baby off on passers-by, the Tramp takes him home and raises him as his own. Unfortunately, a few years later, circumstances arise which put their relationship in jeopardy, as the mother (now a famous actress) becomes involved in charitable work. The child falls ill, and authorities try to take him away to the county orphan asylum.
Despite having no dialogue, the film is easy to follow and the performances are wonderful. Chaplin's Tramp is a creation of comic genius, although he can also handle weighty emotional scenes with great sensitivity. I actually felt myself getting totally involved with the characters- the scene where the little boy is being taken away by authorities is just heart-breaking, and I totally rooted for Chaplin's character to save his 'adopted' son. Everything about the film is as perfectly constructed as anything released 90 years later- perhaps more so, considering Chaplin didn't have access to special effects like films today. Can you imagine The Kid or The Gold Rush brought to you by Jerry Bruckheimer? It doesn't bear thinking about!

After this came Chaplin's favourite of his own films, The Gold Rush.
Apparently this is the film Chaplin wanted to be most remembered for, and was the first which he started shooting with a fully written out story. In this, the Tramp travels to Alaska in search of gold. Instead he finds himself in the midst of a storm, taking refuge in a cabin with two fellow prospectors. They have no food, and much comedy ensues when they start to hallucinate with hunger, eventually feasting on the Tramp's boot.
Eventually, the storm passes and he ventures into town, becoming smitten with local dance-hall girl Georgia. The rest of the film follows him trying to win her affections. There are many classic set-pieces in the movie, such as the 'dancing rolls' sequence, a fellow hungry prospector imagining Chaplin as a giant chicken, and the cabin tilting vicariously over the edge of a cliff.
I didn't like it as much as The Kid though. I felt it didn't have quite the same emotional heart- after a while it seemed a little drawn out, although it did have much more accomplished performances. Also, it was lovely to see the Tramp finally make his fortune and keep it- even the most cynical viewer couldn't begrudge the downtrodden prospector his chance at wealth.

The Little Tramp character is one which has endured throughout the arrival of the 'talkies', and it's testament to Chaplin's talent and dedication to his art that it's as endearing and watchable today as it was then. While he made the character to appeal to the working class audience, there's no sense of pandering to the lowest common denominator- he respects his audience. Despite his moniker, the Tramp is a much-loved character, perhaps one of the most recognised in cinematic history. He is downtrodden but also debonair, and his boundless optimism ensures the audience are always on his side.

It's a shame then, for poor old Buster Keaton, star of Sherlock Jr. His deadpan, stoic facial expressions earned him the unfortunate nickname of 'The Great Stone-Face'. Despite being far more technologically advanced than Chaplin, he never quite engaged his audience in the same way. It's a pity, because the film is wonderfully accomplished and, even now, jaw-droppingly inventive. For example, scenes where Keaton's down-on-his-luck projectionist rises out of his own body and jumps into the cinema screen would today be implemented using CGI, without even a second thought. The extended sequence in which Keaton tries to escape the bad guys, while riding the handlebars of a bike without a driver, is perfectly timed, fast-paced and incredibly accomplished.

It's a real pity that Keaton's performance was not as beloved as Chaplin's as The Tramp. However, I did find it difficult to engage with the character as much as Chaplin- whereas the latter's films featured lots of close-ups on his facial expressions and gestures, Sherlock Jr relies heavily on visual effects and long shots to portray the technical wizardry at its best. This seems to be at the expense of any interaction and engagement with the characters- it seems to say "look what I can do", rather than "here's someone you can associate with".

All in all, though, I enjoyed our dip into the water of silent film alot more than I thought I would. It's amazing how much emotion can be portrayed without sound, and what could be achieved when the directors had to create every effect manually, without use of lazy computers. I do think (although maybe it's just me personally) that there's a time limit on how long a silent film can hold my attention- maybe I've just become too used to being brought up in an age of fast-talking, high-concept blockbusters? However, the selection we watched were just long enough for me. Silent films are vitally important in our understanding of cinema as it is nowadays, especially when you realise how many gags, effects and nuances today and pilfered from the silent era. Who knows, maybe after this I'll be ready to give Way Down East another shot...although perhaps with, say, Die Hard With a Vengeance at hand to balance it out? We shall see...

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