A few years ago, I vowed never again to read, let alone review, another movie history that begins with accounts of the Praxinoscope, the Kinetoscope, the Mutoscope and all those other toys for grown-ups that constitute the prehistory of the motion picture. There is quaintness in this story, and earnest inventive effort too, but there is always something cultish, over-specialized -- and, frankly, boring -- in their stories.
Yet here I am again, impatiently skimming the opening pages of “Silent Movies,” once again obliged to contemplate Eadweard Muybridge’s attempt to prove that all four feet of Leland Stanford’s race horse occasionally leave the ground as it gallops along, not to mention Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographic gun, which . . . don’t ask.
But as I page through Peter Kobel’s handsomely designed and illustrated pictorial history of the voiceless cinema, my thoughts are tinged with a certain sadness. It occurs to me that the entire history of the movies has become the property of a variety of cults. They gather not merely around historical periods of the kind Kobel examines -- his book is a companion piece to a traveling exhibition mounted by the great Library of Congress film archive -- but around stars, genres and, of course, directors. There have been no recent attempts to situate film within a broader cultural history. There is, in books like Kobel’s, no passion and no critical engagement. There is only a dutiful recital of significant names and titles, briefly characterized. Eventually, the book deteriorates into short, non-illuminating biographies: D.W. Griffith -- check. Mary Pickford -- check. Charlie Chaplin -- double check.
There is, in books of this kind, a conflict between ends and means. Movies, unlike the other arts, are uniquely dependent on nostalgia for their staying power. Moviegoers have -- or had -- real feelings for the stars and the narrative conventions that absorbed their attention when they were young and impressionable. But nostalgia is sub-critical and anti-historical -- emotional near-beer. To unleash its power, a writer has to have been there, sharing the joys of movies when they first burst upon the screen. That, however, is no longer possible in the case of silent films. Almost no one is left alive who experienced them when they were fresh and potent. If we encounter silent films today, it is, to borrow a phrase, “in the context of no context.” The old picture palaces are nonexistent. The orchestral scores that accompanied movies are not played. The stories they told are not, generally speaking, the type today’s audiences respond to. If we see silent films at all, they are likely to be on DVDs that are not always well-fabricated. Alone before our TV sets, we have to work very hard to involve ourselves in the high romantic mode that governed their making.
Occasionally, the old magic can be evoked. One of the best moviegoing experiences I’ve had this year was a screening, at the Hammer Museum, of Giovanni Pastrone’s “Cabiria,” an Italian epic of 1914 -- a gorgeously restored print, a diligent pianist accompanying the film, a small but knowledgeable audience present. You could -- for a couple of hours -- feel, without patronization, the power of that film (which rather obviously influenced Griffith’s “Intolerance”). But such experiences are rare -- and rarefied. The modern mass movie audience feels cheated by silent film and not just because of the absence of sound. Moviegoers want color and wide-screen, slash-and-burn editing and digital effects. And their contempt at what’s missing overrides the pleasure they might derive from what’s manifestly there. This feeling extends now to the early sound period, indeed to almost any movie predating “Star Wars” (1977). And as the years roll on, that feeling will extend to ever more recent movies. It seems you have to have been present at their creation to love a particular era’s films -- or be prepared to exert a large imaginative effort to insert yourself into the spirit of the past.
You can see the problem facing a writer like Kobel. He has obviously worked hard on his text -- seeing old movies, consulting film historians, trying as best he can to evoke the mood. But this is assignment-writing; he can’t make us see and feel as audiences did 80 or 90 years ago. And, perhaps most significant, he cannot quite make us understand that the silent cinema offered its audiences rich compensations for their auditory deficit. His subtitle, “The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture,” sounds rather grand and suggests contemporary relevance. But, in truth, the history of silent movies is virtually entire unto itself. When movies began to talk, they changed radically and completely. What had been a romantic and poetic medium became, overnight, a realistic one -- less dreamy, more wisecracking, violent and quotidian. It’s the difference between John Gilbert and James Cagney, Pola Negri and Joan Blondell. Or, if you prefer, the difference between “Flesh and the Devil” and “The Public Enemy.”
The habit of moviegoing persisted at roughly the same level it had attained in the 1920s (until television killed the golden goose in 1950), but what America, the world, now wanted to see was completely different. The argument has been made -- although not by Kobel -- that in the high silent era (those last few years before talkies arrived), the movies had attained a level of visual sophistication that has yet to be duplicated. The need to wordlessly communicate powerful emotions through gesture, through symbol, through a subtle exchange of glances -- and, on the downside, a simplicity of sentiment -- brought forth from filmmakers an unsurpassed inventiveness. To vastly oversimplify, silent movies were very beautiful, and very often more spectacularly so than most sound films. There was a classicism in their imagery (and their editing) that was wonderful to behold. They had, I think, the potential of that once very popular and highly stylized form, the opera -- which their plotting so often resembled -- to enlist the mass public in something like a high art enterprise.
THAT was not to be, however. That public nearly always believes new technologies are inherently superior to old ones -- the idea of progress and all that. So, silent film, unlike opera, which persists and enlists a much larger cult, simply died. Or, more accurately, became a matter of historical interest -- or, more brutally, a geek paradise. In his introduction to “Silent Movies,” Kevin Brownlow, their greatest contemporary historian, remarks that “the very word ‘silent’ suggests that something is missing,” which is true. But, at the time, audiences didn’t think about that. You cannot miss what is not present. Later, alas, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore what’s so manifestly missing.
Some of the silent cinema’s greatest films have been preserved and restored, as they should be, and Kobel pays handsome tribute to these efforts. But it is, I think, impossible to restore the silent cinema to a truly vital role in our time. It is especially not possible to do so as Kobel does, with swotted-up factoids and potted-up biographies. What works best in this book are the illustrations, particularly the color reproductions of antique movie posters. They are often direct and passionate responses to the films themselves, executed in the heat of the moment by anonymous but gifted artists eager to convey the essence of works that obviously moved and excited them. They still have the power to tempt us out of our indifference, to engage us anew in the past’s sweet cheats.