Jan 8, 2011

Silence is Golden? Week 1

I take pride in knowing a lot about movies, and I mean a lot, at this stage I could justifiably say that I've forgotten more about cinema than most people are ever likely to know. I've seen films from more than 30 countries in more than 20 languages, I've seen films made as early as 1895 and as late as 2010. That said, though I've seen a few, I don't know all that much about silent cinema, nor is my experience of it especially wide. So, during 2011 I'm going to try and address that. Each week I'll be watching two silent films, and creating a sort of journal of my impressions. These won't be traditional reviews as much as they will be refelections on the movies. I hope I'll be taking in films from all over the world, from many different genres, acknowledged classics and near forgotten films alike. I may also include things like reviews of books I read about silent cinema, or documentaries I see on the subject. I think it's going to be an exciting journey. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I suspect I will.


I started my trip through silent cinema with films set in unfamilliar locations. NANOOK OF THE NORTH is generally thought to be the first film to be what we would consider a documentary, though it predates John Grierson's coining of that term by a decade or so. Though it is presented as purely factual there are clearly things in the film that are staged by director Robert Flaherty. One early sequence shows the entire eskimo family that the film is about climbing one by one out of a tiny canoe, suggesting that this is some sort of Alaskan TARDIS. It's easy to see that Flaherty staged this scene, using a locked off camera to hide the cuts. Apparently much of the rest of the film is, if not fictional, then certainly heavily staged. It seems that by 1920 the Eskimo technology had moved on from the harpoons we see here to the use of guns for their hunting, but that Flaherty wanted to show 'traditional' hunting methods.

Whatever the reservations about the honesty of the film though, you can't deny that it is engaging, and technically remarkable for its time. Just getting the camera to these inhospitable locations in 1920 must have been a real feat, and through it Flaherty catures some genuinely striking and fascinating images. The hunting may be a recreation of something that happened in the 19th rather than the 20th century, but the footage is still hugely interesting, and it is probably authentic at least in that Nanook is old enough to remember the techniques first hand. The real point of interest though is Nanook and his family. The films does take a patronising view of them, but even though you can't hear them they are engaging characters. The sequence in which Nanook and his family build an igloo is especially enjoyable, not just seeing the technique, but the way the whole family chips in to some degree.

Another thing that is really interesting about NANOOK OF THE NORTH is looking at it through the prism of where documentary is in 2011. For a few years now there have been high profile films whose authenticity as documentaries has been challenged CATFISH and AMERICAN TEEN among them. If this film teaches us anything about documentaries it is that the line between fact and fiction has always been a blurry and easily crossed one. 90 years on, this is still a fascinating film, and well worth looking out.

When French magician Georges Melies made this 12 minute film (generally regarded as the first science fiction film) cinema hardly existed. The first feature length film was some way off yet as were purpose built cinemas, moving pictures were still seen as a parlour trick, and what a trick Melies pulled here. LE VOYAGE DANS LA LUNE (A Trip to the Moon) may be primitive, with its proscenium stage and static camera, but it has some startling features. The most famous shot is visible for only a second, but the image of the man in the moon with the rocket ship stuck in his eye remains an inventive and funny one. There is also primitive usage of editing (again, something that wouldn't be fully developed for some years) in order to make characters disappear in a puff of smoke.

It's creaky, sure, and for all their attractiveness the sets are clearly quite cheap and thrown together, but Melies is inventing with every shot here. Seen today this is still a fun and funny film, but imagine seeing it 109 years ago, what the moment the moon man explodes in a puff of smoke must have been like for those first audiences. This is also an important film for its influence, just try and find someone working in animation or special effects who doesn't know this film and its maker.

I think we're off to a good start. Next week I'll be looking at FW Murnau's late period silent CITY GIRL and one other film that I haven't yet decided on.

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