Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Film Circle- The Fallen Treasure of Silent Cinema



   Ahhh, in our technologically advanced era where everyone is able to play around with tinted filters on Instagram, add surround sound to home movies, and be able to experience 'another dimension' of cinematic viewing (reference to the awfully dull 3D phenomenon) the roots of honest filmmaking and innovation has been lost. While many would get annoyed at the constant whirring and clicking noises that come from the old 20's and 30's silent films I'm going to step out there and say..I find it remarkably charming. The fact that there are so many little quirks littered throughout (wonky camera angles, wobbly lighting etc) makes the films seem so much more genuine and realistic; they don't have that distinctly manufactured feel of so many of our Hollywood blockbusters of today.


The intriguing element of silent cinema is that because they didn't have the luxury of sound, filmmakers tried to make up for this by creating visually impressive avant-garde settings, as backdrops to their films. Visual perfection was achieved through bold and geometrically complex shapes, to build up foreboding jagged landscapes, as well as the heavy use of shadowing, to create an unnerving eerie atmosphere (especially in their horrors). This is what we sometimes lack in modern filmmaking, as the abundance of equipment and money mean that visual effects, are reliant on advanced computer technology rather than organic human imagination. That's not to say 21st century cinema is completely blind to it's origins, in German expressionism, as Tim Burton reportedly cited late 20's silent horror as the primary influence for his 2007 musical Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. 

I appreciate that sitting and watching a film that has virtually no sound, let alone any spoken dialogue, to most people would be a living nightmare (hell, a lot of people can't even put up with subtitles) but if you can hack it then I implore you to check a few out. 
Certainly American and German expressionist silent films are now available online and even on DVD (from providers such as Lovefilm). Here are some of my picks, which I believe could turn your opinion:

1) The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Perhaps one of the most famous and pioneering silent films of the 20's, which set a standard for expressionist horrors. Francis, a young man, recalls in his memory the horrible experience he and his fiancée Jane have been through, when they visited the charismatic Dr Caligari's exhibition. A grotesque figure Cesare (who is remarkably similar to Frankenstein's monster) is awakened by Caligari as an attraction to the show, and is kept in the cabinet. However when Cesare is let loose, and murders start occurring within the town, Francis must fight to keep his beloved Jane safe from this monstrous figure. The film used stylized sets, with abstract, jagged buildings painted on canvas backdrops and flats to build up dramatic tension and unease. This strange style is further enhanced by the the actors, who use jerky and dance like movements to create a distinctly anti-realist and unnerving atmosphere, as if projected from a nightmare.

2) Metropolis (1927)

Perhaps one of the most important films to the science fiction genre, with it's futuristic dystopian setting echoing civil unrest and the inevitable clashing of the class system in 20th century society. The film is set in a initially idealistic future, where the city of Metropolis is prosperous and its wealthy residents live a carefree life. One of those is Freder Fredersen, son of the man who founded the great city. One day, he spots a beautiful woman with a group of children, who quickly disappear. Trying to follow her, he, oblivious to such, is horrified to find an underground world of workers, apparently who run the machinery which keeps the above ground Utopian world functioning. He sets about redressing the balance but he doesn't foresee the grave consequences. Although at the time the film was far from a financial success and critically, it polarized opinion, it has however emerged as one of the most important films in cinema history.

3) The Man Who Laughs (1928)

An erratic fusion of tragic melodrama and swashbuckling adventure with the earliest threads of gloomy horror. It is based upon Victor Hugo's novel about the life of Gwynplainethe son of a disgraced aristocrat, whose face is mutilated by order of the King, so that he should always be laughing. His grotesque appearance, of a permanent grin, therefore leads to social exclusion and rejection by the shallow aristocracy of English society. He does eventually find comfort and acceptance when he meets and falls in love with a beautiful blind woman Dea, yet a devastating turn of events threatens to tear them apart. Tragic and haunting the film manages to retell this epic drama in a way that leaves a profound impression on the viewer long after the last credit has graced the screen.