Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How to (not) watch a silent picture.

I hate (not really, I don't) to harp on a constant theme, but people are really dumb.

I am whiling away a hot summer night in Richmond by watching a great German picture from 1919, "Sumurun."  I'm certain that no one ever considered it high art, but it's a pretty good movie, and features some of my favorite elements: exotic locale, fun costumes, and Pola Negri. Damn, that chick was HOT, and she plays an itinerant dancing girl which means she wears not very much and...oh, yeah, back to the blog.

This isn't a discussion of a particular movie because really, you should just watch it yourself; it's on YouTube.

Last week I was reading a blog about horror movies, which I'll not name because I don't want to offend anyone.  The blogger usually has pretty good reviews of horror pictures but one entry on "The Bat" really yanked my chain.

He went on for some time about how he "couldn't watch silent movies" because he's not good at reading lips and the title cards didn't tell him what people were really saying.  Dude: you're dumb.

"Sumurun" is a German movie.  I can speak German (haltingly), can understand German (if the speaker isn't from some weird rural place whose dialect I don't understand well) and can certainly read the German title cards.  What I cannot do is read lips when they're speaking German.  And yet--o miracle of miracles! I can understand exactly what's happening in the movie.  Because, you see, that's what movies ARE--watching action.  If you need to rely solely on voices, perhaps you should investigate radio drama.  I'd not be surprised to learn that the same blogger couldn't understand radio drama, because he couldn't see what was happening.  I'm reminded of my student many years ago who told me "You kain unnastan what be goin on cause it in black and white." Um. OK.

I find it hard to believe that we're so used to talking pictures now that the silent screen makes no sense.  Why? Before the dawn of the galloping tintypes, the most common form of public entertainment was the stage, which--you guessed it--has both visual and aural stimuli.  Somehow, people were able to comprehend the movies, even though they didn't talk.  No one read lips on the screen, unless they were deaf and were used to doing so in everyday life.  (Famously, Clara Bow was forever in trouble with deaf audiences who could tell every time she said "Fuck," which was pretty often. She was from Brooklyn after all.)

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I am indeed both classist and elitist, both socially and academically, but this is not an example of my snootiness.  Motion pictures, especially in their early years, were very much intended for the masses.  I'd be surprised of Kronprinzessin Cecilie ever saw "Sumurun."  It was intended to be seen by factory workers, farmers, the milkman and the office worker.  If any of the aristocracy or cultural elite saw the thing it was happenstance.  A movie made in 1919 purely for that audience wouldn't have done too well at the box office.

So, here's my lesson for How To Watch A Silent Movie:
a)Don't try to think you're watching some Great Art. It's just a damn movie.
b)Don't try to read lips.  Even if they're speaking your native language, you'll get distracted and you might see somebody say "fuck."
c)Just watch what's going on. You'll figure it out.
d)Listen to the music. It's there for a reason--it sets the mood.
e)Read the goddamn title cards. They're there for a reason, too--to advance the action and to help people who are a little simple and aren't quite following the action. Or, those who can't read lips, apparently.
f)Have fun! Some of the most wonderful stories on film are silent.
g)If you can, find a real movie palace. There are a few left that occasionally screen a silent. It's easier to get sucked into the movie's world if you see it in its natural habitat.

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Thanks! Now, go get a drink, sit down and enjoy the show.