If a film today restrains itself in dialogue for more than 10 minutes at the beginning, or through a long, slow-speed sequence in the middle, it is hailed as extraordinary, revolutionary and utterly new. Some such films (“2001: A Space Odyssey” comes to mind) deserve these highfalutin monikers.
Others simply do not.
In either case, innovative or not, these sound films that feature silence are, in this reporter’s humble opinion, no breakthrough when compared to silent films (sometimes with a bit of sound).
Because they weren’t able to use sound other than background music, silent movies relied on a variety of practices, codes and systems of narrative that viewers of the 1910s and the ‘20s knew and cherished. These skills (and where they are used and not used) were on full view at the American Film Institute Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Md., last weekend as they twice presented the 1926 film “The General” with live accompaniment from the Columbia Orchestra.
“The General” is a witty, slapstick comedy by Buster Keaton, the king of the genre, detailing a southern railroad engineer’s quest to save his locomotive (and his kidnapped love) after being denied admittance to the Confederate Army. It is a bouncy, jubilant comedy that keeps the laughs – based on Keaton’s slapstick mastery, situational irony and ineffable deadpan expression – rolling through the entire film.
The evidence of its silence is palpable. It is not a usual film that simply uses intertitles to convey dialogue or plot points instead of sound (as so many are). It conveys nearly everything – except for a few text one-liners and character identifications – through nonverbal cues. Keaton’s looks (his enormous eyes, his frown, his attire) convey every bit of emotional context.
Most jokes and plot points are communicated by action, whether it’s Keaton tripping and falling (how he earned the nickname “Buster”), packing his love interest into a burlap sack or the film’s pièce de résistance: a locomotive falling into a river from a trestle that seconds before had been deemed structurally sound by a now-gulping general.
The best silent films (and almost all of the Keaton oeuvre) are like this. Although there are intertitles, they are sparse and only used when absolutely necessary. “The General” has precious little dialogue, except to establish basic facts.
Take F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” for example, where even a heavy drama about love and loss and murder is spared from intertitles by a simple character roster and acting that makes the plot extremely accessible.
This is a characteristic we are lacking in today’s films and television.
But he is also one of the worst dialogue offenders.
I am a great fan of “The West Wing.” having gone through the entire series on Netflix twice. But without the verbose dissertations from Jed Bartlet or whomever during the course of an episode, it would have hardly found its place in the rafters of great television.
“The General,” along with so many others, managed to do just that, priming themselves for immortality with as little explicit verbiage as possible.
Admittedly, silent films tend to be simpler. With a few notable exceptions (Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” a personal favorite, comes to mind), silent movies tend to deal in heavy subject matter but relatively clear-cut plots. Original, sure, but relatively basic in terms of good-and-bad, wrong-and-right, et cetera.
Again, look at Buster Keaton.
Nearly all of his movies follow the same tropes: an unlucky, in-love (and otherwise) main character; a pretty, usually-requiting love interest; a competing suitor with better chops than the main and a father ready to turn down Keaton’s character from the get-go. They nearly all end in a marriage.
But the point still stands. Silent movies – whether because of their limitations, their audiences’ expectations or simply the culture they existed in – were able to convey just as much meaning and raw emotion as their modern, loquacious successors.
A final example from “The General” to tie things up with a bow, perhaps:
Where today a movie ending with a military promotion followed by a realization of love might end with a passionate soliloquy from our guy’s commanding officer and a heartfelt conversation between the two lovebirds, Keaton takes the silent (albeit comedic) equivalent.
Keaton’s character, Johnnie Gray, is stripped of his stolen uniform and thinks all is lost while his love interest looks on disapprovingly. Then, the general returns with a coat and a broad hat: he’s now a lieutenant, and one to write home about! Later, as Gray and his girl share what must’ve been a heartfelt conversation (goodness knows I can’t hear it) on his locomotive, Keaton gives us his final joke. As the privates leave camp for the morning, Gray finds a way to salute them all from his new rank while embracing his dearest as we fade to black.
You just don’t see that in sound film simply because it wouldn’t be necessary to explain.
But this is silent film and it is wonderful.
Evan Berkowitz is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.