The Sound of Silents

Middle-aged Americans such as myself likely got their first taste of silent films by watching the '60s television program Fractured Flickers. For you Generation Xers, this is one way we amused ourselves in those days: the television would show scenes from The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Phantom of the Opera (Lon Chaney was a favorite) while a voiceover would impose supposedly funny dialogue on the images. The Phantom might stand up from his organ after having been unmasked -- perhaps the best-known image from silent horror film -- and we'd hear him say something like, "Who put the tack in my chair!"

The images themselves cooperated in their own humiliation. Early films were shot on hand-cranked cameras at roughly 18 frames per second. Modern movie projectors run film at 24 frames per second, while television works at 30. So infinitesimal breaks would appear between the actors' motions, making them jerky and, yes, funny. That's why they called them flickers.

If I'd been 60 instead of 16 I would have been pretty steamed at Fractured Flickers for making ignorant fun of the great popular art of my youth. But perhaps I would have consoled myself by agreeing with Henry Ford that history is bunk. In the '60s we were certainly in the grip of progress, and, after all, the talkies did finally turn out all right.

But now it's the future that's being called into question, and a humbled nation turns its eyes backward to the great, and even psychic, pleasure of films driven almost entirely by image. We go to the movies now enmeshed in a time when a film's look often has more to do with set design than with anything a director might think to do with a camera, when, in fact, movies generally look more like heightened versions of television than an attempt to visually render, or even create, a world.

Creating a world is what the best of silent films were about. The lack of spoken dialogue inspired filmmakers. When watching a first-rate silent film, you're simply not going to wish that the characters were talking. The lack of dialogue works another wonder. Because the characters don't talk -- or rather, because they're talking in another dimension, on the other side of the screen -- they don't become fully individual. In the worst cases this can lead to characters that seem generalized and therefore boring. But in the best cases, the characters and their situations become archetypal. Films such as F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, this weekend's feature in the Rice Media Center's "Visual Pleasures" series of silent films, recognize this strength and play to it. In Sunrise, the characters are simply known as The Husband, The Wife and The Woman from the City.

It's often been remarked that the pure sound of radio can be a more direct link to the imagination than either television or sound film. The same holds true for the visual power of the silent. Because the characters' individuality has been blurred by silence, you're drawn toward them in compensation, to fill in the blanks. The link between viewer and film is less visceral than in, say, Reservoir Dogs, but the sensation of having a waking dream is much stronger -- especially in those films, such as D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, that are tinted to look like old photographs come to life.

The current move by film historians to save old movies comes just in time for some films. The silent films in the Rice series are all restored prints, having gone through the step-printing process that slows them down to something like their natural speed, but that doesn't mean they're pristine. Some of the films show evidence of the ravages they suffered. As a result, in films such as Sunrise there are incomplete moments that couldn't be fully saved.

But what remains is certainly worth seeing. Sunrise was German director Murnau's first Hollywood film, and while the studio forced a happy ending on him, he was able to employ the trademark techniques -- the moving camera, the elaborate and subtle sets, the double exposures -- that made him one of the most celebrated of early filmmakers and that won Sunrise a vote as the greatest film ever made from the French Cahiers du Cinema crowd. I don't know if I'd go that far, but this is one of the most visually complicated films ever made, one that Francis Ford Coppola sampled from when he attempted a "history of cinema" in Dracula. (Jane Campion's study of silent film, especially German Expressionism, is also quite obvious in the artier shots from The Piano.)

The film's stars, Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien, went on to success in sound films, but I doubt if they were ever more memorable than they are in Sunrise. Part of the poignance of silent film is our knowledge that the actors, captured here in a timelessness that doesn't hold for sound movies, are now all dead. These films are their ghosts, vulnerable and mute.

The "Visual Pleasures" series also includes Steamboat Bill, Jr. (with Buster Keaton), Intolerance, Sparrows (with Mary Pickford), The Man Who Laughs (with Conrad Veidt), Blood and Sand (with Rudolph Valentino) and It (with Clara Bow). Sundays at 7:30 p.m. through July 31. J

Sunrise, part of "Visual Pleasures" silent film series, shows at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 12 at the Rice Media Center, 527-4853. Directed by F.W. Murnau.

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