Friday, February 10, 2012

The Silent Crime: How The Artist Might Reopen Lost Modes of Cinematic Experience

It seems strange to recall that once upon a time, it was normal cinema-going practice to not hear any speech or sound effects from the images unfolding before your eyes, but to instead have the experience soundtracked by a pianist sitting somewhere not out of sight. It was certainly strange for me, on my shamefully delayed virgin experience of live silent cinema, as I took my seat at the BFI Southbank for a showing of the 1922 version of Oliver Twist. The piano was already set up, its blackness not distinguishing it from the necessarily muted décor, and the pianist - the famous Neil Brand - was already seated before it, ready to do the job he's done countless times before. It had never struck me before that the pianists in this situation would have to play without music sheets, because they're basically playing in the dark. It wasn't the most inspired score, but then it wasn't the most inspired adaptation - this particular version of Oliver Twist was conceived as a vehicle for the cherubic star Jackie Coogan, and it betrays the most blinkered tendencies of the money-hungry studios and managers, because Oliver is all wrong for Coogan, who is irresistibly adorable, but his scenes with the rich folks smack all over of goody-two-shoes. There are some interesting shot choices, and Gladys Brockwell shines as Nancy, but it gives itself over to the angelic innocence of Coogan, shaving all the character from the central character.

Brand's compositions were clean and classic, exactly the kind of shifts between chirpy high pitches and menacing low ones you'd imagine soundtracked the film on its release. Every so often, I looked over to Brand, professionally immersed in the job, but it never really drew me out of the film. The human mind is surprisingly adaptable. Once I'd become used to the irregular novelty of a film without audible speech, the strangeness of a man sitting feet away playing the soundtrack fell away with it. You imagine that when the film was released, the audience experience would be starkly different  - when, exactly, did Western experience of cinema shift into one where complete silence before the screen was the expected behaviour? Audiences in India still treat the experience as a fluid, communal one, although of course, their cinema is one of the few national cinemas to have retained a distinct style, and perhaps suggests itself, in the repetitions and cliches and sheer length, as a product that doesn't have to be experienced as a uniform whole. The Western world, though, seemed to change with the advent of sound; as Robert Sklar put it, "talking audiences for silent pictures became a silent audience for talking pictures"¹. What my night at the silent movies was missing was a chat with the person next to me.

I get a lot from the movies. If I didn't, I wouldn't intermittently maintain this blog, and I wouldn't have been studying film for the past seven years. But sometimes, I do reflect on the loneliness that cinephilia can bring on you. Even if you go to the movies with other people, it's an odd choice of social activity, because you're paying to go and sit with friends or family or a date and not interact with them for two hours. And if you do interact with them, chances are someone - probably me - will hiss at you to shut the hell up or get out of the theatre. It's about a divergence between cinema as art and cinema as entertainment. My definitive choice would be art, and so I do like my silence at the movies, the immersive matching of image and surround sound. But the silent film's momentary comeback with The Artist might point us back to a different, more acceptable mode of cinematic community.

Revisit your own experience of watching The Artist. No one said a word, did they? Or if they did, they were shushed in the regular manner of normal cinema-going practice. It is, to an extent, symptomatic of the breakdown of social communities and human communication evolving into technology that cinematic experience in Western culture has developed in such a narrow form. The mooted idea of allowing mobile phones to be used in cinemas is going in completely the wrong direction - that's merely replacing one screen with another, one type of alternate reality beginning to swallow another. If you're looking at your phone, you're not experiencing the movie. But if you were talking about the movie while it played - could that not be a valuable extension of cinematic experience? Cinema's future seems to lie inside our own homes, and the criticism that opponents of that evolution repeat is its lack of the collective experience. Ultimately, though codes of audience silence are ingrained in us, impulses remain of wanting to be a community. I know that one of the most enjoyable experiences I've ever had in a cinema was a packed house for Drag Me To Hell, where a hefty percentage of the pleasure was the laughter, jittery nervousness and loudly whispered fears of the people around me. With the right kind of people, the experience of a film can be significantly enhanced.

There is no right answer. I'm equally enraptured by that screening of Drag Me To Hell as I am with The Purple Rose of Cairo's depiction of Cecelia being able to enter the fantasy world in front of her. Sometimes, we need escapism. And I'm not even suggesting that in the silent era, cinema was the precise flipside of what it is now - Rick Altman's Silent Film Sound details the diverse ways in which different expressions of sound were explored before pre-recorded synchronisation². But it feels as though cinema, long before anyone reading this was even born, has closed off so many different avenues of enriching experience. The domination of the idea of escapism betrays the darkened world of pessimism we seem to live in, one where all cinema is expected to offer is a distraction from our woes. Ironically, silence is the mode of audience's expression that has become ingrained ever since cinema itself broke its muteness. If The Artist's success has given us anything, it is perhaps the possibility to dust off these other roads and see if they're worth treading.

¹ Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. Vintage, 1994, p. 117
² Altman, Rick. Silent Film Sound. Columbia University Press, 2004.

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