Silent Film: Ten Things I Hate About You!

Something a little different today, and something intended to be slightly tongue-in-cheek.  There are many wonderful things to love about silent film, but as with all things there are also the downsides.  So let me take you through my ten things I hate about loving silent film!

1.  The “Canon”.

It always seems odd to me that the most discussed and most revered silent films are the ones that are also the most atypical.  Yes, Battleship Potemkin is a wonderful achievement, but it has very little to do with the vast majority of silent film (even that in Russia), and while one can admire it and give praise for its various merits, I’d much rather sit down and watch a cheap and cheerful potboiler.  Wouldn’t you?  And yes, Chaney’s performance in Phantom of the Opera is wonderful and the film has some great set-pieces, but let’s face it The Unknown is a great deal more fun.  My point here is that the established canon that gets taught on all film courses is all very well, but it’s not exactly the best way to get people turned on to silent film.  Show them some fun films, catch their interest, then make them sit and watch The Passion of Joan of Arc.  As a viewing of any recent Oscar winner will show, the most revered and/or worthy films are often the least entertaining.

2.  Copyright.

Oh, don’t get me started on copyright.  Just because there are a handful of films prior to 1930 that might be able to make some money for their studios, the vast majority of surviving silent films will never make their way either to home video or even internet streaming.  Literally hundreds of films will never ever make their studios a penny because there isn’t a big enough audience or because the print is too poor but, even so, they can’t be distributed by one of the smaller companies because their studios want too much money for them.  I declare that film studio should have a copyright amnesty, state categorically which films they intend to distribute in the future and then give up their copyright on everything else so that the world doesn’t lose yet more silent films.

Fat chance, but nice idea, don’t you think?

3.  Copyright.

Yes, you did read that right.  Copyright again.  In America, companies such as Warner have started releasing their titles through their burn on demand series, and many are silent films.  Wonderful news.  But if you are outside America you can’t buy them as Warner don’t have the distribution rights (or something like that).  Well, you can buy them, but through third parties which then inflates the price.  It’s mad.  Studios want to clamp down on illegal downloads and yet wave films in front of peoples noses and then say “you can’t buy it!”

4.  Lost Films

Surely this is one of the main things to hate about silent film, isn’t it?  Reading about a film, thinking you’d like to see it, and then finding out that it doesn’t exist anymore.  Occasionally, there is a nice surprise and you find out that the film you want to see does exist – in an archive 5000 miles away.  Grrrrr.

5.  Private Collectors

Ah yes.  A pet hate of many, I should imagine.   Those people who have the sole copy of a film but decide they want to keep it for themselves and never let anyone ever see it again.  What’s the point?  It’s like the art collectors who buy a Picasso and then shove it in a vault.   So, to those private collectors: don’t let it rot in your cellar, give it to a bloody archive!

6.  DVD releases without subtitles

Now, there is only a limited market for silent films to start with, so why some DVD companies of non-english speaking countries don’t include english subs as standard is beyond me.  We would buy them if we could understand them and hence increase sales.   This isn’t rocket science, is it?

7.  Academic Writing

Ok, so this is my chance of an academic career flushed down the toilet.  But really.  We are writing about film here.  Film.  One of the things that have given people a great deal of pleasure over the last hundred years or so.  So, how do some people manage to make their writing so dry?  It is getting better, but I see no reason why an academic paper should be irretrivably dull…or read as if the writer has swallowed a dictionary.  I swear that sometimes I feel I might as well be reading physics.  So, come on folks, let’s make it more interesting.  Add a bit of character.  Maybe even push the boat out and add in an exclamation mark here and there.  You know you can do it if you try!

My serious point here is that I don’t come from an academic family.  I am the one person even in my extended family who has attended university.   Perhaps because of that, I don’t believe that academic snobbery, where the only people who can understand our research is other academics, is a good thing.   If I write a paper or a book I want it to be in language that everyone can understand, not just the select few.  I don’t feel as if reading an academic paper should be hard work.  Yes, it should challenge us.  Of course it should.  But is should challenge us with ideas, not a barrage of convuluted sentences that we literally have to read half a dozen times in order to get the gist of what the writer is sayin.

We are in 2013 now, let’s get rid of the snobbery and make what we write accessible to all.

8.  Television

This doesn’t just apply to silent film, but to all classic films:  where are they? Films  have vanished from our screens, only to be replaced by a barrage of programmes about antiques and buying houses no real people can afford.  Ok, so I like Bargain Hunt too, but the absence of the classic film every afternoon on a couple of our main channels is a real loss, I think.  Yes, there are a fair amount of classic films on the premium cable channels, but even then they are the same ones over and over.  So many films that used to appear on our TV screens when I was a kid have just vanished into the ether it seems.  And more films shown on TV result in more people interested in film, and that can only be a good thing.

And talking about TV…

9.  TCM in the UK

In America, TCM is wonderful.  Silent films every week.  Classic films 24 hours a day.  In the UK we have re-runs of Bonanza.  And western films.  Endless bloody western films.  Now, I don’t mind the odd western.  But it’s virtually all TCM shows in the UK.  Over and over again.  The same films.  Oh, what I would give to be able to see the US TCM in the UK!

10.  Organs

Yes.  Organs.  If I hear another organ soundtrack to a silent film I will scream.  I don’t like organs at the best of times.  Not much turns me off classical music, but organs will do it nearly every time (Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony is the exception to this rule).  So sitting through a two hour film while an organ wheezes away in the background is a battle.  I confess I would rather watch it mute.  Or put a CD on.  Something.  Anything but an organ!!!!

And now that I have had my ten-part rant, I promise you, faithful reader(s),  that normal service will resume shortly.


One comment on “Silent Film: Ten Things I Hate About You!

  1. Hello Shane:
    I saw the link to your blog on the FECC forum and followed it. And your recent rant about silent film, the Warner Archive Collection and TCM UK are almost word for word my own feelings on the subject. I have written to TCM regularly since October 2000 when they cut 63 films from their schedule with no explanation and have never been the same since. TCM hit their all-time low when they started showing the 1999 film ‘A Fish in the Bathtub’, with Ben Stiller’s dad in it (whose name I forget). Now, they won’t even reply to my emails or Facebook postings. I spent several months in California researching the Warner and RKO archives looking through production and music materials and built up friendships with people who have supplied me with stuff, and I also made sure that I stayed in places that carried TCM. Have you read RIchard Barrios’ wonderful book ‘A Song in the Dark’, about the musical film from 1927 to 1934? I happen to love all film of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood, from 1913 up to the early 1950’s. Last weekend I watched Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’, the Zoetrope re-issue version, which definitely had English subtitles and a wonderful score by Carmine Coppola. I am also attempting to write my own film score, to the 1922 Cecil B. DeMille film ‘Manslaughter’, but it is difficult because of illness, sadly. Keep up the great work. I shall reply more when I have the energy. Cheers, Stephen

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