Right now, silent film is the talk of the town. Scorsese took as his inspiration for Hugo the psychedelic fantasy and visual trickery of Georges Melies’ experimental films at the turn of the century. The long stretches of original footage Scorsese included stole the show. The Artist, a quite incredible 100 minutes of silent, black and white melodrama celebrating the late silent era, received six Golden Globe nominations and is expected to perform very well in the UK box office this month. French director Michel Hazanavicius cited as some of his inspiration a number of sensational silent dramas, including Murnau’s Sunrise (1929), John Ford’s Four Sons (1928), and Chaplin’s City Lights (1931).Â
The reason behind such a revival of interest is hard to descry. Perhaps the attraction to silent film is dependent on some level of estrangement, theâ€ˆage-old selling point of nostalgia and the ‘vintage’. As we occupy the 100-year mark since these films were made, the enthusiasm with which we greet any big anniversary is clearly present. The current appreciation of early special effects — stop motion, time lapse, multiple exposures — could either represent a longing for earlier simplicity and charm in this current age of breathtakingly expensive CGI, or a recognition of a similar time of technical discovery and excitement to our own.
However both Hugo and The Artist zone in on the melancholic passing away of the silent era, a sad but inevitable side-effect of transient popular tastes, and indeed we are unable to watch silent footage on a modern screen without the awareness that there is no talking. The films originally from this era are nonetheless magnetic because of what they can do, not what they can’t. The great three physical comedians of the 10s and 20s — Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin — embody this joyful exhilaration as they explore the possibilities of their medium though their scrambling, dangerous and occasionally horrifying stunts (combined with some startlingly intimate and subtle acting). The most sophisticated example of this genre is probably Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923), but Buster Keaton’s short films are always dense, funny and astonishing. The films remain immersive, perhaps more so than talkies due to the level of audience participation required — you are forced to strain your imaginative ears to fill in the gaps, and, as some modern adverts have twigged, a sudden silence can be more arresting than the rest of the clamour put together.Â