Moving pictures without sound
When understanding a filmmaker like John Ford or Jean Renoir or Alfred Hitchcock, it’s interesting to note that their first films didn’t have sound. I’d never pieced that together before. Or realised that even in the 1960s some of the most respected film criticism was done by people who knew films when they were called motion pictures and were silent.
In 1939, a 45-year old person has only watched feature films with synchronized music and dialogue since 1927. They’ve potentially watched movies without sound since they were ten – which was a twenty-year period – without synchronized dialogue; and that this fact has informed all of their criticism of sound film – talkies.
What they know through their experience and what they expect from movies through their experience is more about images captured on celluloid without an expectation of accompanying sound or an explanatory voice.
I read in a book yesterday, “Almost every Renoir film has been distinguished by taste, intelligence, and maturity of theme. Such qualities are rare in films. Why, then, do we feel a certain lack in nearly all his films. It may be that Renoir’s desire to express important themes makes him too dependent on literary script-writers, such as Charles Spaak and Nichols. It may be that he thinks of a film in terms of isolated scenes.”
It would be like an artist or writer – Shakespeare – writing words which could only be spoken, or be read, heard and remembered – but which no one could write down and re-read – and were never allowed to be spoken outside of the context of pure poetry: not by an actor – or a real being – only as words without actions.
Words without actions. Actions without words. That’s a terrible straitjacket. But actions without words was exactly what silent films were dealing with and what directors were trying to overcome.
‘The Film Till Now’ – The 1967 Bible of Film, by Paul Rotha
I’ve just re-read yesterday’s thoughts about critics and academics who think in terms of films being inherently, either literary or visual. It’s definitely to do with where they’re/we’re coming from in our knowledge and expectation of film. Paul Rotha’s criticism of Jean Renoir for being too literary in his films would also apply (presumably) to someone filming one of Shakespeare’s plays. I didn’t really get what he was saying about ‘the real’ film before, but I can now see that the ‘real’ film in his mind is where storytelling originates in visuals, not words. Of course, Shakespeare originates in words, so that would be a minus for Rotha.
So, we need to look at critiques and scholarly work in their historical context. It in no way should suggest that earlier scholarly work on films is outdated. It’s not. But it does arise out of preconceptions which someone born after 1925 wouldn’t have, because almost all films they’ve seen had synchronized dialogue.
When I quote from someone, if I have some information that isn’t based on the IMDB or Wikipedia – edited by a community – I’ll hope the publisher of the book was telling the truth on the dustjacket.
Paul Rotha’s book The Film Till Now, was first published in 1930. My edition is 1967. In 1949, someone called Richard Griffith added a section, The Film Since Then under Rotha’s editorship, enlarged, revised and published in 1960.
It is an incredible – amazing – extraordinary – survey of World Cinema, as right or as wrong as the opinions of the authors. A must-read. But don’t take my word for it.
Quotes, as dangerous on the flaps of dustjackets in 1967 as on Wikipedia today (even with sources/references), or from referees in conjunction with a job application, notwithstanding, state:
Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life 1946): “It seems that no matter where I go, local picture-makers read and quote from Paul Rotha’s classic The Film Till Now.”
Carl Foreman (writer/producer High Noon 1952): “Absolutely indispensable to any serious student of the cinema.”
Fritz Lang (director Metropolis 1927):”The reprint of this important book provides all young people who grew up after the invention of sound with the opportunity of studying the history of film from its beginnings.”
Fred Zinnemann (Oklahoma! 1955 / From Here to Eternity 1953): “One of the most important, if not the most important, standard works on the early cinema.”
La Régle du Jeu (1939) and Footloose (1984)
Tonight, for me was what Young Frankenstein was for Mick LaSalle in 2008 (which I read about in an interesting article about famous films people haven’t seen. I’ll write about it soon). It was a different film, that I’d missed in 1984; a film that my wife cheekily told me, ten years ago, without which, my film education would never be truly complete. I’d seen clips from it. I’d seen parodies of it. I’d read about it. I’d even seen the Flight of the Conchords “angry dance”, but I’d never seen Kevin Bacon’s actual angry dance.
It’s kind of hilarious. Even moreso, that in the week of Jean Renoir (which has now become The Two Weeks of Jean Renoir) I watched La Régle du Jeu (1939) and Footloose (1984) – both for the first time.
That’s a pretty broad bridge to walk down; it’s also a long bow to draw; but they have a few things in common: they’re both about making a commentary on a social order, and a social hierarchy; and they’re both about losing one’s faith (Régle with one’s country, class and the decline of civilization – and Footloose, about believing or not believing the things our fathers teach us and the decline of civilization – where some people actually still burn books). Both stories are a fiction and yet they’re both – unbelievably – based on ways of life that really existed or even still exist – and are set around belief systems applicable in both eras.
My film education is now complete. Well, it will be in another thirty-six weeks.