Silent film: It’s curious, it’s charming, but how to watch it?

As we say in Britain, there’s more than one way to skin a cat – and there’s more than one way to screen a silent film. This strangely complex medium must be handled with care, with reverence, yes, but not the slavish kind. The opening night of Tromsø’s Stumfilmdager (September 2nd – 5th) showed us the way.

Compared to your average CGI-enhanced, action-packed audiovisual sweet-treat, the pre-talkie movie is a subtle pleasure. Nevertheless such artefacts from the dawn of the movie age continue to sustain an ardent following, witnessed once more at this week’s opening of the silent-film mini-festival in Tromsø: Stumfilmdager. Perhaps it’s because silent movies represent an expression of the brand new medium of film at its most fresh and exuberant, and a strange, animated snapshot of a long forgotten time in our history.

The opening festivities this year featured two very different silent-film experiences, examples of the two principal alternative paths we might follow in our treatment of the medium: the reverential and the inspirational. The grand opening event was very much the former. We watched Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece and swansong, the beautifully crafted City Lights, fearlessly launched in 1931, even as the sun was irreversibly setting on the golden age of silent film.

Most importantly, we watched it in a thoroughly authentic way, as Chaplin the auteur and star of the show would have wanted. That’s why we needed a full symphony orchestra (with a few idiosyncratic additions, including a banjo) packed awkwardly around the movie screen at Tromsø’s Kulturhus. As the opening credits rolled the orchestra, aided and abetted by the notable silent-movie expert and musical interpreter, Ben Model, on piano, set about the task of faithfully reproducing the famous tramp’s original film-score.

«City Lights» (Charlie Chaplin, 1931).
«City Lights» (Charlie Chaplin, 1931).

This was an experience to foster a finer appreciation for the work of a genuine movie great, and for the remarkable breadth of his talent. It was as though a cunning concoction of music and pictures had summoned up the spirit of the man himself. Surely this is the magic of silent film at its best?

Well we should at least reserve judgement until we have considered the alternative. For this was also on offer that same evening, just down the street, ironically enough at that most traditional of movie venues, the custom-built cinema from 1916, Verdensteatret.

Here the noted filmmaker and accomplished pianist Dietrich Brüggemann, together with beatbox specialist Mando, provided something completely different. Old met new as they sat astride the long boarded over orchestra-pit and, assisted by the audience, selected promising looking clips from the postmodern smorgasbord we call YouTube. They rose magnificently to the challenge of improvising music and sound-effects to accompany whatever strange and often unpredictable imagery were chosen for viewing.

TIFF director Martha Otte introduces Stumfilmdager.
TIFF director Martha Otte introducing Stumfilmdager.

In some ways this is the most exciting avenue, where the historical artefact is liberated from its metaphorical museum and turned into an inspirational lodestone. In this way the silent film becomes a ghostly invitation to creative collaboration, and a living medium that is potentially gloriously reinvented on the occasion of each unique screening.

Both avenues are indispensable, however. We need to understand these films as best we can, speculate about what they may have meant to their creators and to their early audiences and, as chemistry permits, learn to love them. It is only through such understanding and appreciation that we open the door to true engagement and even collaboration.

We must learn to love in order, in a strange way, to be loved back by these artists of a bygone age. Then, ‘together,’ we might just manage to do something truly amazing, and enter a kind of silent-movie heaven.

In the immortal words of Eddie Cochran:

Step one, you find a girl to love
Step two, she falls in love with you
Step three, you kiss and hold her tightly
Yeah that sure seems like heaven to me.

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