Exposure: Silent films still say so much

In the age of decreasing attention spans, many have a hard time sitting through a simple two-hour film without checking their cell phones, tweeting, checking Facebook – or whatever the case may be.

So it really came as no surprise that, when it recently was reported that 70 percent of feature length silent films from the early 20th century were lost forever (due to decay and neglect in preservation by film studios), the few who cared to comment expressed the expected who-caresits and sarcastic feelings of “sadness.”

“I’m sure they were boring anyway” and “Silent movies would be easier to watch if they spoke in them” were among some of the comments from users on a news article on The Huffington Post.

“Silent movies were dying when I was a kid but now with the whole world texting and tweeting they are dead for sure,” another user said.

After all, why watch a silent film for entertainment when there are films with the luxury of audible dialogue available?

While many Philistines shrug at the news with apathy, for film buffs, the alarming results from the study commissioned by the Library of Congress signify a sad cultural loss.


Film enthusiasts argue that silent films required more artistic and acting talent than their audible counterparts; without audible dialogue, actors must to put forth their best effort to communicate though other means.

“Without sound and with limited on-screen wording, filmmakers had to convey complex themes, motivations, thoughts and actions of the characters. The actor’s use of facial expressions and body language to convey a mood or thought is still in use today but with more subtlety,” said Richard James, founder of Billtown Film Festival.

Additionally, without digital technology, early filmmakers had to put forth much physical and manual effort into creating simple visual effects. Early filmmakers like George Melies, in order to produce color, would paint directly on celluloid film, frame by frame. And actors (Buster Keaton, for instance) would routinely hurt themselves doing many of their own stunts.

There also is the idea that early cinema was pure in its intentions, simply made to entertain, the satisfaction for the filmmakers (and the actors) lying in the smiles and emotion drawn from the audiences’ faces and hearts, whereas films now are churned out without the same pure heart and talent … a lot of the time with dollars as intentions.


On a more grand scale, many seem to forget, or do not care enough to acknowledge the importance of the world’s artistic past and what would not be possible now without the existence and curiosity of the world’s first artists.

It is the celluloid pioneers and curiousers of entertainment, like Louis Le Prince, creator of the earliest known footage of moving film in 1888, who have opened the doors to this form of art that allows us to escape reality, if only for a few hours.

Grant Fausey, Adjunct professor of film studies at Lycoming College, emphasized silent film’s importance: “It’s part of history, our history, as humanity. It’s how we look upon the world and see a piece of antiquity. Yes, they were silent films, but it is the archive of our impression of life that is important in our review of an era long gone,” adding that, “It’s crucial to remember our heritage, in all aspects of life, especially as we move forward as a culture.”

From the fuzzy, flickering two seconds of Le Prince’s 1888 film, “Roundhay Garden Scene” which only shows a few people wandering around a small space in a garden to the 3-D worlds of complex digital films like James Cameron’s “Avatar,” film has come a long, long way in only 125 years, for better or for worse.


To the pleasure of film enthusiasts, silent film may be making a comeback; in 2012, to the surprise of many, “The Artist” (a modern silent, black and white film) took home five Oscars, including Best Picture – and deservingly so. But, as is the case for many Oscar nominees, the general public had a hard time understanding it.

At the time, I worked at a video store, and when “The Artist” was finally released on DVD, it sat on the shelf collecting dust. The general public passed it by, wondering why anyone would want to pay money to watch a silent film. “The Artist” hardly ever rented and I think the store actually lost money on purchasing the copies for rent, never making back the money.

Ultimately, while it may be difficult to “turn on” people of today to the grainy imperfections of silent films, perhaps we can urge a bit more respect for them. For those who have Netflix, there is a wonderful selection of silent films ready to stream instantly, like “Metropolis” (1927), “Nosferatu” (1922) and a variety of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films. I urge you to give them a try, if only to experience the sensation of stepping back in time.