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Contemporary Silent Cinema [Talking Images]

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St. Gloede
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Contemporary Silent Cinema [Talking Images]

#1

Post by St. Gloede » July 7th, 2020, 12:08 pm

Hi all,

In this episode we will talk through all of the major contemporary silent films, or rather, the few there are:

Silent Movie
Juha
The Call of Cthulhu
Brand Upon the Brain
Dr Plonk
La Antena
The Artist
Blanchieves

And ask the question:

1. Are silent films simply the result of unfortunate technical limitations, which the medium luckily overcame - or are they a unique style with its own merits.

2. Why did it take such a long time from the decline of silents to any kind of larger silent film project.

3. What do we wish to see from silent cinema in the future.

You can listen here:

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/3oOBxUsLfX6T1MgRxT30dk

Sounder: https://talking-images.sounder.fm/episo ... ent-cinema

-
Timestamps:

Intro: 00.00
Is it valid to make silents today: 3.09
Why did it take 30-40 years for the first post-silent era silent: 4.45
Early Films With Silent Elements: 8.03
Experimental Cinema, Warhol and At Sea: 10.01
Silent Movie: 13.32
Juha: 22.05
The Call of Cthulhu: 26.58
Brand Upon the Brain: 31.36
Dr Plonk: 39.38
La Antena: 50.51
The Artist: 57.07
Blanchieves: 1.03.57
Conclusion and the future of contemporary silent cinema: 1.09.55

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#2

Post by Onderhond » July 7th, 2020, 12:24 pm

Haven't listened yet, but somewhat disappointed that my pet peeve wasn't discussed: how do you deal with soundtracks (cfr appreciation and rating). To me they have a big impact on the overall enjoyment and especially with silents there's a lot of experimentation going on, often with very modern soundtracks set to classic silent films. I really liked A Page of Madness for example, to watched bits of it with a different soundtrack and it was pretty terrible (the difference between a 3.5* and a 1.5*).

On the other hand, that's probably a bigger problem with classic silents rather than contemporary silent films, which come with a fixed soundtrack.

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#3

Post by shugs » July 7th, 2020, 12:38 pm

Onderhond wrote:
July 7th, 2020, 12:24 pm
Haven't listened yet, but somewhat disappointed that my pet peeve wasn't discussed: how do you deal with soundtracks (cfr appreciation and rating). To me they have a big impact on the overall enjoyment and especially with silents there's a lot of experimentation going on, often with very modern soundtracks set to classic silent films. I really liked A Page of Madness for example, to watched bits of it with a different soundtrack and it was pretty terrible (the difference between a 3.5* and a 1.5*).

On the other hand, that's probably a bigger problem with classic silents rather than contemporary silent films, which come with a fixed soundtrack.
That's my biggest detractor from watching classic silent movies, too. There are movies where the modern soundtrack fits really well, like The Phantom Carriage with the score by Matti Bye, or that copy of The Fall of the House of Usher I watched with a droney soundtrack I still haven't found the author of. :lol:

Then you get crap like this (timestamped for the awfulness):


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#4

Post by Onderhond » July 7th, 2020, 12:42 pm

Edit: oh, the subject is touched upon very shortly! Served me right for commenting before listening.

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#5

Post by St. Gloede » July 7th, 2020, 12:56 pm

Onderhond wrote:
July 7th, 2020, 12:24 pm
Haven't listened yet, but somewhat disappointed that my pet peeve wasn't discussed: how do you deal with soundtracks (cfr appreciation and rating). To me they have a big impact on the overall enjoyment and especially with silents there's a lot of experimentation going on, often with very modern soundtracks set to classic silent films. I really liked A Page of Madness for example, to watched bits of it with a different soundtrack and it was pretty terrible (the difference between a 3.5* and a 1.5*).

On the other hand, that's probably a bigger problem with classic silents rather than contemporary silent films, which come with a fixed soundtrack.
Actually, it does come up with At Sea, but only briefly, but as you said, this is not actually an issue here. Essentially all contemporary silents are shot with an integrated score and usually additional sound effects, etc. just as the majority of late 20s silents films. As such they should generally be seen as intended. This issue really only pops up if the score is missing or, in more extreme cases like At Sea, where the intent is to not have sound.

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#6

Post by St. Gloede » July 7th, 2020, 12:59 pm

shugs wrote:
July 7th, 2020, 12:38 pm
Onderhond wrote:
July 7th, 2020, 12:24 pm
Haven't listened yet, but somewhat disappointed that my pet peeve wasn't discussed: how do you deal with soundtracks (cfr appreciation and rating). To me they have a big impact on the overall enjoyment and especially with silents there's a lot of experimentation going on, often with very modern soundtracks set to classic silent films. I really liked A Page of Madness for example, to watched bits of it with a different soundtrack and it was pretty terrible (the difference between a 3.5* and a 1.5*).

On the other hand, that's probably a bigger problem with classic silents rather than contemporary silent films, which come with a fixed soundtrack.
That's my biggest detractor from watching classic silent movies, too. There are movies where the modern soundtrack fits really well, like The Phantom Carriage with the score by Matti Bye, or that copy of The Fall of the House of Usher I watched with a droney soundtrack I still haven't found the author of. :lol:

Then you get crap like this (timestamped for the awfulness):

I hate so many modern soundtracks. I had to turn the sound of Master of the House completely off, and this kind of industrial/droney music just doesn't fit with so many films. I'm pretty sure it weakened my first experience with Man With a Movie Camera too. That said The Lodger soundtrack seemed great until the singing started - I don't enjoy that (generally) as I feel it distracts from the actual film.

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#7

Post by Onderhond » July 7th, 2020, 1:09 pm

I think the biggest question here is whether you consider "silent" as a true "style" (i.e., including all the exaggerated performances, intertitles and whatnot), or just films without dialogue (and maybe even without ambient sound).

On paper modern silents have great potential, but when it becomes something like The Artist (which just panders to classic cinema) I'm not really all that interested. Would be nice to see Ki-duk take his style one step further (cfr Bin-jip) and make a film without any dialogue, but within a contemporary setting). I do love dramas with silent characters.

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#8

Post by St. Gloede » July 7th, 2020, 1:41 pm

Personally I view silents as a specific style/form of filmmaking, I could even go as far as to essentially call it a genre, most closely related to animation in that they can both tell stories/create worlds and experiences driven by visuals. They also both have the power to present stories in a very different way because of this, giving grandeur to often simple concepts.

I wouldn't necessarily use the term "exaggerated" acting, not all silent performances/styles are "exaggerated" - it is more about being able to convey emotions with facial expressions and body languages, often accompanied by shadowplay, rapid editing or other visual elements to set the tone and mood.

I disagree somewhat re: The Artist, I think the pandering works perfectly, especially thanks to the the meta-level of exploring both the era using the techniques of the era and showcasing the lead's state of mind/world - and it just works wonderfully as a love letter to silent cinema, but that said:

I also agree: We can't just have every contemporary silent film be a love letter to silent ... they need to evolve the style further and explore the terrain to see what experiences can be created using this style.

Honestly, I'm quite sad sound was discovered as early as it was. They had just mastered the medium, and what we were getting from masters like Murnau was simply incredible. Imagine all the wonderful films if we just had, hell 1 or 2 extra years. Just look at how much '27, '28 and '29 dominates silent lists. Imagine if 1930 and 1931 were also silent first - or hell, imagine another decade. I mention Lisboa (1930) in the podcast and how the camera moves between people's feet and water is splashing around them - or how Finis Terrae captures the environment of the island - or hell, Sunrise.

It is so incredibly sad that the degree of mastery and visual poetry of this specific form of filmmaking was just left for dead.

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#9

Post by Onderhond » July 7th, 2020, 2:21 pm

The problem with sound is that it could potentially add a lot to silent cinema, but because it brought dialogue with it, that potential was pretty much abandoned. It's no secret that I'm not a big fan of classic cinema, but when focusing on classic cinema I do seem to prefer silents over the cinema of the 30s-50s. I do like their focus on visuals and mood, rather than spiffy dialogue and plot.

I don't see the world of film as being ready for a modern interpretation of silent cinema though. I'm not really up to date on modern experimental film makers, but people like Guy Maddin seem to be looking at the past more than they're looking at the future.
I wouldn't necessarily use the term "exaggerated" acting, not all silent performances/styles are "exaggerated"
Mwell, as someone who is used to stilted Asian dramas it definitely feels exaggerated. There are more ways to convey something than through broad facial expressions and movements, I've never really seen that in silent films. It's true that it's not all slapstick crazy, but there's not much subtlety there.

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#10

Post by St. Gloede » July 7th, 2020, 3:35 pm

Onderhond wrote:
July 7th, 2020, 2:21 pm
The problem with sound is that it could potentially add a lot to silent cinema, but because it brought dialogue with it, that potential was pretty much abandoned. It's no secret that I'm not a big fan of classic cinema, but when focusing on classic cinema I do seem to prefer silents over the cinema of the 30s-50s. I do like their focus on visuals and mood, rather than spiffy dialogue and plot.

I don't see the world of film as being ready for a modern interpretation of silent cinema though. I'm not really up to date on modern experimental film makers, but people like Guy Maddin seem to be looking at the past more than they're looking at the future.
Guy Maddin is a bit of his own thing as he specifically uses the limitations and shortcomings of early cinema, usually 20s and early talkies, to create bizarre comedies that can almost be read as poetry - and he has essentially created a unique world of his own - so I couldn't really brand him with anyone else making actual silents - of which Brand Upon the Brain, I would argue, is his only full-length example - while still having a narrator. (the only reason it qualifies is that you can choose the narrator and various narrators toured with the film performing on the stage, as opposed to actually having integrated narration.

I do think your complaint is 100% valid, however. Of the films above, excluding Brand Upon the Brain, it is only really La Antena and Blanchieves that specifically aims to do something more with the traditional medium/style - as opposed to just paying tribute- and the former of course is partially with sound. So it has been very, very slim pickings. You could also make the case for Juha, as it is in Kaurismaki's usual style and it is almost a silent by "accident", but they still put in several sillier nods to silents.

Ironically, something like At Sea, which I'm glad I got to talk about to some length despite not being listed, as an experimental film, does in some ways get closer to the genre of symphony films and does more with it than almost all of the others. That's not putting any of them down - as films attempting to look back and re-explore - they did fantastically well.

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#11

Post by brokenface » July 7th, 2020, 4:37 pm

Bait would be another interesting one to discuss in this context. Not silent, but shot silent & post-synched and using techniques that makes it feel very much like a silent film. I wasn't totally sold but it got loads of hype from UK critics, maybe hasn't played too widely elsewhere..

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9652782/

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#12

Post by Onderhond » July 7th, 2020, 10:13 pm

@St. Gloede: complete coincidence, but I just finished watching Nobuhiko Ôbayashi's Emotion (one of his early shorts) and it reminded me of our conversation earlier today. Not a true silent, because there's quite a bit of narration (both in English and Japanese), but it has the "style" of a silent film, only a bit more experimental. Some bits are shot in color, others are monochrome, frantic editing, fast & random intertitles, stop-motion, a vague narrative. Obayashi clearly didn't miss start as a director.

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#13

Post by cinewest » July 9th, 2020, 3:26 am

I've seen 4 of the films you discuss (also saw an interesting mostly silent German film called Tuvalu), but none became favorites for me. That said, I have several favorites that have made excellent use of silent cinema for extended scenes, or even large segments of the film, like Three Times or Gomes' Tabu.

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#14

Post by blocho » July 9th, 2020, 5:10 am

I just finished. A very interesting discussion, and kudos to all of the hosts for their eloquent, erudite comments. La Antena was definitely my favorite of the bunch. I greatly appreciated how well the hosts connected different elements in each movie to motifs or styles from the silent era.

As an aside, one of the comments Christoffer made sparked a memory. He pointed out that silent movies (from the silent era) were not actually silent because they were usually accompanied by music. Back in my academic days, I remember reading an article on this topic. So just to fill in a bit more: It goes beyond music. While music was often the aural accompaniment to silent movies, it always depended on the theater. In some theaters, especially in immigrant neighborhoods, rather than music someone in the audience would translate the intertitles. In other theaters, an employed or impromptu narrator might interpret and explain the events on screen. This role was common, for example, in Japan. And none of this is surprising. It's difficult to be in a room full of people and remain silent. People want sound. Try it sometime: Sit with a bunch of people and put on a silent movie and mute the sound, and you'll find inevitably that people start talking about the movie.

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#15

Post by AdamH » July 12th, 2020, 2:31 pm

Really enjoyed listening to it. There are also plans for a 1920s silent cinema episode at some point too which should be an interesting counterpart to this one. The Artist is the only modern silent that I have seen but I really enjoyed it and it would be good if there were more films done using the old silent cinema techniques. I think that it can to add to modern films, too.

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#16

Post by cinewest » July 12th, 2020, 2:39 pm

Just stumbled across a modern Indian silent called Labor of Love. Wonder if anyone has seen it?

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#17

Post by St. Gloede » July 12th, 2020, 2:54 pm

cinewest wrote:
July 12th, 2020, 2:39 pm
Just stumbled across a modern Indian silent called Labor of Love. Wonder if anyone has seen it?
I have not, and somehow we didn't stumble over it in our research for the episode either. From what I can see it has no dialog, and uses music rather than natural sound, so it definitely qualifies if that is the case. This could be really exciting as it appears to be without intertitles and in colour - pretty much exactly was Onderhond was requesting above (taking it a very different place). Great find!

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#18

Post by St. Gloede » July 27th, 2020, 9:09 am

Btw, who are some directors you would love to see try their hand at a silent film?

I mentioned Roy Andersson is the podcast, due to his breathtaking, detailed and guiet one take scenes, a style he could without a doubt build on/work with in a different way in the silent medium.

One director I cannot believe I did not think of however, is Terrence Malick, who is arguably one of the most visual current directors, and has worked to create his own style, essentially freeing the camera from the narrative in Song to Song, and shooting "with emotion". Seeing him take this into silent cinema, especially if he made a silent in colour, could be incredible.

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