Silent Cinema’s Near-Silent Comeback

By  · Published on April 2nd, 2013

Slightly over a year ago, after Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist came home with a Best Picture win and accomplished the unlikely feat of becoming a $100+ million worldwide hit, observations hit the web (ranging from hopeful to snarky) speculating whether or not the critical and financial success of this film would bring about a trend of new silent filmmaking. That the film’s gimmick seemed anathema to any marketing department’s formula for success stood as a provocation to an ever recycling Hollywood, declaring: if you revisit winning formulas, why not this one?

Of course, few genuinely expected such a trend to actually come to fruition. In February 2012, David Denby wrote:

“We should be happy that The Artist exists at all, of course. Even after being nominated for ten Oscars and winning numerous awards from critics’ groups and the guilds, the film still seems arbitrary – one of those freaks of idealism which sometimes occur in the movies.”

Even after the seeming silent-throwback double bill of The Artist and Hugo, Denby can only imagine a silent film resurgence happening in repertory form: a new emerging interest in old classics rather than an opportunity for new filmmakers to experiment with older forms of cinematic expression. But silent cinema has made something of a soft but notable and innovative return subsequent to The Artist – it just didn’t quite happen in the way we expected.

Both Miguel Gomes’s Tabu from Portugal and Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves from Spain were recognized as their respective countries’ official selections for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Neither film was ultimately nominated, but both have been released in the US to critical acclaim, even if they’ve remained under the radar. Each of these films, however, point to different possibilities in the contemporary embrace of “silent” film forms.

Semi-Silence is Golden

The term “silent,” of course, should be taken with a grain of salt with these films for, even despite the inclusion of some dialogue and the occasional sound effect, all these films are synched to recorded music or background noise, an aspect that contradicts most historical silent works which typically had live accompaniment in the form of music or performance. Thus, the New Silent Cinema, in practice, refers more to filmmakers’ embrace of a general set of long-abandoned techniques than an accurate re-deployment of a former exhibition practice.

Blancanieves seems the necessary second step to continuing what The Artist began. Where Hazanavicius’s film celebrates the final days of Silent Hollywood, with its spectacles of exotic adventure and pratfall comedy, Blancanieves exhibits the legacy of European silent cinema, ranging from German Expressionism to Abel Gance-style experiments in kinetic movement and camerawork.

The Artist is not only about silent Hollywood, it’s about silent Hollywood, reworking Singin’ in the Rain’s technological threat to silent stardom for an interiorized vision of a late silent Hollywood all to certain of its own impending demise; of course sound arrives by the end, for us and for the characters. In contrast, Blancanieves’s major references consist less of cinema itself than the gothic tales that inspired a great deal of European filmmaking during the 1920s, in this case a reworking of Grimm’s fairy tale, Snow White, in the context of Spanish bullfighting. Signifiers of synchronized sound (as in, dialogue and effects) never enter the picture during the film; however, the excellent soundtrack composed by Alfonso de Vilallonga does play with musical tones with respect to events onscreen, just as live accompanists did during silent cinema’s heyday.

In short, Blancanieves envisions a full return to silent cinema, where its unique modes of cinematic expression are not under threat from the latest development in audio technology. Unlike The Artist, it’s a film that prefers simply to explore the possibilities of silent film conventions rather than exhibit any awareness of the historical conditions through which these former techniques were stamped out.

Brand New Antiques

Tabu is certainly less overtly or conventionally “marked” as a silent film. After all, the film’s first half depicts the final days of an octogenarian living in Lisbon with a contemporary, given approach to synchronous dialogue. It’s in the film’s second half, depicted in flashback, that Tabu embraces the stylistic possibilities of silent cinema without utilizing all its conventions.

In paying tribute to the Robert Flaherty and F.W. Murnau-directed docudrama from which Gomes’s film gains its name (in spirit, but not in specifics), the second half of Tabu persists through a liminal space between silence and sound: narration is present, as are sound elements that build the world of the film, including everything from wind to gunshots. But dialogue is notably and selectively absent, giving Tabu a haunting ethereality. This isn’t silent cinema conventionally recognized as such, but a decisive avoidance of fully synchronized dialogue as a given in favor of possibilities that can combine a range of underutilized formal techniques in order to elicit a variety of affective responses from the viewer. While certainly a politically charged film, Tabu is also (perhaps provocatively) a totalizing, enveloping aesthetic experience.

The Artist, Blancanieves, and Tabu share significant similarities. In each film, the use of silent techniques is justified by the temporal setting: if silent cinema was the means by which the early 20th century was depicted and captured via moving images, then (whether the subject be Hollywood, bullfighting, or colonialism) this is how the feel of the 1910s and 1920s can be elicited in these 21st century films. Secondly, each of these films contain a set of particular references to cinema’s past: The Artist’s framework is the similarly-themed but not-at-all-silent Singin’ in the Rain, Blancanieves vaguely channels European silent cinema traditions, and Tabu takes its name from a 1931 docu-drama that was itself something of a product of colonialism.

However, none of these films are simple collages of prior cinematic works; they don’t, in short, represent a “Tarantino approach” to silent filmmaking. These films build their narratives through certain conventions of past cinematic practices more broadly, not through calling out specific titles. Furthermore, none of these films are actually silent in the same way that the cinematic traditions they emulate are silent. Even though we “have these films” as Denby may have thought impossible, it’s still difficult to imagine that any such film will be distributed without a synch soundtrack (which would have ruined important audio-synch moments in all these films; but to see an example of such a cinematic event in contemporary practice, check out Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain!).

These three films exist instead in a space between silent and sound that hardly finds an equivalent in actual, historical silent cinema practices. This provides certain unique sonic possibilities, whether it be the exacting playfulness of Blancanieves’s soundtrack, the aural punchlines of The Artist, or the selective audio landscape of Tabu’s colonial past. New Silent Cinema acutely aware of its own exceptionality in contrast to the rest of the contemporary cinematic landscape. This triumvirate is ultimately, unavoidably, and creatively ahistorical, emulating certain techniques while using the opportunities of the old to play with new creative possibilities.

Pure Cinema

As world cinema cultures transitioned from silent to sound in during the late 1920s and early 1930s, theorists and filmmakers decried the loss of certain forms of “pure” cinematic expression that would inevitably dissolve with the standardization of sound. While synch-sound filmmaking has (arguably) not largely squelched creativity, with the exception of a parody or throwback now and again, the art of silent filmmaking has been either lost or firmly situated in cinema’s past. The Artist is a fun and entertaining diversion (especially when taken out of context of overdetermining Oscar buzz), but it didn’t do much to rethink the possibilities of silent cinema for contemporary filmmaking. Instead, the film maintains silent cinema’s “rightful” place as a nostalgic artifact of the past and an anachronism in the present.

Blancanieves and Tabu, respectively, fully embrace the forgotten techniques of silent filmmaking and search for new sound/silent hybrids. Together, these films demonstrate that silent cinema is not an ancient referent or a potential tool for cinematic gimmickry, but a form of aesthetic and emotive communication still completely unique to the medium of film and full of unrealized possibilities, a form whose range of expression was cut short by the premature standardization of new movie technologies.

Critics who decried the coming of sound over eighty years ago may have been right in terms of the hold sound would put on silent-style possibilities. But as recent European cinema proves, the early 1930s were hardly the end of silent cinema.