I wanted to take a minute to discuss a nasty little red herring that shows up now and again in discussions of silent film: the notion that criticizing a silent film from a modern viewpoint is somehow wrong and naughty and will just blow up the earth. (faints) I’ve been wanting to cover this for a while so here goes…
“I don’t judge silent films by modern standards.”
Sounds right, doesn’t it? It is certainly said enough. I recently received a 3,800 word comment (yes, you read that right and, no, it did not make it out of moderation) complaining about this very thing. Since it seems to be repeated a lot right now, let’s take on this fallacy and strangle it dead.
The main problem with this argument? It’s a question of how far we should take it. Shall we play a game?
(Source: Cinematography edited by Patrick Keating)
So in order to avoid judging a silent film by modern standards, I need to complain about any and all camera movement? Righty-ho! “Those awful freak tricks!”
And what about DVDs and Blurays? Methinks that only 35mm nitrate would be properly period. (Keep a fire extinguisher handy!) We would never want to judge a film by modern television screen size, would we?
While it would be rather silly to watch a film from 1912 and complain about a lack of sound or CGI, it is naive to think that we can completely strip our mind of the modern world. We live here. We’re saturated with it. Even the most dedicated cosplayer who chooses to reproduce the past in their daily life is a still a modern person who has made a conscious choice. There is nothing wrong with taking modern criticism technique and applying it to older films. Are you suggesting that silent films are so creaky and weak that they can’t take it? I beg to differ.
My main objection to treating silent cinema like it’s an ancient and delicate porcelain knickknack is that it removes the art from the realm of entertainment and classifies it as a relic. I don’t want silent films to be locked in dusty vaults or treated like dainty antiques. They are living, vibrant motion pictures with plenty of entertainment value and a good many of them stand up to modern criticism. In fact, they thrive on it.
Yes, certain aspects of silent film are better appreciated with a bit more background knowledge but newcomers should not feel that they have to have a doctorate in film history before they can watch them. I act as a cheerleader for silent cinema and I love digging for historical detail but I honestly believe that they are well within the grasp of any modern movie lover who possesses curiosity and patience. I do not appreciate other silent fans erecting barriers to entry for newcomers.
It’s fascinating to learn how a film was received upon initial release but modern reviewers are not bound to mimic opinions that were expressed a century ago. If that were the case, I would just reprint old reviews written in the 1910s and 1920s and not write any original content at all. What would be the point?
What I find particularly humorous is that these people whining about modern criticism never ever show up in reviews that cover stars or films that were reviled or ignored in their day but are now hailed as masterpieces. Louise Brooks has benefited from hindsight and modern review standards and she is not alone by any means.
“I’m ignoring that starlet, Louise Brooks. We must not judge at these films by modern standards.”
I’m certainly not bashing Brooks or her fans. A reexamination of a star or film can lead to intriguing rediscoveries that should be celebrated. By that same token, a star or film may not stand the test of time and that’s fine.
In the end, the “no modern review techniques” argument is usually nothing more than a coarse attempt to silence criticism of a favorite film or artist and can safely be dismissed. It’s similar to the old chestnut “We have to look at conteeeeeeeeext,” which really means “Don’t mention anything in the review that complicates my feelings toward a film.”
So, sorry, I shall continue to be one of those horrible modern reviewers. Deal.