“You can’t judge a silent film by today’s standards” or “You want I should be an idiot?”

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.”

little-old-new-york-la-dee-dahSounds 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?

moving-camera

(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!”

her-night-of-romance-constance-talmadge-ronald-colman-silent-movie-fainting

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.

They only look delicate!
They only look delicate!

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.

How dare you make silent films easy and accessible? You’ve ruined my status symbol!

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.

Modern re-examinations have resurrected some reputations and buried others.
Modern re-examinations have resurrected some reputations and buried others.

“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.”

This is the reaction I usually get when I say that D.W. Griffith was a pervvy bozo.
This is the reaction I usually get when I say that D.W. Griffith was a pervvy bozo.

So, sorry, I shall continue to be one of those horrible modern reviewers. Deal.

22 Replies to ““You can’t judge a silent film by today’s standards” or “You want I should be an idiot?””

  1. You’re right on every point. Speaking as someone who DOES have an advanced degree in history (only a measly Masters, not a rarified Doctorate), I know that you can ONLY study history from a modern perspective. Historians examine original documents to answer questions of interest to people living today, not to magically transport themselves into the past. Context, used correctly, informs us about what questions can be asked of a given text (or movie) and how to interpret its answers, but it does not chain us to only thinking like someone alive 100 years ago thought. What would be the point of that?

    1. Whoohoo! Thank you! Yes, and the weakness of the argument is revealed by the fact that it is selectively used. Further, whose point of view are we supposed to mimic? They act as though “the past” is a monolithic super-culture where everyone had the same taste. Um, no.

  2. People make it out like silent films are some weird ancient thing, but I found them not that hard to get into– and I started with Broken Blossoms and The Sheik, films I would never recommend to novices!

    But yeah, the idea that old movies must be judged by old standards is odd to me. Pretty much all my favorites are “old.” The most recent films in my personal top ten favorites are from the 70s and 80s, but no one calls for them to be judged by Gen X standards– whatever that would be. Just watch the movies!

    1. Indeed! The movies may be old but we’re modern. No one goes around shouting that we must not judge classical music by modern standards. Or the Dutch masters. Or Jane Austen. Just watch, listen, read, enjoy, etc.

  3. I applaud your assertions, Fritzi! Are we to expect a resurgence of silent film fundamentalists whose blind–and maybe silent–orthodoxy will result in using nitrate as their weapon of choice? Will they act with no warning and no intermission. Will they advise us of their actions beforehand with a poorly written intertitle, or a hasty telegram delivered by a boy with ill-fitting pants? Expect their actions to be slapstick and traceable with the aid of Max Factor face cream.

    To me, appreciating a movie from the silent and/or early film era is no different from learning how to read a cathedral from the Middle Ages or a Baroque painting. Understanding approaches to art and visual representation (I’m trying to be generous to the lesser-than silents too) is meant to help us understand ourselves, our society, and our ways of expressing thoughts and emotions. A silent film is a tool for imagination and creativity as much as it represents a form of entertainment. Watching a silent film in today’s context means that I can gain insight into class and inequality, racism, nationalism, feminism, gender issues. Seen with a particular intent, sIlent films are more contemporary than much of film today. To be a “filmic fundamentalist” destroys a cultural legacy.

    For argument’s sake, maybe some fundamentalists enjoyed Hazanavicius’s The Artist (2011). It was Mannerist and in my view, a sanitized simulacra of a silent film directed with precision. It was brilliantly replicated and beyond a few critical insertions, remained a strange and artificial film. (I was more comfortable with Paul Berger’s Blancanieves that came out in 2012.)

    But I think the quirky films of Guy Maddin are what we should expect from contemporary artists whose work is inspired by approaches to making a silent film. His latest experiment can be found on the National Film Board’s site: http://seances.nfb.ca/. And Bill Morrison’s Decasia is also a very poignant and ghostly commentary about the spirit that exists in silent films Even though these two examples are not so easy to watch, they wouldn’t exist if we refused to put on our 21st-century clothing, contact lenses, and other modern cultural inculcations.

    And then there’s you! I love your approach to reviewing film and appreciate the research that goes into all the back stories of the films you discuss. We need to know our past so that we can build upon a future but if we only live in the past, then there will be no future for silent film.

    1. Thank you so much! Yes, living in the past is no way to appreciate art of previous generations. After all, we don’t need to wear trunk hose and starched collars to enjoy Shakespeare. Art will succeed on its own merit.

  4. You are most welcome. In the future, I promise not to be so long in the tooth!

  5. Watching a movie gives us the illusion that we are watching people living out their lives, and thus people sometimes judge a movie like they’re judging someone’s character. When judging a person out of history, it is reasonable to take into account their circumstances and how they compared to others around them. However a movie is a thing. It is not a person or a group of people. Admittedly making a movie involves people acting, but they aren’t expressing their true selves, and what we view on the screen are just images created out of light and shadow. Thus the only way we need to judge a movie is its value to us: the cost and trouble of obtaining it, the cost in time of sitting down to watch it, and, sometimes, the cost or benefit to our souls of absorbing the message portrayed by the movie.

  6. Just a few semi-random thoughts (in under 3,800 words, too!):

    As you note, it would be “silly” for someone to watch a film from 1912 and complain that it lacks sound, CGI, etc. But that is precisely what prevents so many people from giving the art of early film a chance to be appreciated, and is what I mean whenever I complain about looking at the past through “modern” eyes.

    It seems ingrained in our culture (and maybe it is an aspect of human nature) that the passage of time and the creation of new technology equals “progress.” Thus, “silent” film is seen as “inferior,” or “primitive” and worthy only as a historical footnote.

    Most of us have probably experienced this in the confused looks and snarky responses we get when recommending that someone watch a movie made before, say, 1990, or in black and white, or — heaven help us — a silent film!

    I wholeheartedly believe that art must entertain — engage the senses — in order to succeed. And, as you point out, we can’t erase the modern world from our reactions and our opinions.

    I think that your approach — making silent film accessible as entertainment, as it was intended by its makers — encourages an interest in early film in those who might not be so inclined.

    (and I LOVED the excerpt from the reviews denouncing camera movement: Now THAT is what I call CONTEEEEEEEEEEEEEEXT!)

    1. My 3,800 word comment was in twelve parts that came with intros AND outros! (PART ONE “blah blah blah” END OF PART ONE. PART TWO, and so forth) I was thinking of publishing a response but 80% was boring droning on and on about a strawman argument so I opted to mark it as spam and move on with my life.

      The trick, I think, is to review silent movies as a modern smart or open-minded person, not a modern doofus. It’s similar to what happens when I mention that I love Korean food. I live in Grapes of Wrath country and some Okie is pretty much guaranteed to say, “Oh, you mean DOG?!?!? Hyuck, hyuck, hyuck.” However, many Americans admire, appreciate and enjoy Korean cuisine.

      My main problem with the “modern = bad” argument is that it is almost always used as a way of silencing well-deserved criticism of a pet film, director or star.

      I am very tempted to write a review of a modern film in the 1915 style! Darn you, freakish moving cameras!!!!

  7. I think one has to look past some of the things that can date a film like certain wording that is just the sign of the times. This can be said for every decade. Look at the late 60’s and 70’s films, the words like groovy and far out dates the movie to that time period but doesn’t date the film. If the acting, directing, writing, etc.. Is all great then, it’s a good film no matter what the decade. The film of the silent era seems to move faster or slower but the actual cameras were different so now it looks that way in some scenes but that is technology. There are a lot of films today that just suck.

    1. Yes, it always amuses me when people complain about a movie from the 60s is “dated” because it reflects the concerns of the day. Um, yeah. I take pleasure in the fact that modern films will one day be in the same boat as the “creaky” silents.

  8. What a wonderful and much-needed perspective you have, Fritzi – on history in general, not just silent movies. And I enjoyed reading the comments as much as the actual post.

    And on that note, I think it would be fabulous if you reviewed some modern movies from the perspective of a 1910’s movie critic! That would be hilarious and I’m sure very insightful!

  9. i’ve been “into” silent film since i was like twelve and i try to use it for my research whenever i can since i am working on my ma in history…i really love your blog but i think the place where we disagree the most is the whole “context” issue. i am a HUGE advocate of this argument because let’s face it, any work of art from any period in history reflects the time in which it was made – period. however well (or poorly) it has stood the test of time is seriously a separate entity. so for example i know you hate birth of a nation and i get that and obviously it’s disgusting to watch but everyone made the same argument with the gwtw anniversary in 2014 and i was like…you realize civil war veterans were in the original audience right? like what did you expect?? does that mean we should dismiss it entirely just because it’s racist? i’d use a copy of “der sturmer” for my research if i could read german – a primary source is a primary source!!

    of course, on that note, primary sources aren’t sufficient for studying films because as you said, louise brooks was more of a “who?” in the 20s than today, and griffith, much as you may hate him, definitely needs to be looked at through modern eyes if he is to be studied.

    either way i think all silent film artists would be amazed that we are even having this conversation!!

    1. My problem with context in a nutshell: The context most often advocated for is for modern viewers to look at a movie from the viewpoint of a white, male, upper-middle class moviegoer. African-Americans WERE in the audience for both Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, they DID object to the racist content. Their context is just as important as that of confederate veterans, if not more so. I suggest researching the African-American (and Japanese-American and Irish-American, for that matter) protests against racism and ethnic stereotypes. As I like to say, the context for Gone with the Wind is the anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, which was recorded the same year.

      “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”

      Plus, I have never once said that a film should be dismissed because of racist content. I merely believe that we should discuss that content without people weeping about “context” and how everyone should be let off the hook and racism should never, ever be mentioned. Nope. Trust me, I have heard all these arguments before.

      In conclusion:

      “Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

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