If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you’ll know that I skew heavily toward mainstream American silent films, which, ironically enough, are now more obscure than European art films.
I spend a fair amount of time weighing my options when it comes to choosing films for review and thought you might enjoy knowing how my brain works in this regard. Here are some questions that crop up fairly often.
“I’m surprised you haven’t reviewed This Famous Film.”
I always like a surprise! But seriously, there are maybe 30 super famous silent films. I review at least one film a week, so if I only covered the famous stuff, I would be out of a job around September.
It’s really a question of two problems:
First, supply and demand. There are only a few famous silent films.
Second, the silent films that have broken through to the mainstream have been covered ad nauseam. My rule is simple: unless I feel I can add to the conversation, I don’t review the film.
Here are some new angles I used on famous films:
I discussed how a new restoration could breathe life into an over-discussed film (Battleship Potemkin)
I gathered together the most common interpretations of a highly symbolic work (Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)
I shared the seldom-mentioned political overtones of an iconic picture (A Trip to the Moon)
I went crazy with research and wrote a big honkin’ review of a complicated production (Ben-Hur)
But all these angles take time and they don’t work with everything. So I will continue to ration the famous reviews for the foreseeable future. I’m not opposed to them but I want to make sure I write something worth reading.
“Why is there so little comedy?”
That thing about underdogs? This applies to silent dramas. I dare say that 75% of the coverage of silent films is about comedies and the articles about drama skew toward the artier fare. Not only were Hollywood dramas extremely popular in the silent era, they are often essential viewing if you hope to understand certain comedies. (Both Buster Keaton’s The Frozen North and Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen have been subjected to the most bizarre misunderstandings because certain historians couldn’t be bothered with silent drama.)
In short, I am trying to rebalance the scales here. 75% drama to 25% seems fair to me. Plus, I am a strong believer in the “frog dissection” theory of writing about comedy. Dissecting a joke is like dissecting a frog: you may learn something but the frog is dead. Frankly, over-analyzing comedy makes my eyes glaze.
Can you review this film?
I hold annual reader request months and always appreciate suggestions on what to review next. Even if I can’t get to your request right away, I do pay close attention and file away titles for future use. Keep ’em coming!
How I use theme months to keep things fresh
I feel it’s my duty to sometimes step outside my comfort zone and try new things. Theme months are wonderful for this as I usually create a mix of famous and obscure, as well as spanning decades when possible.
Sometimes, I choose a theme month and then try to find films that match the topic. Other times, I notice that I have several films that all fit into a particular theme and launch a theme month in order to cover them.
I have discovered some wonderful films thanks to theme months. For example, I am not sure I would have ever watched The Wishing Ring if I hadn’t been covering the films of 1914. Looking out for one more film for a topic forces me to watch oddball silents and I am happy to say that some of the movies I have reviewed have not been covered anywhere else.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for me to constantly seek out forgotten pockets of silent films. I don’t want to calcify into the DeMille/Hart/Pickford/Mosjoukine show and seeking out new life and new civilizations saves me from that. (Or is that Star Trek?)
This here’s a democracy!
My selection philosophy is as follows: every single silent film deserves to be held up to the light and given a fair assessment of quality. I don’t care if it’s a mega-hit or if no one has seen it in a century. Everything deserves to be looked at and written about. It’s the only way we will get a clear picture of the silent era. If we just hang around in comedy or art films, our perspective will start to skew. We need as broad an education as possible.
One movie, one review! And I would also like to add, one review at least for every country and language group in the world that has a surviving silent film.
So, here are the basic goals:
- No writing about something famous unless I have something new to say
- No ruts
- No snobbery in film selection
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