I've paraphrased here before (oh, don't make me cite -- yes, I read my own copyright disclaimer -- yes, I'm a hypocrite -- I'm always a hypocrite on Mondays) this idea that my college art-history teacher was fond of putting forth: (art) history is not a progress. That is to say, it is a mistake to view history as a linear story of increasing knowledge, awareness and accomplishment. The veracity of Caravaggio's light is in no way superior to the Lascaux cave paintings, simply because of its skilled naturalistic composition, any more than Cubism was way better than Pop Art. Our tendency is often to observe human history as a linear progress, be it toward improvement or destruction, probably because this perspective is linked to how our minds work. Yet it is not only a limited view, when it comes to culture it's an incredibly inaccurate one. Take the Library of Alexandria, as a grandiose example. If we take the progressive, linear perspective, its destruction would suggest that some time just prior to the 8th century, the world took a huge step backward in information and culture. However, its destruction also vastly decentralized the accumulation of recorded human knowledge and increased the value of its recording, leading perhaps even more commerce of ideas. It's just as possible that we moved forward as a result, or in any three-dimensional direction. Culture is too complex a category to be judged by two dimensions in my opinion, even without the element of time getting involved.
Now, I'm getting dizzy from the heights of my academic aspirations here (and nervous that someone will quickly push me off for too much theorizing), so I'll just get to the topic I had in mind.
I'm still slugging away at Harold Lloyd: The Man on the Clock, and I've just gotten to the section in Harold's (in everyone's) history at which sound entered film-making. There are more misconceptions about this extremely sudden phase of movie-making history than can be summarized. It seems as though the entire industry just went ahead and freaked right the hell out over it before it had even begun, and so lots of the information we have from this period smacks of over-simplification, movie-mag exclamation and collaborative ass-covering. Perhaps the most common misconception, and one I subscribed to until I actually -- you know -- researched the topic, is that the famous comedians of the silent era mostly failed in sound because of vocal failings. For the longest time, I believed Buster Keaton had an awfully strong Bronx dialect that interfered with his "talkies." Not true. In character, and mostly in life, Buster had a very earnest, slightly dopey Midwestern American regionalism that actually served his deadpan expression awfully well. In spite of this obvious documented fact, not to mention his vaudeville upbringing (they talk in vaudeville, believe it or not), the myth of Buster's dialect is an irksome pervasion.
True, many film actors simply couldn't speak. Rugged cowboys had squeaky voices. Little darlings smoked five packs, unfiltered, per day. Yet if we have to summarize the cause of the upheaval of various actors' careers at this time, it would be more accurate to point to the bigger picture (pardon the pun) than the details. That is to say, with the advent of synchronized sound in movies, an entirely new form was created. We call them both "film," as though the material used to record these works was the defining feature, but it's a little like calling Picasso and van Gogh the same thing because they both put colors on flat surfaces.
Silent film had more in common with even dance and visual art than it did with talkies, then or now. Simply consider the fact that most major silent films were accompanied by live music. We tend to link silent film with film-in-general because we view movie-making as a progression, like technology, and because the two are similar in narrative devices. Even in this last commonality, however, the two are quite distinct. Silent films often suffered from too much story, whereas the bulk of popular American movies in the past 50 years have been largely driven by plot. It's a little difficult for modern audiences to grasp the idea of a "good" movie not necessarily relying on a "good" story, but in such a sceptical case, I point to two answers: a genre -- action movies -- and a specific film -- 2001: A Space Odyssey.
HOLD ON. I should have prefaced this by saying, beautiful as it is, I hate watching 2001. I usually spend the whole time thinking to myself, self, why did Kubrick have to give up on story-telling when he was so good at it? It is a mistake, in my opinion, to rule out individual movies simply because of a lack of story. 2001 has a great deal in common with silent film, and if you're committed to the ideal of film-making being a visual medium, well, there you go. In my humble opinion, where Kubrick went wrong was in effectively abandoning comedy at the same time he began abandoning traditional narrative structure. 'Cause he was incredibly funny, too, and the profound loss of the silent film is in its comedies.
That's not to discredit the melodramas, historical pieces and fantasy films of the period in any way. I just mourn the comedies more. What seemed to happen was that the industry got itself all a'twitter about the money to be made (and lost) over the advent of sound, and in the momentum of all that most everyone lost sight of the forest for all the trees; including the actors. Well, I shouldn't say "everyone." Some persisted in the original form. Chaplin made a well-received silent film after sound entered the picture (so to speak), and I'm reading about Lloyd's struggles to adapt, too. Apparently he was started on a film when everything started switching over and, when he saw people's reactions to the novelty of sound, Lloyd felt that he'd better try to adapt. He dubbed and re-cut the film, Welcome Danger, in response to the demand. Apparently, this film includes a sequence of minutes of black screen as the characters are heard stumbling around in the "dark." This was either a desperate incorporation of the new technology, or something of a wry joke on the audience. I prefer to believe the latter explanation.
The differences between a silent film and a movie with sound are too numerous to summarize in total. The general category of things I miss the most from silent comedy, though, is the sight gag. We still have visual jokes in movies today, but they work differently. Our stories have become so much about the written word that everything springs from its parameters. Instead of beginning with images or ideas, jokes begin with language and behavior. Behavior is, in fact, the dominant action in movies today. It quickly became automatically more sophisticated to build stories from words, and eventually that prejudice became so ingrained that we became embarrassed by our active past. Even the greatest actors of the past seemed crude to our "modern" sensibilities, telling us too much, insulting our intelligence, their actions speaking too loudly, so much louder than our words.
Many argue that it's just a change of taste, that what we have now is what we need now in terms of culture. Maybe so. Lord knows I have a biased affection for times gone by when it comes to visual art and -- to a lesser degree -- music as well. Maybe it's pointless for me to insist that silent films are still relevant, still interesting and affective, and that we lose something good by losing "the name of action." Maybe. Still. Watch Harold's young man struggling to climb a high-rise in the need for success; then we'll talk.