Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Sound of Silents

by Nick Pierce

Thanks to the recent critical success of Scorsese’s gently affecting family-adventure Hugo, partly about the life and times of motion-picture pioneer George Méliès, and The Artist, a love story set in the years surrounding the revolutionary introduction of sound into cinema, silent films have enjoyed an unexpected return to popular consciousness. Indeed, many of the most visually spectacular moments in the aforementioned kiddy caper are provided not by state-of-the-art CGI but interpolated footage from Méliès own century-old work. However, many might still be tempted to dismiss these early movies as too primitive or out of step with contemporary tastes to warrant watching. They couldn’t be more wrong; the best of silent cinema ranks with the greatest art in world history, ranging quite literally from the blissfully ridiculous to the hauntingly sublime, and often managing to encompass both at once. So to show they’ve still got it even after all these years, here are five of the very best silent cinema has to offer:

Le Voyage dans la Lune  – Yes, that’s right, the one where the Moon gets its eye impaled with a rocket. Don’t worry, it’s far more whimsical and far less horrific than it sounds. One of the earliest examples of fantasy cinema, this follows the expedition of an intrepid group of scientists as they (no surprises here) journey to the great glowing ball in the sky, namely by firing themselves out of a cannon, where they meet and fail catastrophically to establish healthy diplomatic relations with its monstrous occupants. Surreal, elegant and over in about ten minutes, it’s almost like watching an extended daydream that’s been projected, and was one of the first works to show cinema’s potential for reflecting our collective imagination.

City Lights – I’ll try not to sprinkle the word ‘genius’ too liberally in this article, even though it constantly springs to mind, but no description of the oeuvre of probably the most famous comedian in human history would be complete without it. Even the eternally unimpressed George Bernard Shaw rated Chaplin. One of his very greatest pictures, City Lights features the recurring character of the Tramp and mixes hilarious set-pieces with genuinely heartrending pathos as it recounts his attempts to woo a blind girl by concocting harebrained schemes to raise money for eye surgery. I know, it sounds ridiculous, and in a sense it is, only beautifully so. Believe me, even if you’re a misanthropic bastard like I am you’ll feel more well disposed towards your fellow man after watching this. That’s how good it is.

Sunrise – One of the more artsy gems from this period, innovative German director FW Murnau’s most accomplished film regularly tops highbrow polls of the greatest movies ever made. And it’s easy to see why: The story of an estranged couple falling in love all over again might be simple, but the telling of it is a veritable technical masterclass, with its subtle special effects, graceful tracking shots and epic scale - think giant amusement parks and a raging storm that besets the lovers in the centre of a vast lake. Love Actually, this ain’t. It also contains possibly the only thrilling chase scene in history to feature a piglet in a principal role. If you’re not intrigued by now, no offense but there’s obviously something wrong with you.

Metropolis – Iconic is the only adjective to summarise the granddaddy of the science-fiction genre. It’s influenced so many subsequent movies that to attempt to list them would be a futile and frankly boring endeavour. To save time we’ll do it this way: Think of a sci-fi film. Any sci-fi film. Got one? Well, that was influenced by Metropolis. Both a searing indictment of class inequality in industrial society and a ripping yarn involving political skulduggery, sexy robots and creepy proto-mad-scientists, honestly what’s not to love about Fritz Lang’s monumental masterpiece? Even in its ravaged modern form, recently restored to almost its original length from a badly-deteriorated Argentinean print, it remains a mesmerising achievement with a level of invention and artistry that puts 99% of fantasy cinema to shame. Heck, its ambition makes God look like a hopeless underachiever.

Earth – We all know now that the legacy of the USSR was a bit of a mixed bag, to put it mildly, but one thing it can be proud of is its dynamic filmmaking. Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth is one of the best of a bold bunch, depicting the insurrection of a community of farm labourers against a brutal takeover by Kulak landowners. Technically, it might be considered an example of broad propaganda, but this would be to overlook the beauty of its lyricism. Dovzhenko parallels the tribulations of the peasants with the passage of the seasons in order to suggest that death and oppression will lead to rebirth and a new age of plenty for the disenfranchised. And one remarkable sequence has the young leader of the resistance dance joyously through the streets of his seemingly liberated village in the early-morning light before suddenly collapsing – gunned down in cold blood by the vengeful landowners. Its breathtaking presentation of physical rebellion, symbolised through dance, even at the moment of death is the very definition of pure cinema at its most unforgettable.