As Richard Abel observes, “The materiality of silent cinema…has become so unfamiliar to us, so different from that of our own cinema in the late twentieth century” that it is difficult to view silent film as anything but anachronistic (4). However, with 2011’s The Artist—an homage to silent film—winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it may be worthwhile to examine the nature and appeal of silent film. In a way, silent film does something that the modern day special effects spectaculars do not do: it leaves more to the imagination and calls upon the viewer to use his or her own mind in correspondence with the moving pictures. This paper will analyze what it is that makes silent film unique and show how the nature of silent film allows viewers to envision for themselves those aspects of the drama that are left out (voice, dialogue) while emphasizing others (action, place, physical humor) in much the same way that an audience participates with a live performance in the theater.
The Nature and Beginning of Silent Film
Film is a visual medium. Yet, this does not mean that there are not other elements to film. The silent film era, for some, recalls a time when movies were silent and simply visually expressive. But as Melinda Szaloky states, it is a “truism that ‘silent cinema was never silent’” (109). Indeed, Szaloky notes that “the sounds of the silent have been conceived of as something external, an accompaniment to the visual universe of the film” (109). Silent film, from its very beginnings in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris in 1895, was ever a medium that relied solely on the visual power of its moving pictures. Indeed, the Lumiere brothers’ early films were simply brief clips or photographs of simple actions—a train pulling into station, a gardener at work, workers leaving a factory. These films were visually exciting for the audience because they reflected life as it is witnessed in motion. However, there was more to the experience than simply seeing. On the contrary, the experience was felt. In fact, the Lumieres provoked panic in their theater upon showing the train pulling into station: “the audience is said to have shrieked and ducked when it saw the train” (Mast 33). Even such a simple, ordinary event produced a visceral thrill because it played upon the imaginations of the audience—and the audience was encouraged to fill in the gaps between what it was seeing and what the real thing was like. Therefore, it is likely that the Lumieres’ audience in 1895 could hear the sound of the train and the rush of the crowd and the noises of the station in its mind—even though in reality all it was seeing was the silent flashing image of the train on a screen.
The ability of film to produce such a trick has always been its main selling point. When Szaloky states that “Rick Altman’s claim that ‘silence was in fact a regular practice of silent film exhibition’ appears…to challenge the historical accuracy of the received...