It might seem hard to believe in these days of Furious 7, but cinema did not start with an ear-splitting, seat-shaking bang. For decades, filmmakers had to rely on crafting stories that entranced and enthralled audiences without making a sound. And Howie Movshovitz, director of the Denver Silent Film Festival, which starts on Friday, has two simple observations about that: “First, in a too-noisy world, some silence is a blessing. Second, filmmakers in the silent period had only the visual image, and they achieved a level of sometimes astonishing poetry and articulate expression.”
There’s an old adage in film appreciation that any film worth its celluloid can be watched with the sound turned off. The real seed of storytelling in cinema comes from knowing how to string images along so that your eyes figure out what’s going on before your ears do, and for decades at the dawn of film, that is all anyone had. Hundreds of films were produced during that golden time, but our modern sensibilities seem to group these classics into a class that’s a little bit “lesser than” — and that’s where Movshovitz and the DSFF come in. “The idea that silent film is silly comes largely from poor projection — films shown at the wrong speed,” says Movshovitz. “We always project silent film properly. Chaplin, for instance, isn't jerky in his motion; he's magnificently graceful. Keaton, too.”
We asked Movshovitz for his favorite silent films, and though he didn’t pick specific titles in which they star, silent comedy mavericks Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton rank high on his list. Why Chaplin? Responds Movshovitz “Because it's funny and Chaplin has a great and humane understanding of human behavior and society.” And he says this about Keaton: “Because he's funny and this, perhaps illiterate, man had a profound understanding of the philosophy of the cinema — he understood the meaning of the visual image and its relation to actuality.”
Here’s the rest of Movshovitz’s list, featuring two films screening in the DSFF this weekend:
Directed by Dimitri Kirsanoff
This short film is a dark one for 1926. Two young girls flee to Paris after their parents are murdered and, after begin seduced and eventually left behind, the youngest girl wanders around the City of Light with a new baby, providing a series of views of the town not usually captured on film. “Pauline Kael wrote once that it was the most beautiful film ever made; I think she's right,” says Movshovitz. Menilmontant plays in the DSFF alongside fellow cityscape flick Berlin, Symphony of a Great City.
4) Grass: A Nation's Battle For Life
Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper
“A silent documentary about three Americans going by horse-drawn cart from Turkey to Iran in search of a people called the Baktiari. The intertitles may be condescending, but the film itself is overwhelmed by the sights of the Baktiari first (all 50,000 of them with horses, goats, sheep) crossing a swollen river and then (barefoot!) crossing a 13,000-foot mountain range. The two filmmakers went on to make the first King Kong,” says Movshovitz.
3) The Man With A Movie Camera
Directed by Dziga Vertov
The simple plot of this film is its magic as we follow the titular man filming in the Soviet Union. Although we never really do see the footage the man is filming, we sure see everything else. Says Movshovitz, “It's a ‘city symphony,’ a day in the life of a Soviet city. It's actually a composite, but its sense of city rhythms and sights as created in cinema is raucous and delightful and touching, and very brave.”
2) The Big Parade
Directed by King Vidor
A WWI film that bypasses the triumph of war to paint instead the picture of the losses, especially of love, when two sweethearts are separated across the ocean when the fighting stops. “One of a number of films about WWI which is touching, a remarkable vision of the waste and horror and sadness of war. By King Vidor, who deserves to be revered,” says Movshovitz. This film is the special Closing Night presentation at the DSFF.
1) A Trip to the Moon
Directed by Georges Méliès
One of the earliest triumphs of cinema, circa 1902, it is the fantastical tale of a group of astronomers who board a rocket to the moon to see what’s going on way up there. “The restored color version, hand-painted, is used in Martin Scorsese's Hugo. A wild imaginative trip. The score by (modern synth group) Air on the disk of the restoration is terrific,” says Movshovitz.
The Denver Silent Film Festival runs April 24 through April 26 at Davis Auditorium on the University of Denver campus, 2000 East Asbury Avenue. Tickets range from $5 to $12, with weekend passes available; purchase yours, and see the full festival schedule, at denversilentfilmfest.org.
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