Why Silent Films Are Interesting [Part I] The Lack of Sound

It is pretty difficult to imagine a world without sound.

The vibrance of today’s media attributes a sizeable chunk of its allure to sound. Having aural accompaniment, even if it’s just a soundtrack, is something we take for granted.

This was the reality in the late 19th century and early 20th century, where audiences enjoyed live piano accompaniment- or if they were very lucky, orchestras- at their film screenings. That was the reality of sound then- where sound was non-diegetic, where sound, was a privilege. Imagine a world where every moving image had to be accompanied by live music. Imagine those pesky ads popping before your YouTube video- pianists would have to jam onto the same train or bus with you, just to provide the sound!! (and there would be a concomitant rise in the demand for pianists, which means we would have to educate a lot more as well.)

The closest simulation of this soundless universe could be likened to our experiences watching television without the sound.

When I was a kid watching a TV or a film, my mom used to mute the sound if she was talking on the telephone (this was before the dawn of smart phones and mobiles, and the telephone was in the living room).

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Pictured: Me in the early 1990s

I kept on watching though.

Something interesting happens when you watch something with the sound muted.

First of all, if you are a terrible at reading lips (not unlike myself), the story will get lost in translation.

That can be pretty problematic if you think about it, because so many programs rely on spoken (and audible!) dialogue and speech to be effective.

News broadcasts for instance, are so reliant on speech, that without it, the «language» of meaning typically found in what we see suddenly makes a lot less sense to us. We would get confused over why the program was abruptly punctuated by one shot, closely followed by another, and another- a series of mute, senseless cuts that lacked the voice-over explaining to us why that was happening. Without sound, we are stranded for minutes, staring at an individual soundlessly mouthing words we cannot understand, a meaning we cannot figure out. Sometimes this is a blessing, but unless the person is animated with their body language and expression -which then makes it unintentionally funny- it gets boring pretty quick.

So in the past when the television sound was temporarily stripped, I used to make my own voice-overs and narratives of what was happening on the screen to amuse myself- much to the annoyance of my mother, who probably thought there was something wrong with me. (the jury is still out on that one).

The main point here, is that most of modern television, film and other media was created to have accompanying audio, so they had more creative leeway to be liberal about how they strung images together. Silent films had a much bigger task of having to make that seemingly random pastiche of images make sense without the use of sound.

It was technically possible to make films with sound from very early on, long before the first big-hit feature sound film in 1927 (The Jazz Singer), but the costs and difficulties involved in producing and screening them kept people from trying for a long time.

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The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927)

Besides, silent films were a big hit from the start- a big ol’ cash cow, and for the big companies- it was all about smashing that profit margin, so why would they put money into something that might be a little risky?

Nobody really knew if people actually wanted to listen to the actors, anyway. Before and during the years after films with sound came to be, there were still an abundance of doubts. Some early film theorists like Rudolf Arnheim were really worried that film would become less of an art form if it included sound. (though naturally, history has of course shown that sound film has become art as well – it has just adopted a different stylistic approach as opposed to the silent films).

It is worthwhile to revisit Arnheim however, to fully comprehend the gravity of what made the lack of sound in films so special to him. In his famous paper, «Film and Reality» (1933) he points out the many ways in which film could be perceived as an unnatural thing.

Films, for instance, are not realistic in their depictions of the three-dimensional reality that we know, on a flat screen- the cutting removes the space-time continuum, changes the depth of perception and deprives you of other senses, aka you can’t smell the actors. (Thank God!)

Film, therefore for Arnheim, was not an accurate representation of real life. The filmmaker draws «raw» inspiration from real life, and through the medium of film, artistically interprets reality through an expressive lens. To him, recording sounds from the real world would just ground the film in something less exciting, less fantastical.

A film being silent was therefore a good thing for him, because it was less tied down to the familiar doldrums of everyday life, and fully embodied the monochromatic (or orthochromatic!), fallow dipped tones of escapism that he thought films should be.

george-melies
A Trip to the Moon (George Méliès, 1902)

While we can see the validity of his point, it is also easy to refute his argument. Sound, when used in film (especially in recent years) is mostly edited, and often not recorded on set, but made later. Which is of course, yet another argument for another feature that makes film unreal.  Most of the time, sound is made out to be invisible and non-diegetic. However, if the film doesn’t record the actors’ speech on set (if for instance, it’s a particularly noisy set) they do still use the actors’ voices – but it’s just recorded at a later point, at a recording studio. This unspoken rule has been dutifully obeyed, and you don’t really see movies toying excessively with this convention, such as, for a ludicrous example, putting duck sounds on an actor whenever he opens his mouth. Sound becomes an embellishment, a luxury, but not a necessity, not to the early auteur.

So the silent film’s «insistence» on the lack of sound does definitely hold its own, and has its own unique gravitas, as it becomes a different kind of film. It sort of passive aggressively points out to you that you are NOT hearing the train as it arrives the station, or the train conductor saying «All aboard!», but rather forced to watch the scene as it is, accepting the full glory of the scene and what is playing out on screen.

But unlike the muted television programs I watched as a child, silent films were made with this in mind, to accomplish various things. It is interesting to examine this from a filmmaking perspective, in order to see how they would tackle the problem of the audience not being able to hear what is happening on screen. Sometimes, you see instances of silent films where this dilemma is dealt with in a new, refreshing way, and you discover a new way of telling stories on film. Sometimes, you see something in recent film releases that you thought was revolutionary, without knowing that it was already conceived and in practice far before any of the producers of that very movie were even born. Or at other times, silent films just fail miserably in making up for the lack of sound.

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Suspense (Phillips Smalley & Lois Weber, 1913) used split screen in refreshing ways to amp up the action.

 

The main point is that silent films show you how great films could be made, even when a core element is removed. Clearly, sound is something we have taken for granted.

The technical limits imposed on them resulted in the conception of films quite different, yet not completely dissimilar from today. Silent films were defined by their lack of sound from the movie itself, and nothing else. They proved that the absence of sound in no way inhibited their ability to be great, as you could see from watching some of them. It is material proof of the film maker’s ability to circumvent technical constraints and obstacles, and how that determination to create a masterpiece without all the requisite tools, could still produce a great piece of work, that human ingenuity, could be boundless.

 

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