Why are silent films interesting? [Part II] Seeing the (distant) past

I have very few pictures from my childhood.

As a child from the 80s, I didn’t grow up surrounded by a bevy of digital cameras around me, capturing frame by frame almost limitlessly, documenting every tentative step of growth, which you could review, edit and then print immediately.

No, we had to rely on those physical cameras, the old school kind, with a finite film roll that eventually had to be sent to a photo store for development. And even then, you weren’t guaranteed success.  When you got them back a few weeks later, you realized that half of the pictures that were taken of the family trip to Sweden were close-ups of a finger that got in the way, or were horrible out of focus masterpieces where you couldn’t even make out the subjects of the photograph, least of all faces. It wasn’t all that uncommon to get a few unintentional shots of shoes either. I may or may not have collected more pictures of my shoes over the years, more so than my face. No, old school photography was an imprecise, surreal vignetted horror riddled with flares, fingertips, and more fingertips.

Not this again

If anyone in my family had any talent for photography, I would have gained a much richer picture of how my childhood was like. Not just a detailed look at how my shoes looked like, but of how places used to look, the kind of clothes we wore – and if we had made home videos– how we behaved and what we were like then (well, at least in front of the camera).

André Bazin, a famous French film theorist of the 40s and 50s, recognized the inextricable link that films had with reality– he would use metaphors such as death masks or fingerprints [1] in an attempt to explain the realistic qualities of films and their links to reality, and their ability to capture time. If we use the metaphor of the fingerprint, we could at best call half of the pictures from my childhood smudged fingerprints. Fingerprints, in the eye of Bazin, were an effective metaphor in exemplifying how art imitated life, in how film captured the whorls and intricacies of reality and was effective in doing so. Film, much like fingerprints, were intricate “versions” of reality that never quite achieved the same level of corporeality. Thankfully however, lots of talented people over the years have provided us with clear, moving fingerprints from way, way back, even before my grandfather was born.

As a history buff, it sometimes bums me out to think that film wasn’t invented before the late 19th century. How amazing would it have been to have moving images of great figures of history, like Alexander the Great or Napoleon, not to mention immensely useful. If we had a few seconds of footage of the supposed Sea People that attacked Ancient Egypt right before the collapse of the Late Bronze Age, we would probably have a lot more to say about who these mysterious people were. Alas, we do not.

This scene from the north wall of the Medinet Habu temple supposedly shows one of the battles the Egyptians had with the “Sea People”.

What we do have however, is lots of moving images from 1890s to today.
The Lumiere brothers helped spread film throughout the world in the 1890s as part of their business strategy, and the surviving films show us landscapes and people in everyday settings in places like France, Italy and Egypt, for example. There are also weirder things to be seen, as lots of people around the world soon got cameras and wanted to capture other events. Disasters, executions, boxing kangaroos, nude dancing and sleight of hand tricks were among the many things that people wanted to capture, and almost immediately, story-driven films started popping up to entertain and awe as well.

While the first kiss ever put on screen (The Kiss (William Heise, 1896)) might not get modern audiences hootin’ and hollerin’ (though I have actually experienced that in a screening), quite a bit of the early stuff that was made even really early on like Georges Méliès’ trick films (e.g. Four Heads Are Better Than One (1898), see below) do entertain and awe still today and can be consumed fruitfully as an entertainment product.

It’s not just entertainment, though.
All the surviving films from the early days of film (90% of it is considered lost) give us a good glimpse into how life was like several generations before ours was like. It is time captured, but not frozen. People who were dead a long time ago move in front of the screen like it was captured yesterday, probably not even considering at that moment that people more than hundred years in the future would watch them on YouTube, or in festivals devoted to these films.

After all, film was considered a fresh product with a short expiration date in the early years (sometimes thrown away right after a screening!), which contributed to the fact that so much of it is lost. From what survived however, we get a more fully fleshed out picture than in all the history before. We know small details like how most American presidents walked, because they were captured on film.

Film is an immensely valuable tool in helping us understand the past better.
Of course, there are problems with treating film as some sort of objective truth about the past. Film has always been, to some degree, staged and the cameraman can only show what he or she sees or find interesting.

So even if you don’t feel like you can trust what you are seeing, there is always that quiet truth at the back of our minds that what we’re seeing is a limited perspective, and not the whole truth. We know from old films what people back in the day found interesting enough to capture (or had some sort of monetary or institutional compulsion to capture).

Because of all the films that survive and the empirical «proof» that comes with that, the most sensible conclusion to come to is that they weren’t all that different from the folk of today.

Action, violence, special events, nudity, seeing other people on screen and foreign and familiar landscapes have always intrigued us. With early films we get all of that, plus the historical element mixed into it of seeing how life was like, and what beguiled audiences of the past.

And with each new discovered or restored film we discover, we gain new time capsules and eyes into the past, or at least greater clarity into a past that isn’t so blurred anymore.

[1] Bazin, A. (1967) ‘What is Cinema? The Evolution of the Language of Cinema’, in Braudy, L. & Chone, M. (red.) Film Theory & Criticism. New York Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 159-163.

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