Silent London

A place for people who love silent film


Chris Edwards

Disney’s disappointing Paperman


This is a guest post for Silent London by Chris Edwards of the Silent Volume blog.

I don’t want anyone accusing me of ingratitude, much less of being a grouch. So I’m going to tell you all the reasons I think Paperman is wonderful, before I tell you why it’s not.

Paperman has been rightfully lauded, you see. At least, if we’re talking about the animation itself, which, it seems to me, is the major preoccupation of those praising the film. Fair enough. In an industry fuelled by hype, Paperman is, legitimately, indisputably, a leap forward.

This is Disney’s newest cartoon short: a black-and-white film you’ll see just ahead of Wreck-It Ralph. Utilising a newly developed program called Meander, allowing them to draw traditional images over pre-constructed CG designs, Disney’s animators have created characters who move with the fluidity of 3-D animation, while possessing the warmth and expressiveness of a 2-D line. The effect is remarkable, and beautiful.

Paperman is set in New York City, in the 1940s. The film opens with two strangers: a man and a woman, both in their early-twenties, meeting on an elevated train platform, after the wind blows one of the Man’s documents into the Woman’s face. Her lipstick leaves a mark on the paper. He is smitten. So is she. As her train pulls away from the platform, she is looking out the window, back at him. It will become his mission to find her.

The animation here is very … precise. Disciplined. This is the work of men and women with a clear vision: They knew they were making a cartoon, not an oil painting; and that a little exaggeration was for the best. So the wind nudges the man’s lanky frame just right — but not quite realistically. As the man himself does not look like a real man, but rather, a man rendered in Disney’s style, so too is his reaction a little more than it would be from you or me.

I should add that this scene is dialogue-free, as is the rest of Paperman. It is “silent”, at least in the sense that WALL-E has been called silent. In fact, you hear lots of things in Paperman. You just don’t hear words.

As in true silent films, the absence of chatter in Paperman allows us to focus on the visuals, and director John Kahrs is generous with them. I clearly remember the young woman’s smile: a half-smirk, half-grin she gives the Man after seeing the lipstick mark. You’d never see that look on a dame in a film from the 40s, but it’s a familiar one among my friends today. Kahrs lets us savour it.


The office where the Man works is likewise inspired. It’s a deadening workspace, recalling the fleet of identical desks in The Apartment (and of course, The Crowd), but on a smaller scale. The Man seems decades younger than his colleagues, all of whom frown at him. Watching the film a second time, I found myself wondering why he was there. If his job is entry-level, why is he the only young person in the room? Is he an intern? Is this during the war, and his peers are overseas? Maybe he’s the Boss’s son? The Boss, a severe fellow, had some of the qualities of a stern dad. And maybe a disappointed one.

A seven-minute film cannot answer these questions, at least in any detail. But it is a credit to Disney’s team that they could create characters rich enough to inspire them. By the time the Man spies the Woman through a window in the skyscraper across the street — almost level with his own office, no less — we’re pulling for him; convinced he should and must get her attention. He begins folding his stack of blank forms (the symbols of the job he hates) into paper airplanes, whizzing them unsuccessfully above or below his target, or past her — and we yearn, with him, for one of them to connect.

We can all relate, can’t we? We’ve all felt lost and powerless this way. Kahrs, describing his own experience of New York City to animation historian Jerry Beck, recalled how odd it was “to feel alone while being surrounded by people all the time.” We sense the Man’s aloneness too, and his loneliness. At this point, Paperman feels like a seven-minute version of Lonesome, the 1928 (mostly) silent film about two sad young people who meet, fall in love, and then lose each other in the wash of humanity that is the big city. Lonesome is a great film.


But all good things must end. And in Paperman, the good things end before the film does.

Explaining why is easy; doing so without spoilers is not. What I can say is that I was deeply, deeply disappointed by the ending of this film, not because of the outcome (a happy ending or a sad one would have been fine), but because of the mechanism. After several lovely minutes, built out of fine details, and true gestures, and hard-won audience investment rooted in believable characters doing believable things, the Man’s problem is finally solved through … magic realism.

Boo to that. Boo to it for being a sudden turn, taking us out of one universe and into another. Boo to it for being unnecessary. Boo to it for being depressingly predictable — we’re suckers for this stuff nowadays, be it Twilight or Beasts of the Southern Wild. Why here? Why squander the good will and creative effort of the first four minutes of Paperman for a resolution that is (merely) splendid to look at? Admittedly, it is that—manic, well-choreographed, even funny, I suppose, if it doesn’t annoy you.

And it may not. Many people will find the ending of Paperman delightful, and fully in keeping with what came before. They would tell me I’m nit-picking. But some would also, I think, tell me I’m asking too much from a cartoon. And they’d be wrong to do that.

I say Disney can do better.

Chris Edwards

Paperman is nominated for the Best Animated Short Academy Award at Sunday’s Oscars. You can watch it online here.

In praise of early cinema: the theatrical and the cinematic

A Christmas Accident (1912)
A Christmas Accident (1912)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Chris Edwards, who writes the Silent Volume blog.

Being a silent film fan can marginalise you. Recently, I went to a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. Afterward, the cinephiles were discussing Hitch films they’d seen. “What do you think of the Hitchcock 9?” I asked them. “The Lodger’s pretty good.”


It’s better among fellow fans. We all skirt the periphery together. We talk about the great silent classics, arguing their places in the canon; we discuss the latest restoration, the newest score, the anticipated Criterion release date, or what a crime it is that there isn’t one. We hear about an obscure gem, and then can’t wait to see it.

But it is possible to be marginalised even by silent film aficionados. I have felt it. Because, while I love all silent film, I hold a particular affection for the very earliest stuff: films made from the late-19th century to about 1913 or so. Films that many silent films fans have no use for.

Well, that’s harsh. And it’s not quite what I mean. Many silent film fans do love these old curios; it’s just that few of us love them for their artistic merit.

Rarely do we hear anyone discuss a director from this period as an artist, or the works themselves as having any profundity. Brief, stiff, and broadly acted, these ancient movies are valued primarily as museum pieces. They’re notches on a scale of development from proto-film experiments through to “modern” film as we have come to recognise it. They’re assessed in terms of what they lack. And I’m telling you, we’re missing out.

Why do I think that? Because some of these films have left me with ideas to ponder. Not just ideas about the history of film or the paucity of technique early filmmakers possessed, but real ideas. Rarely do they convey these concepts literally. Rather, they express them through their unique mashing up of the abstract and the verisimilar – the theatrical and the cinematic, the fake and the real – whatever you want to call it. They say things in their own way.

I don’t have space to describe too many examples. But I will tell you about some of the features of these films which intrigue me. Though they’re often dismissed as weaknesses, these features can also, in the hands of an artist, become the means by which early films convey meaning.

One feature is flatness. Much as a stage can only push back so far, these films, too, exist mostly in a middle distance. Vistas are, for the most part, backdrops, and not very convincing ones. Almost all shots are medium shots. This flatness is coupled with a strong sense of boundaries—top and bottom, and especially stage-right and -left. This is your space, viewer.

(Vintage gamers will see a natural comparison here to early video games. Much as films evolved from theatre, video games have evolved from board games and pinball. The games of the late 1970s to early 1980s retained the primacy of the board or static plane. There was much action in games such Pac-Man, Yars’ Revenge, Berzerk, and Asteroids, but your avatar typically stayed in that box.)

Yes, the result feels old-fashioned. But flatness and boundaries aren’t simply limitations. They can create very interesting effects. When you’re conscious of a scene as a flat plane with defined boundaries, and the actors are somewhat depersonalised by medium shots, you start looking at set, action, and boundaries as a unified object. As you would look at a painting.

I was struck by this last year while watching A Christmas Accident (1912): a holiday parable about two families (one poor and giving, the other wealthy and miserly) sharing a duplex. I blogged about it:

Director Bannister Merwin pays close attention to the two halves of his frame … he splits the lower façade of the house exactly in two, dividing the centre of the frame with a porch pillar standing between the two front doors. The rear of the house has almost-identical doors as well, with a tall railing spindle marking the midpoint between them. Gilton [the miser] almost never crosses the midpoint … We’re not to see the halves of the house as parts of a literal object, but rather, as the world of sin and the world of righteousness; compartmentalised, but close.

The pillar and spindle were not only part of the scene, but part of the frame, separating the characters visually to make Merwin’s point. In this way, A Christmas Accident resembles a medieval painting more than a modern film.

You can do a lot with a good set. And you’ll typically do more if you don’t have the luxury of multiple camera angles, close-ups and complex tricks.

Georges Méliès' Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Georges Méliès’ Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

In terms of technical excellence and versatility, Georges Méliès’ sets have probably never been equalled. They’re seamless collections of pieces, each sliding into frame, perfectly timed, layer upon layer. They embed Méliès’ often-frantic actors in a fantastical world, pulsing with action. This world bears no more resemblance to reality than a comic strip does, mind you. But that’s a good thing.

Early directors’ near-indifference to aesthetic consistency is what I love most about them. I adore scenes of time-pressed people consulting clocks with painted-on hands; struggling to lift two-dimensional vases, and on and on. On stage, this kind of thing is a practical necessity, but in a film, it’s a choice.

It’s also a declaration of faith in us, as viewers. We’re people capable of merging these disparate levels of reality into one. Anyway, what’s so “real” about the environments we wander through every day – or the ones we see in most modern, live-action movies? Art and trickery is everywhere. These early films were just blunter about showing it.

The most powerful example of this I’ve seen occurs in His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz (1914). His Majesty is not a well-respected film; in part, I think, because it was made in an era when true cinematography was beginning to develop. But it is nevertheless a remarkable thing. Particularly for this scene:

[Mombi the witch] captures Gloria [niece of the King of Oz] and ties her to pillar. With an incantation she summons three other witches … and combines their powers with her own to create a cauldron-full of magic potion. Then … Mombi ladles the stuff over Gloria’s blouse. Mombi now cups her empty hand just below Gloria’s breasts. A heart (a stuffed heart in the shape of a real one) appears in her hand, and ices over. The now-frozen heart disappears, and Gloria’s capacity for love goes with it.

Wikipedia describes Mombi “pulling out her heart,” but that’s wrong. Nothing is pulled from Gloria’s chest.

Filmed in close-up, this scene represents a total dismissal of the boundary between literal and abstract – they co-exist in one cinematic reality, with limitless story-telling potential. I wish more films were like this. The closest modern comparison I can think of would be Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), but even in that case, the human actors acknowledge the physical differences between themselves and the Toons. In His Majesty, the differences are forgotten.

Look at these old, old films, and you can see the potential of the medium. Every hesitant movement of the camera inward, every subtle gesture chosen by an actor, pointed the way forward. But if you see these movies only as first steps to something truly great, you’ll be missing a lot. I say some of them are truly great on their own – in their era, in ours, and in the future.

Chris Edwards

The Silent London podcast: comedy special

Charley Chase
Charley Chase … nice trews

Another podcast, and this time it’s all about the laughs in our comedy special. I’m joined in the studio by Phil Concannon of, Ayse Behçet, who writes the Charlie’s London series for Silent London, and podcast expert Pete Baran. Plus Chris Edwards of the wonderful Silent Volume blog also contributes a few well-chosen words on his favourite silent film: Exit Smiling, starring Beatrice Lillie.

We’ll be talking about our favourite silent comedies, and yours, and perhaps touching on a few films and film-makers you won’t expect. Plus we’ll be reviewing some recent silent film screenings, Ayse will be reporting back from the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna and we’ll be taking a look at the calendar too.

There’s also a lot of business about trousers. And possibly the odd 90-year-old spoiler.

The Silent London podcast: comedy special

The Silent London Podcast is also on iTunes. Click here for more details.  The music is by kind permission of Neil Brand, and the podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio.

If you want to get in touch with us about anything you hear on the podcast, email, tweet @silent_london or leave a message on the Facebook page:

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