I said something a little flippant in a Q&A once. OK, more than once, but let’s just talk about this one time. The occasion was a screening of A Page of Madness (1926) as part of the Japanese Avant-Garde and Experimental Film Festival, and I was responding to a comment about experimental silent film, and whether there was anything out there in the same vein as the movie we had just seen. According to the notes of Dr Lawrence Napper, I said “when you’re talking about silent cinema, you’re talking about the first four decades of film history, so in a way it’s all experimental, you can show almost anything”.
So much, so overstated. But there’s a truth there, to my credit.
Yes, being a movie pioneer means experimenting – and the history of cinema is the history of innovations and new ideas, from close-ups to Cinerama, montage editing to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When these innovations still seem new, or when they didn’t last, we can call them experiments.
However, at the Toute la Mémoire du Monde festival in Paris earlier this week, I began thinking about this question in a different way. I saw a few classic silents at the festival, which is hosted by the Cinémathèque Française at venues across the city. There was a strand devoted to Mary Pickford at the Fondation Jerome Seydoux-Pathé, for example, and I saw a couple that were new to me: Cecil B DeMille’s The Little American (1917) and Frances Marion’s The Love Light (1921). I cannot overstate the frisson of watching such patriotic war melodramas with a majority French audience. Pickford’s star power is undeniable, of course, but she really rises to the demands of these epic stories: facing tragedy, madness, love and loss with a strength that would shock anyone still labouring under the misapprehension that she languished in child roles for the bulk of her career.
I also saw a gorgeous new Gaumont restoration of Figaro (1928), which was a prestige comedy drama directed by Gaston Ravel and based on three separate plays by Beaumarchais. Ernst van Duren, whom you may have seen in Germaine Dulac’s Princess Mandane (1928), played the title role of the socially mobile Seville barber with a lustful vigour and a raised eyebrow that transcended the language barrier of the French intertitles. Two very different French stars, film actress Arlette Marchal and classical stage player Marie Bell played the two ladies he was devoted to: the countess and his wife, while Tony D’Algy is his aristocratic friend who is married to the countess and making moves on the wife … Neil Brand’s piano accompaniment was every bit as stirring and witty as this glossy and enchanting film – which was notable not least for the remarkable domestic menageries kept in the count and countess’s Spanish castle: peacocks, parrots, puppies and even a marmoset?
I also wandered from the mainstream a little, in search of silent satisfaction. I saw the brilliantly monikered The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man (1963), an experimental movie made by US filmmaker Ron Rice but left unfinished at the time of his death. It was planned as a three-hour epic apparently, but the surviving material supports a cut just under two, that I would call coherent, although coherence isn’t really the point. This is an astonishing, and occasional beautiful piece of surreal slapstick anarchy – filmed silent, and with a needle-drop soundtrack as sketched out by Rice himself.
Taylor Mead stars (and he cut together this version, which was recently restored by the Film Foundation) as the Atom Man, who is equal parts Chaplin as the Little Tramp and Max Schreck as Nosferatu, plus a little boggle-eyed derangement that recalled maybe Marty Feldman or maybe Dwight Frye. He’s a junkie (shooting up from an enormous flour bin labelled ‘Heroin’), and some kind of hedonist – he goes out for kicks in the seedier parts of Manhattan and indulges in orgiastic gender-fluid mayhem and some amateur science experiments with a bunch of pals including The Queen of Sheba, a local alcoholic played by Winifred Bryan. Her scenes often involve a lot of nudity and that’s when this gets a little uncomfortable, some degrading scenes at odds with the gleeful free-for-all that characterises much of the movie, or the sudden moments of serenity, such as the Queen’s boat trip around the Hudson Bay. There’s more to enjoy here than simply a glimpse of the early 60s New York counterculture, but that’s certainly part of the appeal. It’s a jolt too, for those of used to watching Chaplin comedies, to see a similarly innocent pleasure-seeker transported to a more adult, more commercialised and possibly more immediately dangerous scenario.
The other experimental feature I saw was Margaret Honda’s Color Correction (2015) – which is not strictly a film, but perhaps more of a filmic experience. Honda is a film artist based in California, and Color Correction is simply the transfer to film of a colour-timing tape – a strip of paper, punched with holes to “correct” the colour levels of a film in post-production, adding a little more blue, or pink or so so on to the image. So yes, it’s a film, nearly two hours long, with no sound, and no image. Even Honda doesn’t know what film the colour timing tape was taken from, only that it was a recent feature, so the that film stocks would match. It may not surprise you to learn that an angry gentleman walked out of this Centre Pompidou screening fairly early on, muttering something about us all being “imbeciles” and suggesting we all join him in making for the exit. Reader, I did not leave the cinema. I did not snooze. I did not unlock my mobile phone. As to whether others did, I can’t possibly comment.
To watch Color Correction is to watch something rather beautiful, if plain, unfold before our eyes. A screen of palest pink mutates to light blue, then cycles through a series of barely perceptible pastels. I could sense every wriggle and rustle in the auditorium, the sound of the projector too, louder around the reel changes, which were a real event. As was a sudden deep cyan. Or a very pleasing transition from pale peach to faint mauve.
Impossible, during Color Correction, not to ponder the question of whether we were seeing the shadow of a film or its reverse – the colours that were missing from, or the colours that dominated the finished image. Or possibly instead some barely comprehensible neutral point on the colour spectrum. Impossible too, not to ponder the texture of the film from the frame, to the projector sounds and those reel changes, represent everything that we have lost from the movie experience in the transition to digital. In retrospect, as I am writing this, and I can hear Boris Johnson’s press conference filtering in from another room, my acute awareness of my fellow audience members was the most poignant aspect. With cinemas in big cities closing around the world and many in this country too, it may be weeks or months before many of us experience the communal cinema experience again.
The connection I really made between silent cinema and experimental film during my trip to Paris was about this tangibility. I am not sure I have entirely formulated this thought but it is along these lines: by suspending narrative, removing sound, distorting image or character, by experimenting in any way with the conventions of film form, artists don’t just recall the pioneer spirit of early cinema, but the substance of silent film. Watching the restored UCLA prints of Mary Pickford films in Paris, I was constantly aware of the production and performance of the film – the interjection of the intertitles, the live music improvised in the cinema.
One of Marion’s best gags in The Love Light involved the low-tech trickery of simply slowing down, or overcranking, the film. A barnyard of animals and poultry slurp up some spilled wine and we see them stumbling about in treacly slow-motion, with the inspired intertitle “Stewed chicken!” to underline the joke. It’s just film, being film. And needless to say, any damage visible in a silent film emphasises its materiality further.
Are all silent films experimental? Non. But do silent cinema and experimental film have many intriguing strands in common? Bien sûr.
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