16th February 2012

Sound of silence

Film-making professor says he used to watch his movies with the sound off during the editing process

The Artist is billed as the film to beat this Oscar season, but a Queen’s film professor says silent films aren’t making a comeback anytime soon.
The Artist is billed as the film to beat this Oscar season, but a Queen’s film professor says silent films aren’t making a comeback anytime soon. (Justin Chin)

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Silent films in Kingston

Live musical accompaniment and the sound of a projector ticking in the background are just part of the experience.

“We showcase silent films true to their original form,” said Alison Migneault, director of the Kingston Canadian Film Festival.

“It’s an experience that can’t be replicated … this makes it intriguing and interesting for our audience,” she said.

On March 4, students and Kingston residents can see a screening of Back to God’s Country at the Grand Theatre. The event is part of the Kingston Canadian Film Festival which runs from March 1 to 4.

Migneault said the festival is screening a silent film due to the success of Carry on Sergeant!

in 2010.

“It was a packed house and received rave reviews,” she said of the silent film.

“Originally we selected the film because it had interesting connections to the local community,” Migneault said. “It was produced in Trenton and partially filmed in Kingston and played at the Grand Theatre in 1928.”

Showing a silent film educates an audience about both silent and Canadian film histories, she said.

“Bringing it back to life, so to speak, was a dynamic way to … present an archival film that our audience likely didn’t know about,” she said. “It also allowed us to educate our audience about Canadian film history, which we did through an exhibit about the film’s production.” Back to God’s Country was one of the most successful Canadian films of the silent period, Migneault said.

It was released in 1919 and tells the story of a young woman who comes face to face with her father’s killer. Canadian silent film star Nell Shipman wrote and stars in the film.

“I am personally fascinated by Nell Shipman,” Migneault said. “She was the topic of my Master’s thesis, so naturally I thought of this particular film when we began to think about staging another silent film screening.”

Contrary to what you might think, dialogue isn’t an integral part of the movie experience.

According to professor Clarke Mackey, spoken word isn’t an essential.

“The power of films come from visuals and music and not dialogue,” he said. “Dialogue in most films is pretty basic.”

Mackey has directed episodes of the 1980s TV series Degrassi: Junior High and produced the 1971 feature film The Only Thing You Know.

He teaches in the stage and screen studies, a special field concentration combining courses from drama, film and media.

A common misconception among movie-goers is that a film screenplay just includes dialogue, Mackey said.

“In script you have to get down actions and visuals, and what people actually say to each other is a secondary thing,” he said.

“I’ve gone so far as a filmmaker to watch my film completely silent when I’m editing it to see how well it communicates,” he said. “There’s always a place for films with sparse dialogue, but films with no dialogue at all can be hard for an audience to take.”

Aside from stage and screen, Mackey also teaches film courses, including FILM 365, narrative filmmaking and practice.

Mackey said film courses naturally incorporate the study of silent films — students can learn from the history of silent film.

In Stage and Screen 300, students were asked to create a silent film script, Mackey said.

“They initially complained, but they learned a lot,” he said. “What’s happening with your face and how your body moves, that’s where the film acting comes through.

“That’s a difference in stage and screen — on stage what people say is very important. On screen it’s how people react. It’s not so much how an actor says the lines — generally speaking acting is understated.”

While many silent films used to rely on exaggeration, that’s not necessarily the case anymore, Mackey said.

“It’s true — in silent film initially there was a lot of exaggeration. But as a medium it’s developed and changed,” he said. “That’s what’s so interesting about The Artist. It relies on a more modern kind of acting, where people are understating what they’re doing.”

The Artist, starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, is nominated for 10 Oscars this year. Mackey credits it as a sophisticated silent film.

“I thought it was brilliant. I will be using it next year in [FILM 365] and will get students to analyze it,” he said. “It says so much about how movies communicate.”

According to another film professor, silent films won’t re-emerge in popular culture anytime soon.

“I taught silent films at Queen’s 35 years ago, when I first came here,” film professor Peter Baxter said. “Since then, hardly at all.”

Baxter said he wants to reincorporate silent film into the curriculum. He teaches FILM 216, historical inquiry into film.

This year though, the class focuses on the historical era of silent films, Baxter said, adding that it’s the first course to do this.

“We could’ve concentrated on anything, but chose silent films because the [silent era] was an interesting era in itself.”

The silent era encompasses film from 1894 to 1929, with Charlie Chaplin as the period’s most iconic actor.

But with the release of the first major talking film The Jazz Singer in 1927, silent films had virtually disappeared by 1930, Baxter said.

Today’s technological advances have made silent films more appealing, though.

“What happened in the last 10 years is many silent films have been released on DVD, with wonderful music and cleaned up images,” he said. “So silent films are now available for the first time in nearly 80 years in the condition they were seen in the 1930s.”

It’s a paradoxical that advanced technology makes silent films more watchable, he said.

“Looking at silent films now is a whole new ball game,” he said. “When I was a student they were watched completely silent with a scratchy speed … it was a trial to sit through. But modern versions can be very engaging.”

Even in movies with dialogue, silent film techniques are often used.

“There are always long sequences which are basically silent — they depend on action, reaction, movement, expression and not vocal reaction.”

Silent films attract a specialized audience, Baxter said.

“I think much art and culture of the past is of interest to small numbers of people. It’s not as if silent films were a struggling genre in the movies — it’s quite the opposite,” he said. “There’s a small, specifically interested audience who go looking for it.” Though silent films have a loyal fan base, they won’t necessarily attract mainstream attention in the long run, Baxter said.

“It’s not going to become a part of bigger film culture,” he said. “I’d be deeply surprised if silent films made a comeback.”

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