what’s a Silent Movie ?

January 23, 2007 § Leave a comment

Silent Movie (1976)

Actually “Silent Movie” is not silent at all. It has a very busy soundtrack, full of music and of exaggerated noises that accompany such sights as those of a foot crushed in a door, a head bashed against a wall or the collapsing of a Murphy bed.
The only element missing is spoken dialogue, and the written titles, which often adopt a genteel tone as if to spare us the crude reality of the true dialogue, are among the funniest things in the film.

Actually “Silent Movie” is not silent at all but it has nothing to do with the soundtrack. All silent films were presented with at least music, oftentimes sound effects (the trumpet in Vidor’s Big Parade). Not synced, maybe, but sounds nonetheless.
And silent films were not silent: only the audience was deaf. Mel Brook’s Silent Movie, on the other hand…

is more problematic because it is shot like a sound film (long takes, long shots, lots of things happening either off-screen or behind walls). The effect is that for some reason that we can’t understand there is no sound in the film world (while silent films are full of sounds that you can see, if you can’t hear them). After a while this gives the film a video clip logic where we know images and sound effects are not really paired together, where sounds are supposed to indeed comment on the film image, and this creates a distance to the image that makes the film entertaining, but not compelling. Fun, but not disruptive as the best silent slapstick could be (re the storm sequence in Buster’s Steamboat Bill, Jr.: has the world gone mad ?).
The other problem is also that whenever Brooks wants to signify “Silent Cinema”, he uses visual aides that are in fact 1930s cinema: the titles floating on the image as characters search for Mel Funn (for some reason, silent films never had titles over the image, always separate and shown in titles), the dance movement as the audience streams out of the cinema (Busby Berkeley?). There’s not one quotation from silent cinema, with the exception of the head-on shot of the audience in the cinema — a shot taken from Vidor’s The Crowd if I’m not mistaken. Apart from that, all cultural references to the 1920s are…on the soundtrack.

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