Silent cinema : the universal art ?

January 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

[UPDATE Jan. 22 2014: this was written back in July 28, 2009. Still worth a post I reckon, though the film referenced may be a bit obscure.]

Remember those ecstatic pronouncements of silent cinema as the New Esperanto ? Was going to save world peace ! Was going to make humanity One ! Would convert the Czar of all Russias to judaism (not really, just throwing this one in) !

Turns out, this depends on where you’re sitting. If you’re from Hollywood, the world may have looked remarkably flat as early as the 1920s. But a Russian émigré living in France in 1920 may have had a different view : consider the titles from Jakov Protazanov’s L’angoissante aventureangoissante aventure

Back to Babel it is with the pesky problem of the intertitles.

But it’s not just the intertitles that erect conventional barriers to universal meaning. I defy anyone outside of the tight-knit émigré circles of expatriate Russia to understand the man’s expression as he reacts to the woman’s innocuous enough pronouncement (granted, I haven’t seen the film):
Picture 6Picture 7Picture 8Picture 9Picture 10

I don’t want to think how Peoria, Kansas would have taken that look. Bottom line: there is not one universal meaning, or one universal audience, in films. Not then, and not now.


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