Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Watching Silent Movies

Before I ever took myself seriously as a writer my ambition was to be a filmmaker.  Or failing that, a film critic.  Spending all of my living days in a darkened theatre consumed by cinema’s magic seemed nirvana to me.  I did try my hand at filmmaking though didn’t get far with it.  Buried somewhere in the National Film and Sound Archive is some Standard 8 footage I shot of various Canberra Women’s Liberation activities.  It used to have a sound track but that unfortunately was lost.  And a 16mm short called Super Duper I directed on an experimental film fund grant and with the help of many others whose names are also lost to me now is deposited wherever the Sydney Film Cooperative’s films are stored.  They could be in the national archive as well but I’ve never bothered to check.  I also worked on a television series that bombed at the time but is now a cult classic, and penned five scripts for a miniseries based on my novel West Block, but for various reasons the project never got past pre-production. 

My second-choice dream of becoming a film critic also stalled.  The last and only film review I wrote was of, coincidentally enough, Last Tango in Paris.  It was printed in the Canberra Times under my maiden name because I was a public servant then and there were rules about not taking outside work.  I only wrote the review because the regular reviewer went on holiday, and he didn’t take kindly to my callow jokes about wishing he didn’t come back.  The closest I came then to writing on film was publishing my novel Schemetime about an Australian filmmaker who goes to Hollywood.  Though it’s my personal favourite, not many  share my enthusiasm and it didn’t sell many copies.  I started a collection of essays on Hollywood but only finished two of them.  From this late perspective, it does seem that my love affair with the movies was doomed from the start.

I don’t get out to films much now, largely because my partner isn’t as keen on them.  There’s the expense and also the inconvenient screening times.  We both grew up in an era when movies ran continuously, mornings, afternoons and nights.  You could enter a cinema at any time and stay as long as you liked, so if you missed the beginning of a film you could catch up on it after the reel had finished and started up again for the next screening, though you’d probably have to sit through the second feature.  God knows what that did to our narrative expectations (there may be a thesis in that) but what it clearly did do is facilitate attendance.  Maybe the cinemas could resume the practice.  It might save them money and prevent so many of them from closing.

Sadly, two of the cinemas closest to us have shut down.  There’s some excellent theatres further afield but distance is a disincentive.  What we have been doing, though, is availing ourselves of the DVD collection at our local library.  And though the range is commendable I’ve stumbled on yet another obstacle.

I’ve known for a while that my hearing isn’t what it should be, but until now it’s never been bad enough for me to resort to a hearing aid.  They’re expensive and except for the ones my daughter uses, which are stratospherically so, I’ve never come across anyone wearing them who’s happy with the experience.  They buzz, are too loud etc, etc.  So why go to the expense, I’ve periodically asked myself.  But resorting to DVDs, despite the excellent range, has forced me to revisit the issue.  The reason being that, though it’s variable, on many of them the sound can be truly awful.  Or maybe it’s me.  Whatever the cause, I’ve got used to watching without hearing much, and for all the annoyance, it’s made me more attentive, more observant of the medium’s fundamentals.  I’m more receptive to the actors’ movements and gestures and, while aware that I’m missing out on nuance in the dialogue, I find that I can follow the drift of the story pretty much without it.  The music I can hear well enough but music in any case, with its purpose to facilitate the creation of atmosphere and mood and alert you to trouble ahead, is subservient to everything else in film.  Or should be.  I’m much more aware of how the camera moves and the shots are set up; in short, what cineastes in their most lyrical moments call the language of film - how it actually works.  I attend to the lighting, to the pace of the editing, to the choice of colours if there are any, the tones if black and white.

The purists, of course, have always claimed that silence was the essence of the art.  Montage, jump-cuts, fade ins and fade outs, fades to black and so forth were the stock in trade of filmmakers, as they are today.  It’s interesting to speculate moreover on just how much a century and more of exposure to these techniques have influenced other art forms, literature for one, though such an enormous subject should be saved for another day.  The point to make here is that silence in this context is not the same as wordlessness – there were words in silent films only we didn’t hear them spoken, they were spelled out for us on the screen.  Nor were they were without musical accompaniment, if the accompanist was right there in the theatre instead of recorded on a sound stage.

As far as DVDs go, I’ve found the sound on the English productions better than on the American, which is interesting and must have an explanation but I haven’t yet unearthed it.  Two  American ones in which I found the sound particularly bad were 1973’s The Way We Were and the much later Capote, released in 2005 and for which the late and sorely missed Philip Seymour Hoffman won his Oscar.  Hoffman was such an inspired actor that he managed to make the offensive, morally compromised Truman Capote with the world’s most grating voice (that did come through but not with the sense of what he said) wholly sympathetic, and I was able to follow the development of his character and the devastating effect his involvement with the convicted murderer Perry Smith had on him just by charting the alterations in perception and mood registered on Hoffman’s face.   It helped too that I’d read the Gerald Clarke biography. 

I first watched The Way We Were the year it came out, in a cinema in Adelaide where I bawled my eyes out so much I could hardly see the ending for the tears.  Seeing it again after all this time I recognise it as an unmistakenly Hollywood offering just by the slick production values.  The sets, for example, though correct for the period, are too pretty, and there was no way that director Sidney Pollack was going to let Barbra Streisand really look like a poor 1930s student radical.  In other words, it is all too glamourous.  That said, it’s the kind of film that could only have been produced in a very short period in Hollywood’s history, towards the end of the Vietnam war to the advent of Reagan’s presidency. (Reagan, you recall, made his name in a string of schmaltzy Hollywood products before, for our pain, going into politics.)  This was the moment when communists could actually be portrayed sympathetically, and it was The Way We Were's dissection of class, ethnicity and cold war hysteria that moved me so in that Adelaide cinema, and notwithstanding the gloss and the poor sound on the DVD, it’s moved me again.

Even so, I’d like to get out to the movies more, and will when I get over this latest hurdle – a full hip replacement and weeks of rehabilitation and recovery.  I’m trusting the hospital has good tv, with lots of movies to see me through it, although it's never been anything but the next best thing to the magic of that darkened cinema, where I’ve never had the slightest trouble with my hearing.


  1. I have been wondering a lot about your hip replacement Sara! I think I went away a week or so after you had it. I hope it all went well and your rehab is going smoothly.

    The film Super Duper? There is one in the NFSA catalogue as being made by the Canberra Women's Film Group in 1976. The director is given as Vladimir Stojanovic. I assume that's not yours.

    I was intrigued to read that Schemetime is your favourite. It is the one I have here - and I'm embarrassed to say - have had for many years. I really will try to read it one day.

  2. Thanks for that, Sue. It's amazing that they've got Vlad as the director. All he did was use the camera because none of us had access to a 16mm one and one of us - Wyn Abernathy - had access to the visual aids unit where Vlad worked and he agreed to do it ! Will try to rectify that. As for Schemetime - as said a personal favourite. A paean to film and Los Angeles, steeped in LA literary lore as well as being suffused with myth and film and filmic technique. Maybe ahead of its time and certainly published in the wrong place at the time before cultural studies got sufficiently established perhaps to make film a fitting subject of literature. A hint: it is among other things, Ulysses set in the Pacific.

  3. Hey mate, I too have experienced the same things in my life during my strong desire to become a film maker. Anyhow I'm feeling much better for getting know about a person who had the similar things in his life. Thanks for the share.
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  4. Thank you both, trifany wifey and boggling secrets. Best in everything you attempt, even movies.

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