Hollywood in New Millennium: Back to the Future, or Back to the Past

The Romance of moviemaking ended with sound.
Douglas Fairbanks

It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of talkies, instead of the other way round.
Mary Pickford

Who could have predicted that, as cinema enters its second century, it will show signs of going back to its roots, to the silent era.

Ninety years after D.W. Griffith made his seminal epics, “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance”, and decades after Cecil B. DeMille titillated audiences with his sensational biblical spectacles, Hollywood shows a renewed interest in grandiose mass spectacles that approximate the aesthetics of silent films. The new spectacles–“The Matrix”, “Spider-Man”, “X-Men” and their sequels–adhere to a philosophy that sees moviegoing as essentially a sensorial experience, meant to stir emotions rather than provoke ideas. For the filmmakers of these spectacles, plot and dialogue, though potentially clever, are secondary to the medium’s visual properties because they define the essence of the film experience. It’s not exactly a new trend. The rise of mass spectacles occurred in the 1980s in the high-tech, special-effects films of James Cameron and Tim Burton. Though different in sensibility, both directors stressed in their work the superiority of concept over character, imagery over narrative.

In his “Terminator” movies and “Aliens,” Cameron gave B-movie adventures a rough-edged industrial feel, imposed on slender stories that unfold as long chase sequences. Featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a lethal robot, their texts were ruthlessly simplistic, serving as proto-videogames with their fast movement. Cameron reinvented the sci-fi/action genres by using schmaltzy human and mythical tales that almost crumbled under the weight of his technological apparatus. As the most expensive film to date, “T2” signaled a new era that reached a climax with the global success of “Titanic”, an even more expensive film than “T2” and with even more elaborate production values.

The big-budget, sumptuously-mounted spectacles benefit from “Titanic”‘s triumph. With the notable exception of “The Lord of the Rings”, which boasts literary cachet, they are marked by slight narratives and shallow characterizations. Based on sensual experience, they overwhelm the eyes but neglect the mind. Labeled in the industry as tentpoles and event movies, they are more than films: The soundtrack, videogames, merchandize, all contribute to their existence as global cultural phenomena.

Though reusing the logic of silent, the new films are more suave and sophisticated–not only in their technical credits. Much silent cinema, particularly the Griffith brand, now looks primitive, melodramatic, and naive. After “Birth of a Nation”, Griffith became the medium’s grandest showman. A defender of film as art, Griffith understood that more than anything else it was epic spectacles, inconceivable on stage by such extravagant showmen as Belasco or Ziegfeld, that would elevate film’s stature. “Intolerance”‘s narrative unfolds as a four disparate historical episodes, linked through parallel-action, nonlinear structure, cross-cutting, rhythmic editing.

The Fall of Babylon sequence, which depicts the collapse of civilization, uses set designs unmatched for sheer size. The sets exist almost independently–to be admired by the prowling camera–rather than grow out of dramatic need. Looking toward Italy–specifically Giovanni Pastrone’s “Cabiria”–Griffith mounted 30-foot plaster rampant elephants on huge columns. The astonishing designs displayed what Frank Lloyd Wright once labeled “architecture of eclecticism,” a myriad revival of Roman Gothic, Italian Renaissance, English Tudor–in short Kitsch.

Griffith’s epic filmmaking had moral and religious ambitions. His naive philosophy is reflected in his instruction to actress Lillian Gish: “We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words. We’ve found a universal language, a power that can make men brothers and end war forever. Remember that when you stand in front of the camera.”

Then, as now, a hierarchy of taste was in operation, and audiences could distinguish between Griffith and Von Stroheim, good DeMille and preposterous DeMille, American and European silents. While Griffith was developing a film language, European filmmakers were experimenting with similar ideas. Consider Abel Gance, a hero of those regretting the loss of silent cinema’s purity. In his films, especially “Napoleon”, Gance made a fuller use of the medium than Griffith, employing such ingredients as epic-scale heroism, technical ingenuity, visual spontaneity, and melodrama. When sound arrived, just as Griffith complained “give us back our beauty,” Gance experimented with the triptych Polyvision, which epitomized his grandiose ventures. Gance made inventively pioneering films that thrived on the medium’s infinite opportunities.

Vibrant with energy, “Napoleon” showed narrative enthusiasm, sweeping exposition of events, dynamic editing, but Gance’s approach to his hero was disappointingly uncritical and conventional. Even so, the effects of Polyvision, the simultaneous projection of three images, is undeniably spectacular. Audiences were stunned by a central closeup of “Napoleon”, surrounded by two screens showing in long shot his marching armies.

The visual wit and lyrical poetry of Louis Feuillade exceeded the merits of both Gance and Griffith. As David Thompson noted, his seminal “Fantomas”, a serial in five episodes which antedates “Birth of a Nation”, and “Vampires” are the first great movie experiences to flaunt the medium’s magic. If Griffith harked back to Victorian morality, Gance and Feuillade predicted the new world yet to come.

Some of the American spectacles resemble the European silents, which were like hallucinatory experiences of haunting dreams in their regenerating plots and astonishingly concrete imagery. Like Feuillade, spectacles’ directors understand that people go to the movies to relive exciting experiences, and that regardless of educational level, their basic instincts are primal and sensual.

Despite the similarities between the silent and current spectacles, they’re a number of significant differences, reflective of changing times, tastes, and audiences.

Just like their predecessors, the new spectacles titillate viewers with excess but without parading DeMille’s hypocritical morality. The silents’ naivete and moral pretentiousness–reflected in the intertitles–are gone. The new movies are no longer seen as political exhortation or spiritual renewal.

The silent era benefited from urbanization, the influx of upwardly mobile immigrants to big cities, which lent force to the new industry. Silent films were designed to create a homogeneous audience out of a hugely diverse population. Like America, movies were seen at their origins as primitive and sensory–entertainment for the masses–a belief fully embraced by the new spectacles.

But if silents were made for all people, the current spectacles are mostly supported by teenagers, America’s frequent moviegoers, who may see “Titanic” and “Matrix” three or four times. The new spectacles encourage–even depend on–repeat viewing. However, to achieve their phenomenal popularity, mass spectacles like “Spider-Man” need crossover appeal among larger groups than adolescents and twentysomething.

With no competition from any mass medium (radio, TV), silent film was America’s dominant entertainment and great equalizer. Silent films pretended to ignore America’s racial diversity and inequality; in the dark all viewers are equal. Since most Americans could afford going to the movies, the silents undermined class polarization. In contrast, sound films inevitably emphasized racial disparity. By giving voice to ethnic minorities, the talkies didn’t help the assimilation cause of turning America into a melting pot. Minority actors (especially blacks) played secondary, stereotypical roles that perpetuated the status quo, calling attention to their deviation from mainstream WASPish ideal.

The question of whether film is an art form still afflicts our most gifted directors. Since the justification is visual, they feel need to lift the medium from its raw material, distinguish it from literature and theater. Filmmakers still grapple with the tension between powerful, sophisticated visual strategies and conventional narratives with banal dialogue.

Take, for instance, Coppola, who composes movies as Wagner composed operas, setting primal conflicts to soaring emotional lines. Favoring majesty, Coppola’s most venturesome films are “Apocalypse Now” and “Dracula”, showing a brilliant director in complete control of his craft. Abandoning realism, and blessed with facility, audacity, and vision, he played up consciously movies’ artificial nature. Significantly, it was Coppola who in 1981 produced the triumphant big-screen showing of “Napoleon”.

In 1992, Coppola mounted an ambitious horror film, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, an imaginatively stylish reworking of the vampire story that was a sumptuous feat for senses. Like “Blade Runner”, another fever dream whose power lay not in its narrative but the texture of its Jungian imagery. In staging Dracula’s legend as a bloody visual feast, Coppola made the most extravagant version of often-filmed story.

“Kundun”, Scorsese’s haunting meditation on Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, was also a majestic spectacle of images and sounds bogged down by a routine screenplay that failed to provide fresh perspective or its subject. Utilizing an innovative style that deviated from Hollywood biopics, Scorsese’s film achieved brilliance, representing the closest one could make a sound film whose strongest sequences worked their enchantment without any words.

Silent film appeared at the right moment in America’s history and with properties to meet the call of a country stripped to its essential components and in need of a new art. Critic Vachel Lindsay lauded the democratic potential of silents as a new communal art, unhinged by past traditions. For Lindsay, even musical accompaniment was a violation of the medium’s purity.

The addition of sound meant loss since it was impossible to sustain the silents’ visual exuberance. Effects of visual wit and dramatic power were abandoned, the sense of infinite possibilities and unrestricted action were gone. Sound inevitably transformed the medium by dictating news subjects, visual modes, and acting styles, reflecting new approach to reality.

Most new spectacles give the impression of dialogue as an interference, puncturing the illusion, sending the viewers back to a more routine world. Like their silent they never allow the audience to forget the artifice. “Matrix”, “X-Men”, and the other spectacles are sustained at a higher emotional pitch, aiming to stun viewers, make them realize they’re watching massive and sweeping epics. Emphasizing visual rather than dramatic logic, their directors make prodigiously expensive productions of unparalleled size, scope and splendor. One gets the feeling that Cameron and his cohort would embrace critic Aldous Huxley’s lament of dialogue as a vulgarizing addition to the medium: “My flesh crept as the sound speaker poured out those sodden words, that greasy, sagging melody.”

Though many countries contributed to the development of film, by 1920, America had emerged as the unrivaled center of world filmmaking. The reduction of foreign competition after WWI gave American film an advantage it would never really lose. However, initially, sound caused alarm in the international arena, signaling the end of film as a universal language.

No need to worry: Hollywood’s rediscovery of silent cinema’s aesthetics at once reaffirms and furthers American globalization of the world film market.

Mass Spectacles Hampered by Conventional Narratives
Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”
Scorsese’s “Kundun”, “Gangs of New York”
Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”
Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”, “Black Hawk Down”
Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Roug”e
Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow”
Andy and Larry Wachowski’s “The Matrix”
Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”