Silent movies aren't | St. Louis Public Radio

Silent movies aren't

May 9, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon:  Some people hate silent movies even more than subtitled foreign movies. The problem they have in common is the reading requirement. In a foreign movie, you can’t watch the action while you read the bottom of the screen. If they talk much or too fast, you know the translation will be simplistic and probably “cleaned up.”

When a silent movie stops for you to read a card, the whole movie stops. Boring. You want to see what it means. Viewers often object to voice-overs, too. Don’t tell me, show me.

Almost no movie is totally silent, even the old non-talkies. “Silent” movies first came with live music, now with a soundtrack. What viewers anticipate now — along with the reading — is boring, repetitive music. Sleep comes quickly for people listening to an hour of the same endless runs on a rinky-tink piano in a dark, warm room.

The problem isn’t silence, it’s bad background sound. Sure, you can actually watch an entire movie in true silence, just turn off the sound, but who would? Even a film teacher won’t dare that experiment for long. The temptation of silence is so overwhelming — soon the expert starts lecturing right over the movie. I’ve been there.

You know who sees genuinely silent movies? Movie makers. They need to watch their own silent footage sometimes, especially during shooting and editing, but even they may play background music. Stanley Kubrick played classical music all through the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey and when the commissioned score was finally available, he discarded it for Johann Strauss’ "Blue Danube" waltz and Richard Strauss’ bombast, which he had been using “temporarily.”

Speaking of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), more than half — 88 minutes — had no dialogue. That movie and its astronauts in pressurized suits (not Darth Vader in Star Wars nine years later) was the one that first scared viewers with the sheer sound of breathing.

The point is that sound is always an important part of the drama, subtle or not. I have a strong memory of reading somewhere that Francis Ford Coppola thought the music carried 60 percent of the meaning in a movie. 

If you view the same visual with a different soundtrack, you experience a different movie. Want evidence? Watch five minutes of a good Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton film twice. Pick any two CDs and watch for awhile with one playing, then switch to the other. Or just try this: Watch the first three minutes of Blade Runner with no sound — no Vangelis score, no sound effects, no voice-over, no dialog.

You make ask, “Who cares?” You will, when you really want to study what you view. For the same reason that painters look at compositions upside down and golfers bounce balls in mid-air with five-irons.

Get serious. Play with the tools.

Nick Otten is a former teacher.