A site of satirical musings, commentary and/or rhetorical criticism of the world at large.

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Location: Southeastern, Pennsylvania, United States

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Volume of the Silents

One of my interests is silent films, a very unique art form which all too briefly dominated American pop culture. The limitations imposed by film technology at the time forced filmmakers to pioneer techniques in communicating their ideas and entertaining audiences that were used to live performances. Two events this month bring silent films into the spotlight.

One is what I believe to be the television premiere of D.W Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation”. It is historically significant for several reasons. It was the first full-length dramatic film produced in America at a time when most films were still only one reel (ten minutes or so) in length. It was also the all-time box office champion for many years, and might still be the highest grossing film ever if you adjust the figures for inflation. Those two points are about the only good things we can say about “The Birth of a Nation”.

The film created controversy from the beginning, with its inflammatory, highly fictional account of the Reconstruction period. Its racist tone is evident throughout and its depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as heroic vigilantes did not make it the family-feel-good-movie of 1915. Griffith, the son of a Confederate war veteran, clearly had a few axes to grind. Still, it became one of the most influential films in American history through Griffith's story-telling techniques. It is perhaps somewhat fitting that the first film recognized for such vast influence would confront and aggravate the greatest problem this country has faced since before its birth.

Turner Classic Movies is featuring "Birth of a Nation" as part of its month-long examination of the African Americans as caricatures and stereotypes in the movies. "Birth of a Nation" defined the Black stereotype for many people and it seems to be a fitting starting point for this examination. The network promos featured Black historian Donald Bogle and comedian Bill Cosby openly discussing the films impact on American society. The film deserves the controversy it has earned over the years, but history begs us not to ignore it.

The second event is the annual Betzwood Film Festival, May 20 at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. This festival features the work of Griffith contemporary Sigmund Lubin, who produced films at Betzwood near Valley Forge from 1914 to 1922. Coincidentally, one of the festival's featured presentations this year is “Breaking Home Ties”, produced late in Lubin's career in response to Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic writings.

While Lubin was Griffith's contemporary, he never attained Griffith’s notoriety in his lifetime. Many of his earliest films were plagiarized from other filmmakers, although in Lubin's defense this was a common practice in those early days. Lubin seemed more concerned with making films solely as a way to sell his equipment, the cameras and projectors, than he was with advancing the story-telling elements of filmmaking. Possibly Lubin's greatest claim to fame was the production of medical instruction films which used special lenses invented and produced by his company. Unfortunately, these films are now lost.

The Betzwood Festival enables the audience to relive an actual silent film presentation. Keyboardist Don Kinnear accompanies the films just like the piano players did in the nickelodeons from 100 years ago. Sometimes you have to keep one eye on the film and the other eye on Don; his playing is so entertaining to watch. The musical accompaniment is another fascinating element of this lost art form. By viewing Griffith’s and Lubin’s work, we can truly appreciate the volumes spoken by the silent films.


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