Channel 4 has had another of its engrossing list programmes; this one was Fifty Films to See Before You Die. And, guess what, there wasn’t a silent film in it. In fact there were only six black-and-white films in it (A Night at the Opera, This Sporting Life, Touch of Evil, A Bout de Souffle, The Apartment and Manhattan). Our film critics, who selected this list, evidently see very little beyond their own lifetimes. And clearly many of them do not see silent films at all – probably literally so. Do we have separate film histories here? It’s been interesting to see in some recent film histories and reference books how themes in film history often seem to start in 1930, or are divided up into the silent and sound eras. Silent cinema has become a foreign country.

4 responses

  1. I think you’ll find that it wasn’t so much a board of critics which chose the list, but rather a board of FilmFour commissioners, with a fist full of cheap FilmFour produced titles.

    The BFI lists for the best films ever do show greater interest in silent features, and thats made up by big-wig critics and filmmakers.

    That said, I wholly sympathise with the move in recent film histories to markate silent cinema as being ‘over there’ or ‘a million miles from here’. Worse still is the view which can’t look at silent films beyond Chaplin and Keaton, as merely some historical joke of a ‘naive’ cinema. It’s a sisiphysian task overcoming the ignorance, but don’t let a stupid FilmFour list get you down!

  2. Oh dear, I should have known. It’s certainly not the first such Channel 4 list to be conveniently structured around FilmFour-licensed titles. Still, the general point remains about the two histories. It’s odd that while silent fiction films – outside of Chaplin and Keaton as you say – are generally viewed as quaint, or else a very occasional special cultural treat with a live Carl Davis score, silent non-fiction – which I have always championed – is enjoying something of a golden age. Maybe the one seems to make the past look alien, while the other makes it look immediate.

    Let’s keep on pushing that boulder up the hill…

  3. I was also very frustrated by the list, which missed a great opportunity to introduce eager filmgoers to different kinds of cinema. The glossy movie magazine Empire seems to tell young cinemagoers that the cinema began in the 1970s, perpetuating a film history with a really bad memory. This list reinforced that view, implying that exciting cinema has only been around for 30 years or so and that anything earlier is either inaccessible, ‘dull’, or only of interest to scholars or historians. Of course there is no pre-requisite to enjoying cinema of the past, and certainly an audience tuning into a programme about the movies would get a great kick out of classical cinema, both sound and silent. And there is no better introduction to silent cinema than Chaplin and Keaton; firstly you can’t really have a better time at the movies, and pretty soon they become much more than mere introductions.

    At the same time I was incredibly surprised and pleased to find the DeMille silent ‘The Godless Girl’ on Film4 twice this weekend, the titles of which announced a Photoplay and Film4 co-production, the restoration of which was pristine. Let’s hope that this is a very positive sign of things to come…

  4. Just rescued your comment from the spam box. Not having access to Film4, I’d missed out on the Godless Girl screening, which is certainly a surprise. Time was when Channel 4 regularly screened Photoplay/Thames Silent restorations – always a fine way to spend a wet Sunday afternoon. The Godless Girl is a Photoplay/George Eastman House restoration, with the obligatory Carl Davis score. A DVD release is promised.

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