Cannonball Read #14: Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture

I always wish I watched more old movies. Almost all old movies with a reputation for being awesome are really that awesome. But I've seen even less of the silent movie era, only seeing a handful of well known classics like The Passion of Joan of Arc (yes, it is as awesome as its reputation holds). So when I saw Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture, I had to check it out from the library. Essentially a text book of of the early days of cinema, it's an easy read with plenty of pictures to illustrate the gorgeous cinematography and artfully painted posters that advertised these films.

One of my favorite things about this book was how much of cinema culture that we know and love (to hate?) today was established by the 1920s. Film was at first just a way to make money, with quickly made nickelodeon movies and eventually two-reelers churned out quickly for the middle- and lower-classes. Obviously that still exists today, with most films mostly released to entertain rather than enlighten or enrich. I especially loved the section on Cecil D. DeMille in the director chapter, which essentially described him as a money-grubbing hack who embraced spectacle much to the chagrin and disapppointment of critics. Right there in the 1920s there was the precursor to Michael Bay. All this has happened before; all this will happen again.

And while the book repeatedly points out that there were as many mediocre and terrible movies as there are today, it also emphasizes (even more) the artistry developed in the early days as well. I think it's easy to think most of the fast editing and montaging seen so often today as new and contemporary when it was quickly established as methods of storytelling when the technology was still developing. Also, plenty of movie stills shown through the book showed just how beautifully these films were shot--it's just bad copies are often what's left today.

And that's where Silent Movies is headed: the preservation of early silent films. So many are lost due to neglect from studios or from self-destruction of the highly flammable film stock used so often in the early days. But it's fascinating to take a look at the culture--even just the way filmmakers wanted to portray the culture--and to look at the artistry--which is incredible what many early filmmakers were able to do. It's an incredible heritage and history that's worth preserving.

For the Love of Film blogathon also promotes this goal: check out some of the posts.

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