Amidst all the glitter and glam of the modern film industry, the Academy awards show on Sunday night took a look back at movie history by lauding two films that offer homages to the origins of film. Hugo won five awards and includes as a character the director Gaston Méliès, whose films (such as the silent film A Trip to the Moon) are considered to be precursors to modern science fiction. The Artist also pays tribute to the silent film era and won five awards, including best picture. Is it a coincidence that almost half the awards at this year’s Academys went to movies that honour our film-making history? Perhaps. But at the same time, the recognition that these films received has made me want to explore the history of film, and, in particular, the silent film era.
Silent Movies by Peter Kobel provides an excellent history of silent film with over 400 images of photographs, lobby cards, posters and other memorabilia. This book includes a preface by Martin Scorcese (how fitting!) and has been described as a coffee table book for the film lover. A Short History of the Movies is a comprehensive history of film (at a not-so-short 516 pages!) that includes discussion of silent film and the roots of cinema. Silent film icons (such as Buster Keaton) and influential films (such as Nosferatu) are highlighted. Both these titles will make you a film expert in no time at all!
Apparently, the rental of silent films has increased since Sunday night’s Academy Awards show, and many of these titles can be borrowed from the library. The Rudolph Valentino Collection contains 5 films starring this Italian silent film star. If you’re interested in horror films then you might want to try The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, about a young man who reflects on a nightmarish experience him and his fiance have after attending a fair and meeting the strange Dr. Caligari and the even stranger Cesare. The General starring Buster Keaton is another highly regarded silent film, this one a comedy set during the Civil War. The library has many other silent films to suit any taste.
Also, don’t forget that The Artist isn’t the only contemporary silent film! Winnipeg’s own Guy Maddin has received international acclaim and his catalogue includes several silent movies. Dracula is a silent representation of the Bram Stoker tale as done by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Cowards Bend the Knee is the twisted tale of a hockey player named Guy who betrays his pregnant girlfriend with the new love he meets in a salon (who is out to avenge the murder of her father). How could you resist watching a movie with that plot? Brand Upon the Brain is the gothic tale of a young boy living on an island with his overbearing mother and ‘weird scientist’ father, and this movie contains elements of dream and fantasy. Screenings of this movie have included live narration, and the narrators have included such disparate individuals as Crispin Glover, Isabella Rossellini and Guy Maddin himself.
The fact that movies that honour cinema’s history could take top awards at a contemporary awards show demonstrates that sometimes it’s worth stepping back and taking a look at the history of film. Even if you’re not sure that you’d enjoy a silent film- take a chance on one. Remember- silence can be golden!