This week I’m going to give you a short introduction to the weird, surreal and endlessly entertaining world of new silent cinema. While you might already be familiar with 2011 Oscar-winner The Artist, you’ll soon discover that that film is just the tip of the iceberg of what filmmakers have been doing in recent years in terms of reviving a very old form of filmmaking. Rather than being just a nostalgic gesture, these films show how you can actually be extremely innovative while using silent cinema techniques. Moreover, they offer a really creative example of working with small budgets and of using filming techniques in your favour.
1) Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin, 2006)
Canadian director Guy Maddin’s has based his whole filmography on silent cinema aesthetics – whether by reproducing the style of the short-lived part-talkie (a silent film from the start of the sound era that included some synchronous sound sequences) in Archangel (1990), or by representing the (naturally silent) art form of the ballet as a silent film in Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002), or by following a Russian constructivist style in the short The Heart of the World (2000). Even his more famous sound films such as My Winnipeg (2007) and The Saddest Music in the World (2003) reproduce the look of silent films by using extremely grainy black-and-white photography. While being used to shoot in 8 and 16mm, in recent years he’s adopted digital filmmaking while still reproducing the grainy look of silent films, for example in the hallucinatory The Forbidden Room (2015). Indeed, filming his less successful Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) proved to be difficult. The very grainy and blurry images in his other films meant that he was able to get away with very cheap sets, as the details would not be visible anyway. Instead, the producers of Twilight forced him to shoot in 35mm, which means that the sets look deeply fake and unrealistic. Brand Upon the Brain! is a somehow autobiographical story about Maddin’s return to his fictional childhood home (a lighthouse on the deserted Black Notch island that doubles as a children orphanage) and his conflictual relationship with his mother. It was shot in 9 days with a $40,000 estimated budget and it then premiered accompanied by a live orchestra, narration, and Foley artists. This phantasmagoric and compelling melodrama is an example of how to advantageously use silent film aesthetics to create an imaginative low-budget film.
2) The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)
With a $15 million budget, The Artist is by far the most expensive film you’ll find in this article, and the one that you might be most likely already familiar with. It tells the story of the relationship between a rising young actress and an older silent film star during the transition between the silent and the sound era. The Artist was the first 100% black-and-white film to win Best Picture at the Oscars since The Apartment in 1960, and the first mainly silent film to win since the 1st Academy Awards in 1927. Despite not being an independent film, I included this film on the list because its joyous, feel-good quality (and that soundtrack!) is the best demonstration of how entertaining and crowd-pleasing a silent film can be. Its Oscars win also shows how alive silent cinema is. While it’s a film I’ve definitely enjoyed, all the other films in this list are equally (if not more) as imaginative and creative, proving that having a big budget isn’t really necessary to make a good silent film.
3) Decasia (Bill Morrison, 2002)
Defined as “the most widely acclaimed American avant-garde film of the fin-de-siecle” (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice), Decasia was the first film from the 21st century to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. Bill Morrison’s most famous film is a meditation on the decay of highly fragile nitrate films from the silent era. If you’re looking for something a little more accessible, make sure to check out Morrison’s most recent film, Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016). Dawson City focuses on the crazy story of the discovery of 533 silent film reels (they were buried in a swimming pool! Under an ice rink! In the middle of nowhere in Canada!). Instead of reproducing silent cinema aesthetics, Morrison uses archival footage from the silent era in a creative way, with results that are deeply moving and sometimes unsettling. While all of his films are the result of painstaking archival research, many public domain silent films are available on the internet to use for free (here’s a helpful guide on how to do it). If you think your film could benefit from the use of archival footage, this is definitely something to check out.
4) Blancanieves (Pablo Berger, 2012)
Released on the same year as Snow White and the Huntsman and a much better film in so many ways, this reinterpretation of the classic fairy tale transports the story to a romantic vision of 1920s Andalusia. The film recasts Snow White as an amnesiac girl who is recruited by a travelling band of bullfighting dwarves as a promising bullfighter. During their tour around Spain, she discovers her real origins. Director Pablo Berger spent 8 years to try and get enough funding to create this alternatively eerie, melancholic and surreal film. When he finally did, he got the news that The Artist had just been presented at Cannes, meaning that his high-concept of a modern black-and-white silent film as a unique selling point was gone. However, Berger also hoped that the success of The Artist would help creating an audience for another silent film. The film was indeed able to find an audience (and it is now featured in the silent cinema section of the BFI Player). If this list proves anything, it’s that there is definitely space for more than one new silent film – precisely because of how different they can be from each other. As Berger rightly points out, “you never compare two colour, sound films”, so why would two silent films need to be necessarily doing similar things?
5) The Call of Cthulhu (Andrew Leman, 2005)
Distributed by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, this short feature film (47 min) attempts and arguably succeeds in bringing to film what was long-considered an “unfilmable” story – H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Chtulhu”, about the mythical cosmic entity of Chtulhu. It was officially shot as a silent black-and-white film as a way of showing how the film would have looked like had it been made in 1928 (the year of the story’s publication). However, the producers actually admitted that this choice came with the benefit of not having to pay particular attention to the materials and decorations of the sets, as colours don’t appear in the final film. Moreover, like in Maddin’s case, the grainy images mean that details aren’t really visible anyway. It is also a pretty ingenious way of creating monsters, creatures and special effects while working with a very limited budget – who cares if the special effects aren’t detailed or believable? They wouldn’t have been able to do much better in 1928!
Want to attend a full weekend workshop about how to work with little or no budget? Check out Raindance’s own Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking course!