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The Art of Silence
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It's become a common experience at movie theaters and museums around the country: Show a silent film and you're almost certain to draw an overflow crowd.

Some of those who turn out undoubtedly do so only for the sake of novelty. But there are many who undoubtedly are drawn by a genuine appreciation of what has been the most neglected of the visual arts.

Until recently, anyway, silent films clearly had not been of interest to most people. For the average person's exposure to silents -- if any -- had been primarily through the speeded-up, bleached-out, "sound-enhanced" versions shown occasionally on television, that greatest of all the enemies of thoughtful, imaginative silence.

Relatively few people had seen silents as they were meant to be seen -- on a big screen, accompanied by live music, projected at the slower camera speed of their day, and often shown with hand-tinted frames.

No blaring TV sound tracks were added to the films that had been carefully crafted to be seen but not heard. No bubbly-voiced TV narrators explained the films that had been made so as to explain themselves.

It was a creative experience unlike any other, one that brought the silent screen players and their audiences close. It required special skills of the film directors, film editors and players, who could not rely on the crutch of words and sounds to reach the audience, and great involvement and concentration by the audience. Viewers were not denied their creative rights to interpret cinematic actions and to imagine for themselves the retort of the gun, the scream of the heroine, the lonesome whistle of the train.

Silent films are not the primitive, herky-jerky, faded black and white relics television had made them seem. They are not merely simple-minded, dated and ridiculous precursors of the slick, richly-colored and, above all, sound-filled movies of today.

Silent films are much more than that. They stand alone. Technological improvements in filmmaking have not diminished their excellence. The best of them are timeless, like the best of books or of any other artistic creations. They are like books that are no less worthy of attention for having been produced with the techniques of a past era or having been made into films. They are like plays whose merits are not diminished for having been forerunners of films. They are like the black-and-white sound films whose lack of color enhances them.

The silent film was a true and distinct popular art form. It was truly designed to move -- to show by movement rather than tell by words and sounds. It was as artistic as the other art forms -- books, plays, jazz, painting, sculpture, the dance and the rest -- and at least as artistic, far more experimental and daring, and certainly as imaginative and innovative, as the talking picture that supplanted it.

Compare, for instance, the 1925 version of "Ben-Hur," its climactic and incredibly gripping chariot race that took 42 cameramen and 200,000 feet of film to record, its massive sea battles, its grandeur and overall magnificence, to the ineptly imitative "Ben-Hur" of 1959.

I discovered the joys of the silent film three decades ago, when I climbed up to the balcony of the Avenue Theater in San Francisco, now closed, but then the only theater anywhere to show silents on a regular basis. I had anticipated merely an evening of quaintly amusing entertainment, only to return again and again for immersion in the artistry of moving pictures without sound.

Few talking pictures could surpass what we viewed at the Avenue, to the soaring accompaniment of a "mighty Wurlitzer" organ.

Few actresses, however well-spoken, could match the sheer skills of Louise Brooks, few actors match the skills of Lon Chaney, few better explore the true nature of the human condition.

No comedians, whatever the words they choose, could possibly equal the silent genius of Chaplin, or Lloyd, or Keaton.

Sexual energy, beauty? Clara Bow did indeed have IT, and in quantities and of a quality not even Marilyn Monroe could display.

Nothing on film, not "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" or anything else, has more tellingly illuminated human needs and desires, human strengths and weaknesses, than the 70-year-old "Greed" of Erich von Stroheim. No film has better illustrated the futility and horror of war, yet at the same time the beauty and pain of love than King Vidor's "Big Parade" of 1925. No film has ever conveyed a clearer feeling of the ancient past, and none with such splendor, as D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" of 1916. Never, anywhere, at anytime, has anyone seen a more dramatic, exciting and engaging film than the "Napoleon" of Abel Gance, that magnificent work of biography and film art.

Gance's "Napoleon," as Kevin Brownlow wrote in "The Parade's Gone By", his brilliant study of the silent film, "is a masterpiece in the original sense of the word, containing every conceivable technique of the cinema.

We were privileged, there in the darkened balcony of the Avenue, to see the French filmmaker's 73-year-old masterpiece several years before Brownlow and Francis Ford Coppola brought "Napoleon" to audiences across the nation. We were the first people in many years to experience the film, maybe the greatest ever made, and to experience what is probably the greatest ending in movie history.

We watched, and then stood and cheered, as three separate images burst upon us, in three separate frames spread massively across the screen, in green and gray and black and white. Armies marched up into majestic mountains and down into fertile valleys on the left, armies marched on the right. A hugely intense Napoleon Bonaparte glared out at us from the center panel.

Finally, a mammoth eagle soared into the very center of the triptych, to the final crashing, heroic strains of the Marseillaise on the mighty Wurlitzer.

"It would have been more logical," as Mary Pickford said, "if silent pictures had grown out of the talkie instead of the other way round."

Copyright Dick Meister