“It cannot be stressed too strongly that the sound motion picture was an entirely different medium from the silent motion picture, and not merely the extension of it,” William K. Everson wrote in his groundbreaking 1978 history American Silent Film. “The difference between the two media is literally the difference between painting and photography, and the frequent unreality — or stylized reality — of much of the camerawork of the silent film was, artistically, one of its greatest assets.” Nor is this all. The silent film also required, ironically, a more naturalistic and nuanced performance style from its performers; from its audiences, it required (and still requires) a new way of viewing, a close attention to the visual. In the sound film, dialogue cues might fill you in if you look away or are distracted for a moment. The silent film requires a studied intention to see. To be a silent film enthusiast is to be an advocate for a unique art form that retains, even (and maybe especially) now, remarkable pleasures and aesthetic experiences. But, strange as it may seem, contemporary appreciation of silent films doesn’t begin to approach the contemporary appreciation of literature, music, and visual art of the same period — from 1895 to about 1930.
Anyone who appreciates the unique appeal of silent film will be sorry to hear of the passing of film preservationist David Shepard earlier this week. Shepard made it his life’s work to collect, preserve, restore, and disseminate (as widely as he could) the first thirty years of American film history. He, along with Martin Scorsese and Kevin Brownlow, was one of the major figures who recognized the immense historical and continuing value of these films.
Shepard began his career at the American Film Institute, which was started in part to preserve the American film heritage, in 1968. Later, he joined Blackhawk Films, a company that distributed classic films to the home market in 8mm and 16mm formats; following the closure of the company, he acquired both its restoration technology and its film catalog, which included films by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and many many others. In more recent years, Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates worked closely with Kino Lorber, Lobster Films, and Flicker Alley to ensure that the restoration and dissemination of these films continued. Realizing that mere archival restoration wasn’t enough, he worked assiduously to keep these films in front of the public eye. A partial list of the hundreds of films that Shepard had a hand in restoring can be found here.
Shepard kept a low profile; he never published any books, and Film Preservation Associates never even had a web site; Scorsese (obviously) and Brownlow (who produced many documentaries himself and wrote several historical studies) were much better known to the public, but all three knew and admired each’s efforts. His enthusiasm never wavered, however, and many have paid tribute to his achievements and advocacy for silent film, as this and this demonstrate. An obituary from the Hollywood Reporter can be found here, but this interview from 2000 at digitallyobsessed.com has a wealth of other information. An appropriate moment of silence, then, for one of the heroes of American film history.