My daughters Goldie and Billie have taken up filmmaking. Their iPads come with an application called iMovie, which allows them to take video that they’ve recorded with their iPad cameras and pop it into the form of a movie trailer, with music and titles; in order to do this, though, they have to select what music and what style of titles, write the titles, then select from the videos they’ve recorded and edit them into a final product. Because all this is somewhat automated, it’s not as creative as it could be (even if it is, to them, great fun to put together and show off), and they’re learning-by-doing the basics of framing, light, photography, movement, gesture, and editing. You should really see their tracking shots as they sweep through the apartment and the outdoors; Martin Scorsese has nothing on them.
Like daughters, like father. In my nonage, about the age of eight or nine, I was in love with film. I was especially in love with the technology of it — the way that mechanics, celluloid, and light threw pictures up onto the wall. I imagine that partly this was some kind of boyish interest in tinkering, taking things apart and putting them back together, and movie projectors were particularly attractive. The added attraction was of course the films these projectors showed.
Back in 1971 or 1972, catering to my boyish enthusiasm, my father bought me a silent dual 8 movie projector, and I still remember it. The GAF 1388, designed for the home market (these were the days of home movies, of course, and you had to show them with something), became a blessed comfort of my boyhood. In the camera department of most department stores at the time, you could purchase little 50-foot silent, black-and-white highlight films of cartoons and movies for a few dollars each; these I would carry back home, thread them into the projector, and watch; when they were done, I’d rewind them and play them again. We made a few home movies ourselves, but they were never a large part of this obsession (and later, in college, I also took an Introduction to Filmmaking course in my freshman year, after which I concluded my talent was for watching, not making). My tinkering extended to the purchase of a little editing machine, on which I could splice shorter movies together to make an even longer one. Apart from the movies themselves, I remember the tactile qualities of the film and the mechanics of the projector, the thin strip of celluloid hard and sharp between my fingers as I threaded it through the machine and watched as the sprocket hook dragged it between the light and the lens of the projector. If you watched the film as it came off the reel, you could just about see, even in that tiny format, the way the picture moved from frame to frame — an early realization of persistence-of-vision.
We couldn’t afford a sound projector, so my early filmwatching years were dominated by silent film. By 1973 or so I’d discovered Blackhawk Films, a mail order house that specialized in 8mm reduction prints of black-and-white silent classics. (Blackhawk has become something of a legend to movie collectors; you can read about the history of the company — fascinating to me if to nobody else — here and here.) Every month or two a thickish catalog printed on cheap newsprint would arrive at the mailbox, and I’d go through it, page by page, circling the films I would want if my meager allowance would afford it. At the time, the most important figure at Blackhawk Films was film historian and Blackhawk Vice President David Shepard, who went on to become a major figure in the preservation and restoration of many silent films; many of his early efforts were released to the home market through Blackhawk, and I purchased as many of them as I could afford, mostly comedies of Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, and Laurel and Hardy. There were many I couldn’t purchase, mostly silent features, but at the time local public television stations used to fill off-hours with series that featured the masterpieces of silent film, and I remember seeing many of these (including many films from the Weimar era) at the time. Blackhawk offered them, but they were far too expensive for me to buy myself.
So obsessed was I with all this that, at the age of 13 or 14, I managed to talk my way into a tour of the projection booth at the Feeley Theatre in Hazleton, PA, where I was living at the time. The Feeley was an old vaudeville house converted to film sometime in the 1930s, and the booth was reached by going up to the balcony, then up a rickety ladder to a small hot room perched from the ceiling. The projection equipment even then was vintage, but the projectionist showed me how the reels were threaded, how the reel-changes were accomplished, and I remember all this even now. After this little tour I went back downstairs to watch the movie (which was, possibly, one of the old Marx Brothers or Charlie Chaplin films that received occasional re-releases in 35mm back in the 1970s, and in which the Feeley specialized).
This had two predictable results. First, as I became familiar with the mechanics of filmmaking and projection and film, movies were in one sense demystified for me. It’s not that I couldn’t see the aesthetic forest through the mechanical trees; I still enjoyed and laughed at Chaplin, Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and the silent films I watched on public television. But some of the wonder of illusion gave way to a critical perspective on the moving image. In short, I knew how the magic tricks worked; my reading about silent film had revealed the trickery of miniature shots, multiple-exposures, framing, and editing on the beat of an action, so when Star Wars was released in 1977 I wasn’t exactly swept away by the spectacle of it, because I knew how the spectacle was created in the first place. Instead of that I could concentrate on the story and ideology it reflected.
Second, as a youth, I gained an appreciation of the silent film and was able to recognize it as an entirely different kind of art form from that of sound film. Far from having merely historic or antiquarian interest, silent film had a language and technique all its own, in a way far freer than that of the sound film, which in most cases seemed bound to synchronized dialogue. Silent film demanded more of the viewer, especially the viewer who came to it from a moviegoing experience founded in sound films. You couldn’t look away for a moment, because dialogue would not cover what you had missed. Silent film’s intellectual, emotional, and philosophical range was extraordinarily broad and deep when it finally reached its maturity in the 1920s or so, especially in the films of the Weimar cinema, and I would rank the best of them with any film of 2016.
I don’t know if Goldie and Billie would share my enthusiasm; they’re children of the 21st century. But I’ve been reading up on silent film and rekindling my interest in it over the past few weeks, and am delightedly finding that many of those silent films I enjoyed as a youth are easier to find and less expensive than they used to be. Film conservation, preservation, and restoration have come a long way since the 1970s, and many silent films considered lost then have turned up here and there (especially the silent features of W.C. Fields, which are surprisingly good; Fields began his career as a silent juggling comedian, and these silent films throw a considerable light on what made him such a popular success in the first place). If this rekindling leads to a small fire, I’ll write more about these, but I am glad that this part of film history will still be there for my daughters to find. There was no guarantee, in the 1970s, that it would endure to inspire the memories of a middle-aged man in the 2010s.