Silent Film and the Art of Paying Attention

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Being an artist means never averting your eyes
Akira Kurosawa

When I first began watching silent film, it was because of a poetry project I’d begun and those movies were essential to the persona I was creating. Now, some years later, what started out as a means to an end has become a passion for the art, the ingenuity and the history that surrounds the silent film era. I’ve learned many things through the numerous films I’ve watched, the books I’ve read, the research I’ve done. However, the most important thing I learned was also the first thing I had to master— the rudimentary art of paying attention.

While it goes without saying that all film is highly visual, silent film requires a type of focus talking films don’t quite demand. That level of sustained attention was difficult for me at first, being someone who is usually doing more than one thing at a time. I suspect many folks are like this. Sitting on a couch in my living room makes me feel restless, not relaxed. If I have the TV on, watching a movie or a show, then I’m doing something else as well— folding clothes, cleaning the kitchen and looking up occasionally to catch what’s going on, exercising, organizing the mail. But silent film requires the full use of your eyes. And there is, as I came to understand, a vast difference between watching and seeing. Slowly I learned to redirect my focus when it began to stray. I’d mindfully bring it back to the image in front of me, to the present moment, much like meditation. Once I committed to the giving up of my visual sense and brain for any other activity while the film was on, I began to move beyond merely following the plot. I began to understand the full power of expression, to take a pointed notice in the setting, its details. What was in the frame? What was it revealing? How were light and shadow contributing to the setting, to character, to the story? What did the camera cuts and movements, its rhythms and pacing reveal? It was invigorating watching the ways in which directors and cameramen, set designers and actors were learning to create a narrative language purely from image in this new medium.

Watch Lillian Gish in Griffith’s Broken Blossoms and you can see just how many gradations of emotion exist between fear and horror, between sadness and despair. Watch Pabst’s Pandora’s Box and within the first fifteen minutes you’ll see how economically character is revealed through juxtapositions and interaction with setting— from the troll figurine on the mantle which resembles Lulu’s first “benefactor,” Schigolch and manifests him as grotesque caricature, to the porcelain donkey/ass that her lover, Shön, fidgets with while he talks to her, to the large portrait painting above her settee that depicts Lulu as Pierrot, the naive comedy dell’arte clown. Watch Lang’s Metropolis and see Freder working the Clock Machine, a feat which takes great strength to control. When he wears out, the clock begins controlling him and you will not only see, but feel the way in which the individual is a slave to a system and time. Give in to the melodramatic and symbolic use of the staircase and ladders in Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven and you’ll come away believing in love’s ability to heal all.

The immediacy and power of images such as these, transcend time and medium. So it makes sense that silent film would influence how I think about poetry— on both a craft and aesthetic level. As much as I love my craft books, it’s film that reminded me with such potency image’s ability to simultaneously convey information, carry the emotional weight, contribute to or create tone, reveal character (or speaker), to control movement and to subtly exude intention and meaning. Watching these films provided details for the subject matter of my poems, but it also affected the way that subject matter was enacted on the page. How would this moment be rendered on film was a question I’d come back to over and over during the writing and revising of these poems.

Watching silent films from their earliest days gives me an appreciation for the ingenuity of all involved in this new art form, an art form that was learning about itself as it went along. Those pioneers had no idea that film would alter completely our cultural and collective imaginations. For that reason alone, I find silent film worth paying attention to. Watch Pandora’s Box. Watch Louise Brooks radiate a quality that resists being quantified or named. Tell me you are anything but riveted by her presence. Tell me you can look away.