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November 15, 2012

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Petey

"Wait, it's condescending to express regret at someone else's condescension? Intentionally or not, she dismissed an entire era of filmmaking"

Well, sure. But her job is to be an actress, not to be a cinephile. Watching many movies that cinephiles appreciate would likely give her assistance in her job, but silent movies pretty much aren't among those movies.

It's always worth remembering just how foreign an art form silent movies can be when first encountered.

I've enjoyed reading Shakespeare, but that doesn't mean I want to read a freaking boring m*therf*cking Chaucer book.

Foreign art forms are generally only tackled out of desire or necessity. I have neither for Chaucer. She has neither for silent film. Works for both of us.

(Now, if she's an actress and she never wants to watch B&W movies, then she's a stupid actress.)

But generally, I thought your comment upthread made the most sense. It works for her, but it'd be strange to come from a commenter on a cinephile blog...

george

Dismissing an entire art form IS sweeping, and it DOES amount to ignorance.

But she's only 22, so it doesn't bother me that much. If she's saying the same thing at 32, I'll be more critical of her.

Gordon Cameron

> If she's saying the same thing at 32, I'll be more critical of her.

In my experience most non-cinephiles still don't like silent movies at 32, or at 42.

I don't think there's anything wrong with the 'if only they could be exposed to it properly...' sentiment, though. I evangelize for the art I love, whether it be Chaplin or Chopin. I see nothing condescending in this: merely an enthusiastic desire to spread the good word, so to speak. You just have to know when you're beaten and not be too annoying about it. Wherein I probably fail, sometimes.

jbryant

LondonLee: Nothing in my comment suggests that I think people are NOT allowed to dislike things. It's just that there's also nothing wrong with disagreeing with them and expressing regret that they might be missing out on something. And of course I realize that her dislike might be based on actually seeing some silent films. We're all responding to a single line in an interview, and some extrapolation is necessary to discuss it. I mean, I used the word "possibly," for crying out loud.

george

When I was 22, I would not sit through a subtitled foreign-language film. ("Seven Samurai" literally put me to sleep the first time I tried to watch it.) At 32, I couldn't get enough of them. Some people's tastes and attitudes do change. There's hope for Jennifer!

Ian Johnston

Hmm, "a freaking boring m*therf*cking Chaucer book" seems to me a hell of a lot WORSE than Jennifer Lawrence on silent movies.

george

http://www.filmpreservation.org/preserved-films/screening-room/the-white-shadow-1924

Maybe we should stop arguing and just watch this rescued early Hitchcock credit, thanks to the third "For the Love of Film" blogathon. See the Self-Styled Siren's blog for more info.

Joel Bocko

Wow, great, great responses, Gordon. I agree with most of this so I don't have too much to add. Except that I think contextualization is indeed huge (again tipping my hand that, after all, I do think it's a "learned behavior," as is appreciation I suppose). Certainly with books - while my parents weren't stereotypical intellectuals or anything, they always had tons of books lying around, would read to me as a kid etc - so by the time classics were assigned as reading in school I was already interested in them independently.

The same is even more true of movies. I developed my interest in them very early - by chance I suppose (a kind of cosmic coincidence of monster movie books from the school library, trips to the local movie theater for the likes of Home Alone and Kindergarten Cop, and awe at my cousin's imposing video collection which ranged from Platoon to Turner & Hooch). I was led in daisy-chain like fashion, through books, video stores, and the like, from new blockbusters to classic Hollywood movies to foreign art films by the time I'd graduated high school. I did, somewhat unfortunately, attend film school (albeit more production-oriented than film studies) but by then I'd basically had my Classic Canon 101. If I'd had to imbibe that, the way some of my peers did, in a classroom environment I might not have "gotten it" either. Even as it was, I spent most of my college years passionately devoted to music instead, only returning to full-throated cinephilia when I'd graduated and it was no longer "educational."

I like the evangelical approach too. I've often thought it would be fun to have a screening of classic films every week, preferably among older viewers with a curiosity about film history but not much experience with it. Maybe asking the gathering to select a film each week based on clips from the films (that was how I ended up wanting to see so many movies, by seeing a clip and getting a hunger; people love to knock the 90s AFI lists but they were really good for this). And then discussions afterward.

I generally avoid talking movies at all with people in my personal and/or professional lives, keeping my passion to myself. Which kind of frustrates me but also seems practical (when people parrot conventional wisdom on classics or foreign films I often want to bang my head against the wall; so it's as much for my sake as theirs). I only really know other cinephiles online, with a few exceptions. Yet theoretically I believe in cinema - all cinema - as a popular medium and hate the idea of niche-ification. So I suppose I should put my money, or my time/effort anyway, where my mouth is.

Of course there's also the consideration that most of my jobs these days seem to involve sales of some capacity, either watered-down or hard, and I tend to be somewhat pushy. So maybe I need to give that side of my personality a break when it comes to my private life, haha...

Petey

"Hmm, "a freaking boring m*therf*cking Chaucer book" seems to me a hell of a lot WORSE than Jennifer Lawrence on silent movies."

It's really the same thing. I'd be putting a lot more boring work into reading Chaucer than the enjoyment/edification I'd be getting out of it.

That was the equation for me at 22, and it's the equation for me at ≥32.

Although I'm a reasonably big "phile" of literature, with pretty good positive exposure to post-Shakespeare English literature, reading Chaucer for me is encountering an art form that doesn't 'play' for me natively because of the language difficulties.

It's pretty much the same for silents, (with the noted Chaplin / Keaton exceptions).

Now, I learned to 'read' silents films because I had both the desire and the necessity to do so, and ever since, I enjoy them greatly. But I have neither the desire nor the necessity to learn to 'read' earlier forms of English literature like Chaucer. What's wrong with that?

Life is short, and the list of non-native art forms to educate oneself in are long!

And as stated upthread, I don't see Jennifer Lawrence as having a pressing professional necessity to learn to 'read' silent movies, and she obviously doesn't have the desire. Same thing, and what's wrong with that?

Petey

"but by then I'd basically had my Classic Canon 101. If I'd had to imbibe that, the way some of my peers did, in a classroom environment I might not have "gotten it" either. Even as it was, I spent most of my college years passionately devoted to music instead, only returning to full-throated cinephilia when I'd graduated and it was no longer "educational."

I initially absorbed a good amount of the post-1929 cinema canon outside the classroom, as you did.

But I really got my FULL Classic Canon either directly out of the classroom, or out of ideas of books to read that came first or second hand out of the classroom.

And the classroom really was helpful in fully integrating pre-1929 cinema into my native cinema experience. I really can't emphasize enough just how alien silents can seem to the newbie. 1930's Hollywood can be 'read' natively by a modern newbie. Bergman or Bresson can be 'read' natively by a modern newbie. But silents, (excepting the physical comedies), really are alien for newbies.

Joel Bocko

Yeah, I would agree with whoever said first that the best introductions to silent films are Chaplin and Keaton. With all this talk of what reeled us in, I'm realizing I'm not really sure what/how I was introduced to silents. Looking back, it must have come much later than the rest of my introduction to classics, yet I don't remember a "now-I'm-watching-silent-cinema" conscious moment. I guess it was Chaplin's Gold Rush, followed not too long after by either Battleship Potemkin or Intolerance.

It's odd that I can't better remember my first silent, because I feel like I can better remember my first adult (at least, non-little kid movie) - which was Twins, incidentally, if that counts. I can remember my first "R" - Alien. Not sure exactly what the first B&W was, but I remember watching the Spencer Tracy Dr. Jekyll pretty young (not sure if it was younger than Kong though). And I remember seeing at least parts of a few foreign films, although it wasn't really till I was a teenager and saw either Seventh Seal or 400 Blows that I really jumped into foreign "art" cinema. But I can't remember the experience of watching a first silent.

Anyway, out of curiosity, when you write "out of ideas of books to read that came first or second hand out of the classroom" do you mean you were introduced to them in that context, or that they were actually written by academics or in an academic context?

Petey

"yet I don't remember a "now-I'm-watching-silent-cinema" conscious moment"

As a pup, I was gently and correctly introduced to silents by an older influence. I was emotionally set up for the experience, intellectually hinted for the experience, taken to a nice cinema with a tinted print of Wings. And it was good fun. I remember that.

But it still took many years after, until college daze when I had my REAL cinema immersion, before silents became a native art form for me.

"Anyway, out of curiosity, when you write "out of ideas of books to read that came first or second hand out of the classroom" do you mean you were introduced to them in that context, or that they were actually written by academics or in an academic context?"

Like I say, college daze. Taking film viewing & production courses. Hanging out with others taking courses in the same fields. Lots of academic books, non-academic books, screenings, videotapes, and cameras floating around the collective peer group.

Joel Bocko

You know, although I can't remember an intro-to-dilemma breakthrough, I did have an sort of Silenus-epiphany much later, when I attended a Murnau double feature at the Anthology Film Archives (Faust, which I hadn't seen yet, followed by The Last Laugh), and realized to my horror when I arrived that the organist wasn't sitting in for the matinee and it was going to be COMPLETELY and LITERALLY silent. I debated not getting tickets but eventually bit the bullet and settled in for what turned out to be one of the most mesmerizing cinematic experiences I ever had. It depends on my mood, but more often than not I prefer to watch silent films with the score turned off since that occasion.

Gordon Cameron

>Maybe asking the gathering to select a film each week based on clips from the films (that was how I ended up wanting to see so many movies, by seeing a clip and getting a hunger; people love to knock the 90s AFI lists but they were really good for this). And then discussions afterward.

Clips can indeed whet the appetite. I remember seeing a segment from 'Strangers on a Train' referenced, I think, in 'Throw Momma From The Train,' and instantly finding myself more interested in seeing the Hitchcock original than the modern paraphrase. Something about those stark black and white images just seemed so pure and perfect. Similarly, I first saw the clip of Washizu's death in 'Throne of Blood' during an Oscar montage honoring Kurosawa, and was so dazzled by it that I determined to find that movie one way or another. It took a while for me to figure out which film it was actually in. (I remember describing it to my older brother, and him thinking it might be 'Ran,' but I knew he must be wrong as 'Ran' was in color...)

Jajjjc

Just wanna say that Akira is awesome, even if it's a bit of a mess at the end.

jbryant

Petey wrote: "And as stated upthread, I don't see Jennifer Lawrence as having a pressing professional necessity to learn to 'read' silent movies, and she obviously doesn't have the desire. Same thing, and what's wrong with that?"

Absolutely nothing. The only thing that's sort of "wrong" is that she seems to be dismissing the entirety of silent cinema (and possibly B&W cinema, to boot) based on what we assume is limited exposure to it. Again, the quote doesn't specify how much exposure she's had to the subject at hand, but at her age it's unlikely that she's made a concerted effort to appreciate the form. If that's the case, we don't have any obligation to respect her opinion. We just acknowledge that she has it, and has the right to have it.

Bottom line: Don't expect to be given a pass for every uninformed opinion that comes out of your mouth. This also works for older people dismissing whatever's new. (When Sinatra famously dissed rock-n-roll in the 50s, I'll bet not even one teenager thought, "Gee, maybe this over-40 a-hole is right and my enthusiasm is misplaced!")

But Jennifer, if you're reading this, I want to reiterate that I don't consider your opinion of silent films to be a "dealbreaker," if you know what I mean.

Joel Bocko

Interesting to see so many bring up her age here - for whatever reason, I would've thought many SCR readers (presumably classic, or even fucking silent, film buffs) were not so much older.

jbryant

Joel: I don't know about the median age of SCR readers, but surely the number of silent film fans of ANY age isn't huge. And of course older cinephiles are at least a BIT more likely to have sampled a fair number of silents, simply because they've made more trips around the sun. I don't know how Jennifer Lawrence has filled her 22 years, but from her comments it doesn't seem far-fetched to guess that watching silent films has not been a huge priority for her.

george

"When Sinatra famously dissed rock-n-roll in the 50s, I'll bet not even one teenager thought, "Gee, maybe this over-40 a-hole is right and my enthusiasm is misplaced!"

The difference is that rock-n-roll, at least in the '50s and '60s, was part of youth culture, so no one would pay attention to a middle-aged man's opinions about it. He wasn't the audience for Elvis and the rest.

But movies aren't a medium for teenagers -- at least they weren't until the recent past. Over the last decade, I've noticed a lot of defensiveness on the part of people who haven't seen many old movies, or who have seen a handful and don't like them.

Whereas, when I was a teen in the '70s and would read William K. Everson or Leonard Maltin (or even Forrest J. Ackerman) writing enthusiastically about old black-and-white movies I hadn't seen, I would say, "Wow, I want to see that!" I didn't say: "What do those old farts know?" Which seems to be the current attitude among too many people.

jbryant

george: I was also a teen in the 70s, but I must say, I was never in a peer group that gave a damn about any movie more than a few years old. I had one buddy who was into silent comedies and singing cowboy Westerns, and a couple of guys who loved the Universal horror stuff, but I never really met anyone who shared my interest in classic Hollywood and foreign language cinema. Undoubtedly, the fact that I grew up in small Kentucky town of fewer than 30,000 people might have had something to do with it. True, I didn't often hear "What do those old farts know?" There was just a general lack of interest. Who cares about some old movie when there's a hot new movie, or the big game, or the dance, or a concert, etc.

george

jbryant: I grew up in a Tennessee town that had MAYBE 30,000 people, but not much more. If I wanted to see anything other than the latest hits on a big screen, I had to drive to Memphis (where I saw "Citizen Kane" for the first time).

None of my friends were into any "obscure" movies, either. Thanks to TV showings, they knew the Universal horror flicks, some of the Bogart and Flynn movies, and W.C. Fields. the Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello. None of them liked silents -- or foreign films, other than Hammer horror.

I don't know where my interest in delving into movie history came from. Must have come from the books I read, because nobody around me knew (or cared) who Josef von Sternberg was. The 1973 PBS documentary, "The Men Who Made the Movies," was another big influence.

Petey

"Bottom line: Don't expect to be given a pass for every uninformed opinion that comes out of your mouth."

But I simply don't see a lack of desire for me to to learn to read Chaucer or Jennifer Lawrence to learn to 'read' silent movies as being an 'uninformed opinion'.

Again, life is short, and the list of non-native art forms to educate oneself in is long!

One can make reasonably informed opinions on where to spend one's time. I've got pretty good knowledge of traditional Japanese tea ceremony because I chose to spend time learning it. I could've spent that time learning to read Chaucer, Beowulf, or the vernacular poetry of the Venerable Bede. But, instead, I chose to spend my time elsewhere. Assuming you never bothered to learn Japanese tea ceremony in some depth, I don't consider your decision to be uninformed, nor would I find your refusal to be nudged into spending time going though a full-scale traditional Japanese tea ceremony to be uninformed, as you'd likely spend several hours being unrewarded and pretty damn bored. And importantly, I wouldn't think you were 'dismissing' the form by your decisions.

"The only thing that's sort of "wrong" is that she seems to be dismissing the entirety of silent cinema ... based on what we assume is limited exposure to it."

But she's just saying that she thinks she'd find the experience of watching a home video copy of a silent she's been told to watch to be boring. And given her limited exposure to the non-native art form, and her lack of a desire to learn the non-native art form, she's very likely correct.

She's really not 'dismissing the entirety of silent cinema'. She's just saying she doesn't want to be bothered. And those really aren't the same two things. (Likewise, I don't DISMISS Chaucer or Beowulf as being rewarding literature experiences for those with the background to read them, or the desire to learn to read them. I just don't want to read them myself, as I would find them unrewarding and boring.)

"(and possibly B&W cinema, to boot)"

I'm not sure how you can infer THAT from her quote. Again, again, I'll assert that (excepting certain physical comedies) silent features are a non-native art form qualitatively different from post-1929 movies for the modern audience. Many cinephiles like us seem to have extreme trouble with that notion, as we can see from this comment thread...

jbryant

Petey, despite my English degree, I guess I really suck at communicating my thoughts. I never meant to imply that Lawrence's lack of interest in silent cinema was a terrible thing. I fully realize the difficulties it presents for modern audiences, and it would be naive of me to think that the average modern young person would naturally embrace it. But Lawrence didn't say "I don't know much about silent cinema, but I have no interest in it." She said, "I like making movies, but that doesn’t mean I want to watch a black-and-white, freaking boring [unprintable word] silent movie." That sounds like an opinion based on some degree of experience. I'm assuming that experience is minimal, yet it seems to have been enough to cause her to characterize the entire form in a negative way.

It's true that if I decide not to learn about the Japanese tea ceremony, that decision is not uninformed. But I never said a word about uninformed decisions. I said Lawrence presented an uniformed opinion. I assume if I went on record somewhere that the Japanese tea ceremony is a boring waste of time, even though all I knew about it was a paragraph I'd read in an encyclopedia, you would have no problem calling that an uninformed opinion, even if you respected my decision to take no further interest in the subject.

JonasEB

Joel Bocko wrote - "Interesting to see so many bring up her age here - for whatever reason, I would've thought many SCR readers (presumably classic, or even fucking silent, film buffs) were not so much older."

I'm 26 and I only know one person older than 40 who watches or has even seen a single silent film. My parents haven't, my aunts and uncles haven't, my grandparents (born at the end of and just after the silent era) didn't watch them, none of the extended family has. So I find it more than a little annoying to keep hearing the "youngins" argument.

It also irks me to see silent films discussed in "alien" terms. Yes, there's that one BIG difference but it's actually fairly superficial. Most silents are like those dull generic Garbo films in the late 20s, films that are essentially just like any average talkie. You're literally just substituting audible talking for intertitles. It's really not a big difference (and with concern to acting too; most silent acting is just like talkie acting - if it looks different, it's usually due to the film speed, natural speed or not.)

We should spend more time emphasizing how truly similar they are to any sound film rather than continuing to make them the "other."

Petey

jbryant, I think our (minor) disagreement has to do with how we are parsing the Lawrence quote.

If you were to say, "I don't want to sit through a boring three hour Japanese tea ceremony", I would NOT infer that you were saying "Japanese tea ceremony is a boring waste of time".

You would be saying you think (likely correctly) that it would be a boring experience for you, not saying that you were universally dismissing the whole art form as a boring waste of time.

So when I closely parse her quote, I reach different conclusions than you do when you parse her quote.

-----

"It also irks me to see silent films discussed in "alien" terms. ... We should spend more time emphasizing how truly similar they are to any sound film rather than continuing to make them the "other."

I'm not opposed to evangelism / teaching. Neither am I saying that silent films are necessarily "other" for those with a solid grounding in cinema.

However, I am asserting that modern newbie audiences really do react to silents (again with the certain physical comedy exceptions) as "alien" in a fundamental way that they simply don't to post-1929 movies. Accepting that seems important to me if one wants to understand how modern newbies react to cinema.

Clayton Sutherland

Just wanted to note that on the handful of occasions that I've shown my 14-year-old niece some Buster Keaton shorts (as well as Sherlock, Jr.), she seemed to enjoy them greatly. Now, that doesn't mean she'd sit through The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, but it's something.

Carry on.

jbryant

Petey: I suppose one way you could parse her quote would be something like "I don't want to watch a black-and-white freaking boring silent movie--I only like the ones that are tinted and not boring." :)

But seriously, I seem to be unable to infer anything from her quote other than a broad diss of silent cinema. Her phrasing and choice of words would be completely different if she had any respect for silents, or were simply admitting a lack of interest. It also looks like a diss of black-and-white; otherwise, why even mention it?

I agree that the "young'uns" argument is a bit of a non-starter. The only silent film fans under 50 that I know are film students or cinephiles in general. I do know young people who have enjoyed the few silent comedies they've seen, but they haven't gone out and become experts or anything.

I keep going on about this whole thing because it represents something that annoys me about human nature--the vocal, confident dismissal of something one actually knows very little about. We've all encountered it, usually among those who have heard half a minute of an opera, or two country songs, or five hip hop hits and instantly become certain that they now have sufficient evidence to consign an entire genre of something to the dust bin of history. This is often accompanied by something like, "Anyone who likes this stuff is tone-deaf or a moron."

You almost never hear anyone say, "You know, I've only seen a couple of silent films, and I found them hard to get into. There are probably some great ones, but I'm too occupied with my other interests to go looking for them." I could hang with that.

haice

Many mainstream films of the silent period seem boring and until recently many classics had the misfortune of looking shabby in whatever media they were available. I don't go along with the belief that only comedies like Chaplin and Keaton are accessible for the uninitiated. The sound films of Ozu and Dryer have the reputation for being dry and difficult but their silent films THE PARSON'S WIFE and I WAS BORN BUT.. are very funny and contemporary in pacing. If I were introducing silent film to a freshman class Tod Browning's THE UNKNOWN is as perverse and creepy about love and deformity as anything made today.
Personally an actress discounting silent movies doesn’t bother me as much as a professional film critic being proud of the fact of not having seen essential films. You want someone who has a broad knowledge of the arts but in this day and age of Netflix, DVR and DVD there is no fucking excuse of not having seen EVERYTHING.

The Siren

The only thing I see as condescending here is the notion that actors, alone of all artists in all disciplines, need know nothing about the history of what they are doing.

jbryant

Siren: I remember seeing Drew Barrymore on Letterman once, and if memory serves, she admitted she had seen few (if any) films made by her famous grandfather, uncle and aunt. Granted, she was still very young at the time, and I assume her recent appearances on TCM's Essentials with Robert Osborne mean she has probably remedied that by now.

But this flabbergasted me at the time. I can't imagine knowing that members of my family were acting icons, but having no interest in seeing their rather easily accessible films.

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