Film Theory and Silent Film

As a student in film school, one of the most popular subjects was film theory, which is an analytic study of film as a language. Film theory has many different forms to its approach over the years, yet I’ve always found the more experiential style to be most rewarding.

In film school, I had to read all the classics, including Bazin’s What is Cinema?, Eisenstein’s Film Form and Film Sense and Hitchcock/Truffaut, the definitive series of interviews between filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock and Francois bazinga Truffaut. These books and the numerous films I had a chance to see, gave me great insight as to how films are made and what filmmakers are actually trying to convey.

It’s not entirely easy to break down a film’s many levels. In some cases you have to watch a film several times to get the gist of what’s being expressed. Much of the technique focuses on lighting, composition and especially editing. In my film theory classes, we’d watch a film and then a specific scene would be shown on an analytic projector. For example, my professor spent almost an hour breaking down each individual shot of the shower scene in Psycho, so that we could understand the impact of rapid cuts and short shots and how they comprise a gripping sequence that 50 years later is still studied so meticulously.

Some film schools incorporate a form of anthropology and psychoanalysis in their film theory, which wasn’t what I was exposed to. Instead, it was more about the film itself and the use of technique to create mood and feeling. It also provided a great opportunity to see films that I had never had a chance to see before, including the work of Stan Brakhage, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Jean Cocteau, and Dziga Vertov among many others.

This kind of experience was very beneficial to my film school education, as it influenced my approach to filmmaking. Much of this derives from narrative theory, yet in film, the use of images alone can tell a story, for example the early silent films, some of which used intertitles to show dialog.

Silent films are important to a film school education and in film theory as well. Until the advent of sound, all there was were silent films. Yet where some students may find silent films dry and boring, there’s a wealth of cinematic knowledge contained therein to explore.

There were many films in the silent era that didn’t use intertitles and were equally successful in creating mood and in telling a story, such as Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Menilmontant (1926) in which a brutal axe murder occurs in the film’s opening minutes. There’s no blood, no severed limbs, just a quick succession of shots that are tightly assembled to create a sense of terror. And also F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), which tells the melodramatic tale of a beloved hotel doorman who is demoted to a washroom attendant, again without the use of any intertitles. Most of Murnau’s films including his take on the Dracula legend, Nosferatu (1922), were some of the most impressive silent films ever made in terms of their use of expressionist elements, which unlike many silent films, haven’t aged at all.

Most film schools and especially film theory can provide a greater understanding of silent films and how they tell a story. Sometimes the silent can be a bit daunting to sit through, but they make for a rewarding experience and are crucial to any film education.


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