Silent movies: a call for quiet (Not a manifesto)

Silent movies, aren’t they due a resurgence?

Silent movies Charlie Chaplin

Here’s the main problem with many movies now.

When it comes to film, it’s almost like we have become an autistic audience: we take everything way too literally.

Where’s the nuance, where’s the metaphor?

When you see an image of something, it is what it is. To use that wonderful Freud misquote “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.

There’s something sad about that.

In a film now you are not just shown a cigar you are told what kind of cigar and then there is a line about how only an idiot would read something into it.

Can things not have a double meaning anymore? Let me do my own reasoning. Let me do some of the mental work.

In short, let me enjoy myself.

Do you ever feel like this or am I a crazy person howling at the moon?

Sometimes things are best left up to the imagination.

There was a half-decent horror that came out a few years ago called Lights Out.

Lights Out centred on a neat conceit; a ghost that only shows up when the lights are turned off.

Solid haunted house film. What did they go and do?

Explained it.

No matter how much you try and explain a ghost, you end up looking silly. Also explaining it removes all the mystery. Where is the fun in explaining things all the time?

Think of Batman Begins. It was kind of silly, the more realistic it tried to be. The film was great. Don’t get me wrong. But it was a little ridiculous when trying to explain why this millionaire dresses up as a bat and beats up criminals. Batman Begins went out of its way to explain all the gear. All that certain, you know, Tim Burton on you just kind of accept that there’s a man who dresses up, has a cave and a cool car.

Look at some cinema classics:

  • In Ghostbusters, they don’t explain to you why there are ghosts. All of a sudden showing up, you just either have to accept it, or you don’t.
  • In the Exorcist, you’re never told why Pazuzu possesses Reagan. You either accept it, or you do not.
  • In King Kong, there is a magical island where a giant ape resides how no one has discovered this island before?
  • In Raiders of the Lost Ark, there is a literal ark of the covenant.

Am I making my point? Not everything needs or for that matter has an explanation.

Excuse the explanations

Have you ever experienced something that you can rationalise, but can’t explain?

Here is my example: I was in my teens, on a family holiday. I was at the location they filmed the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice. On tour, we were told one of the rooms was haunted. Now later on, after the tour, mum and sister were in the gift shop, I was in the courtyard. I looked up the window of the haunted room where I saw a figure in white move away from the window. Now I know I did not see a ghost. I can tell you that I did not see a ghost, and I believe that I did not see a ghost. However, I saw a ghost.

Does that make sense?

Somethings you can’t explain, and even if you can, it doesn’t matter.

Pointlessness of realism

Filmmakers are obsessed with realism, what the hell is realism? What is naturalistic for that matter. I’ll tell you what they are, nonsense marketing buzzwords that mean nothing to the audience.

Lord of the Rings is as equally realistic as Drive which is as similarly realistic as Tiger King.

Film is inherently unrealistic, and this whole idea of trying to be realistic is a fool’s errand.

The more a film embraces its unrealism, the better.

The film has no obligation to reflect reality as it is. Instead, it needs to reflect an emotion. The ultimate compliment a film can receive is “I can’t put it into words, but I’ve felt like that too”.

The futility of words

Ever go to the cinema? It can be a ghastly experience. Someone is talking behind you, and in front of you, the light-up of phones as someone’s attention has waned.

How come?

Cinema has lost confidence in itself. Cinema used to demand your attention. You had to concentrate.

Now you can turn away from a film, look at your phone, read your messages and you can still get 80% of what’s going on.

Why pay attention to something that doesn’t interest you when you can give interest to something that does?

People, audiences, have forgotten, ultimately, words are used as a crutch. We as an audience have become so used to having everything explained to us and told that everything is OK. Heaven forbid that an audience would have to think for itself.

I rewatched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror recently, I still don’t know what it means. I have watched Mary Poppins Returns once.

You can explain over and over again about the science of how Captain America’s shield blocks Thor’s hammer. But you only need to show the shield stopping the hammer once for the audience to understand; shield>hammer.

(I acknowledge the irony that I am using words to write this post)

Silent movies are golden

I find myself nostalgic for silent cinema. An era that was long dead before I was even born.

Silent cinema feels like the pinnacle of the form.

There are the fantastic action comedies of Buster Keaton. I watched One Week with my girlfriend. She couldn’t get over that they had actually built a house and then made it spin.

Chaplin with The Gold Rush and Modern Times, a little too sentimental for my tastes but you cannot deny his impact.

You can skip Birth of a Nation for a variety of reasons. DW Griffith cannot be denied either. He has less problematic shorts. In particular, The Musketeers of Pig Alley cast a long shadow over cinema. Even if you look at the epic crane shots from the Babylon section of Intolerance.

This is without talking about the works of Eisenstein, Lang and Murnau.

Murnau for my money is the master. While most people think of Nosferatu, I tell you to watch his Faust and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.

Murnau tried to use as few title cards as he could get away with as in he tried to tell the story entirely visually.

Silent movies: where are they?

Oscar-winner The Artist had me hopeful for some kind of silent resurgence, but it was a one-off.

My own humble effort in filmmaking, Deadville, has its own story to tell. One of the more interesting ones is in the analytics. My producer and I noticed that our film was popular in places like India and the Philippines. Were viewers in these countries were able to understand the Northern Irish accent. I mean, I have problems, and I lived in Northern Ireland my entire life.

Now Deadville received over a million views. How much more popular would a film be without words?

What I’m trying to say is that visual is universal.

Silence is golden because it is a universal language.

Therefore aren’t silent movies the most universal of all means of communication?

What I’m also trying to say is that cinema would do well to get back in touch with its silent origins.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful for cinema to fall headlong into metaphorical, troubling imagery? Imagery that an audience will have to derive its own meaning.

You know, return to the actual point of cinema?

I’m saying it would do well to treat an audience with respect, let them figure things out for themselves.

Take the words out, shoot in black in white and get to work with a musician on your score.

This is not a manifesto.


What can you do?

You can watch this excellent documentary on silent cinema.

Maybe go back to your script and take out the words.

You don’t have to explain anything to anyone.


Did you like that?

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