Monday, December 04, 2006

World film at the peak of the silents

But even now, the dominance of mainstream Hollywood entertainment wasn’t as strong as it would be, and alternatives were still widely seen and influential.

Germany was America’s strongest competitor. Its most distinctive contribution was the dark, hallucinatory worlds of German Expressionism, which advanced the power of anti-realistic presentation to put internal states of mind onscreen, as well as strongly influenced the emerging horror genre.

The newborn Soviet cinema was the most radically innovative. There, the craft of editing, especially, surged forward, going beyond its previous role in advancing a story. Sergei Eisenstein perfected the technique of so-called dialectical or intellectual montage, which strove to make non-linear, often violently clashing, images express ideas and provoke emotional and intellectual reactions in the viewer.

Meanwhile, the first feature-length silent film was made in India by Dadasaheb Phalke, considered to be the Father of Indian Cinema. The film was the period piece Raja Harishchandra (1913), and it laid the foundation for a series of period films. By the next decade the output of Indian Cinema was an average of 27 films per year.

The cultural avant gardes of a number of countries worked with experimental films, mostly shorts, that completely abandoned linear narrative and embraced abstraction, pure aestheticism and the irrational subconscious, most famously in the work of Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel. In some ways, in fact, this decade marked the first serious split between mainstream, "popular" film and "art" film.

But even within the mainstream, refinement was rapid, bringing silent film to what would turn out to be its aesthetic summit. The possibilities of cinematography kept expanding as cameras became more mobile (thanks to new booms and dollies) and film stocks more sensitive and versatile. Screen acting came into its own as a craft, leaving behind its earlier theatrical exaggeration and achieving greater subtlety and psychological realism. As visual eloquence increased, reliance on intertitles decreased; the occasional film, such as F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (Germany, 1926) even eschewed them altogether. Paradoxically, at about this point, the silent cinema came abruptly to an end.

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