Silent Cinema's Image Problem

Posted on February 16, 2023 by James Mennie

Categories: Archive film, FEDS Scheme

Our FEDS Trainee Scheme offers participants a ten-month long paid traineeship in the exhibition sector, as well as mentoring and expert industry advice. In this blog James Mennie, whose FEDS 2022 placement was at Hippodrome Silent Film Festival, considers how the fragility of archive film material can deepen the experience of watching silent cinema, and the ways in which archive film can be used to motivate new considerations of cinematic form and history.

The last nine months as a FEDS trainee have definitely been the most substantial period of professional and personal learning I have experienced. On top of the opportunity to work within a unique placement (the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival, or HippFest) it has been a blur of screenings, training days, industry events, and long train journeys to visit other FEDS’ placements. Most importantly, however, I have become very well-equipped to handle just about any joke people might make when I tell them I work at a silent film festival: “Sorry, I didn’t catch that,” “Must be pretty quiet then”…

Although the term silent cinema is widely known to be a misnomer, I think the baggage the period carries is indicative of the image problem it has. I mean image problem literally.

Despite covering the inception of a new medium, and possibly its most concentrated period of formal innovation, the mental image silent cinema often conjures for people is of poor-quality transfers, mishandled frame rates and unsophisticated filmmaking – not to mention that the faces of this collective image will be dominated by untouchable white male actor-directors, or women in peril.

Though the richness and diversity of silent cinema is obvious to those already working in its orbit, my placement has been an interesting opportunity to present to new audiences these complications front and centre.

Nitrate Won’t Wait – Exhibiting Silent Cinema’s Lived Experience

A placement at a silent film festival puts you somewhat at a remove from the logics and methodologies of ‘first run’ festivals. For obvious reasons, there are no opportunities for post-screening Q&As with cast or crew members. Guest lists tend to comprise of academics, archivists, and the global community of silent film programmers, performers, and critics. A film’s journey to reaching new audiences on screen doesn’t really begin with film production, but with preservation.

Only around 15-20% of films from the silent era have been preserved. This low survival rate is due to multiple factors but can largely be attributed to the film stock they were created on: cellulose nitrate.

Though aesthetically unparalleled for its luminosity, nitrate is infamously combustible. It burns twenty times faster than wood and continues to burn even when submerged underwater. As a set of highly volatile organic materials, it is also highly perishable if not handled and stored correctly.

Amongst archivists, there is a popular saying: “Nitrate Won’t Wait.”

The point where film stock begins to degrade and distort, strangely, is where my interest in silent film begins. Rather than lamenting the sheer number of lost films, I find the narrative of an early art form’s fragility and impermanence hauntingly compelling.

During my placement I’ve been fortunate enough to introduce this element of impermanence to audiences, posing how silent films are celluloid manifestations of the traces of the lived experience of the film itself, and of those who strive to preserve and exhibit it.

As part of our Taste of Silents programme, I introduced a 1929 German adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Long thought to be lost, in 2009 the film was discovered in a basement amongst a cache of other silent films in the Polish industrial city of Sosnowiec. The basement belonged to a local parish priest who moonlighted projecting foreign titles to his friends. A presumably cold basement in southern Poland turned out to be a fortunate place to store a 35mm nitrate original and the well-preserved copy was promptly donated to Poland’s National Film Archive.

A black and white image showing two men in suits standing in a bog at night, pointing at something in the distance.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (dir. Richard Oswald, 1929). Image courtesy of San Francisco Silent Film Festival and Filmoteka Narodowa – Instytut Audiowizualny

However, the copy was found missing a reel (approximately 10-15 minutes in length). To plug these narrative gaps, archivists use production stills and explanatory intertitles to keep the audience engaged. These gaps also highlight the labour that goes into restoring nitrate film.

In silent film, gaps due to missing reels or significant nitrate deterioration are figurative. Time becomes something tangible. Reels contain physical traces which illustrate the gap between the last time a ‘lost film’ was commercially projected, and its discovery and entry into the archive.

Entry into the archive is no guarantee of audience access. Institutionally, leveraging public funds for film preservation and restoration is often a difficult sell.

In bringing silent films to audiences, silent film festivals have played an increasingly greater role in financing the restoration of these works. In the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a partnership between the archive and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was able to break a nearly decade-long financial deadlock which delayed the film returning to public screens.

San Francisco and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone have long been the two major poles and points of access for new silent film discoveries. Their influence can increasingly be felt in the expanded programming and commissioning ambitions of other internationally minded silent film festivals: HippFest; Tromsø’s Silent Film Days; and Pirmoji Banga in Vilnius.

Screening The Hound of the Baskervilles with a live accompaniment for audiences was exciting in that the viewing situation was totally unique to that evening’s screening and those in the auditorium. The film also did not just embody a Sherlock Holmes adaptation, but simultaneously embodied a piece of the history of Polish amateur film exhibition, a record of intense archival labour and financial resources, and the transnational currents between film festivals and archives.

Bits and Pieces – Using Archive as a Beginning, Not an End

The experience of archives is often rendered through actions: receiving, keeping, holding, organising, storing, reorganising, indexing, excluding. All this is loaded with the eventual goal of delivering context to certain materials, creating expectations, and setting conditions for work to be understood.

I often find these power dynamics alienating, especially when the only apparently noteworthy expression of archives is in retrospectives of major directors. Much of the commercial infrastructure around such programmes — at their worst feeling like exercises in ticking off a filmography — seems to want to use the archive as a powerful tool, rather than capture the unique energy and emotion of archival discovery.

Within this contested space, projects have emerged which increasingly use silent film as a means of challenging which experiences are rendered visible.

Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project acts an open access database which compiles global narratives about the women involved across silent film production.

Cinema’s First Nasty Women is a fourteen hour showcase of female filmmakers gleefully subverting gender norms.

Maya Cade’s Black Film Archive offers a streaming guide to Black film, with an extensive catalogue of silent film contemporaneously orientated to Black audiences, or with Black leads or production teams.

A black and white image of a person seen from the shoulders up facing us and laughing happily.
Bertha Regustus in Laughing Gas (Edison, USA, 1907), part of Kino Lorber’s Cinema’s First Nasty Women collection. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The BFA’s self-description as a ‘living register’ is telling. These projects frequently describe themselves as active resources, interested in using archive to introduce, enrich or motivate new considerations about film form and history.

Over my placement I have found myself drawn to these efforts not to entomb or discard works within the archive, often finding myself losing hours to the Eye Filmmuseum resource, Bits & Pieces.

This long running initiative consists of unidentified fragments of early film stock; the cast off ‘bits and pieces’ which fall into the lap of any archivist. Presentation is defined by a number of a parameters: fragments are shown exactly as they were discovered; no context; no edits. One fundamental necessity governs inclusion: the fragment must arrive unidentified. Often in archiving, what doesn’t fit a cataloguing system creates an insecurity – an instinct I feel while pedantically cataloguing everything I watch on Letterboxd. The purpose of Bits & Pieces is to relieve this inclusion insecurity.

The collection is eclectic, with unidentified fragments of narrative cinema sitting against other genres, modes and pieces of film ephemera: early teaser trailers (no. 163), animation (no. 519), and phantom-rides (no. 507). A print’s deterioration is not a factor for exclusion (no. 518), with nitrate decay an inevitable presence across much of the collection. Their patina of scratches, abrasions and blooms of decay are just as exactingly and crisply restored.

Three images in a row from a black and white film showing two people standing next to a wooden fence underneath a hand drawn sun. The images are covered with marks of scratches and decay on the film strip.
Three stills from No. 518 Love scene on decomposing nitrate film, fragment from Bits & Pieces Nos. 515 – 528. Year: 1927 [?]. Courtesy of Eye Filmmuseum.

There’s a very specific, surreal feeling I get from montaging and freely associating these fragments. Perhaps I am just justifying my own procrastination here – letting the Bits & Pieces YouTube playlist run does sort of replicate infinity scrolling on social media.

However, in all the administration and production work put into preparing for a busy festival (clearing my email inbox, updating spreadsheets, writing copy, etc.) I can feel disengaged from the excitement of working within an opportunity allowing for new ways of using archive films.

Returning to Bits & Pieces often feels restorative: a quick dopamine hit of archival discovery and detective work. It brings the archivist’s private experience, unearthing the possibilities within a discarded film canister, out into the public realm.

Trying to embed these resources into my daily work has been valuable in reminding myself that archive is not a means to an end, but an opportunity to present peripheries, repressions, emergences, and incursions.

Watch Bits & Pieces on YouTube:

Header image: The Hound of the Baskervilles (dir. Richard Oswald, 1929). San Francisco Silent Film Festival and Filmoteka Narodowa – Instytut Audiowizualny

Read more: Duncan Carson on how Il Cinema Ritrovato is revitalising film culture through archive film

Want to pitch for the ICO blog?

We’re always open to receiving pitches for our blog. If you have an idea for an article, please read our guidelines.

Subscribe to our mailing list

What would you like to receive emails about? *
* indicates required