Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Jane Marie Gaines

Last modified: 2010-05-25


In this paper I hope to reformulate the terms of our thought about women and words. Although silent cinema has been understood as without sound or without speech, our contemporary defense of the theoretical importance of studying it might better be formulated as “wordlessness.” Indeed, the question of  what is circulated by electronic media comes down to more “images” as well as more “words.” Where we call  “texting” a sending of words without images we  call sending moving images without words “streaming.” At what point does “streaming images” become just “streaming”? The fact that sending so many still and now moving images with or without words does return the educational system to the “visual literacy” panic of earlier decades should not surprise us since in film studies we have a longer view which takes account of historical vacillation.  

In the interest of producing new histories of film theories we might now recall both the iconophobia of literary modernism (what we might call literary fear of  images) as well as the more intriguing reverse-- the animosity toward words on the part of early film theorists. Christian Metz, for instance, singles out the “pure cinema” critics  Bela Balazs, Germaine Dulac,  Jean Epstein, and Louis Delluc for their exemplary “contempt for the word” (1974, 49). So this presentation has two prongs: 1) the literary elevation of words as supreme carriers of meaning (and the concomitant suspicion wordlessness) and 2) the elevation of silent cinema wordlessness as espoused by early film theorists as well as silent actresses.             

The first is effectively a bias toward print culture and its “literate” word. This rich topic  leads us inevitably back to Peter Brooks’s discussion in The Melodramatic Imagination of  the “text of muteness.”  In his discussion of the mute gesture of melodrama he uses the phrase “recourse to silent gesture” (62). I argue that the term “recourse” is in the English language vernacular a “dead giveaway” for the literary position that gestures are only used for want of words. Yes, Brooks’s theory has been taken to mean that sounds and movements are used when words “cannot be found.” Perhaps more telling is his slippage between “unarticulated” and “inarticulate,” as, for instance, “unarticulated”  words and  the “inarticulate cry.” We find as well the term “inarticulate words,” although there could only be such a thing in a discussion organized by a hierarchy of expression where words are invariably on top.

Answering Brooks, however, is Lillian Gish who in an unpublished essay argues that the job of the silent film actor was “how to be articulate without words.” Paradoxically, however, it is clear from Gish that wordlessness depended upon words, ie. “mouthing.” Asta Nielsen, it should be recalled, objected that there were too many words in the American silent photoplay (Engeberg  1996,18). Her position was that  the practice  of filling the screen with words did not leave enough to either the skilled actress or to the active audience.  In conclusion, I will mention a moment in U.S. cinema of the 1910s that we might consider the heyday for experiments in wordlessness. During that time  a director such as Stanner E.V. Taylor would make a feature-length film entirely without intertitles, on the theory that “intertitles interrupted the illusion,” as silent era critic Robert Grau once put it.

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