It’s a great time to be a silent film fan.
What director or star from the ’10s and ’20s imagined that one day, we’d be able to share their movies with people across the globe in seconds–and that we could even watch them on mobile devices whenever we wanted? Who from back then thought their films would even last that long?
It’s an amazing thing–to share rare photos, rare info, rare research, and to form rare friendships with those rare silent fans, all so quickly and with ease. To learn there are other people out there who love the same films and people as you. To see that new fans are being made every day.
Still…for someone like me, once you step away from the computer or the TV screen, it all seems to vanish.
I look at my friends, relatives and coworkers. Few of them watch old movies–that is, movies from about the ‘60s and back. Those that do have definitely never seen a film from the ’20s. People usually know Chaplin, at least. They smile or laugh when I mention his name. But they’ve never watched a Chaplin film. They haven’t heard of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, let alone Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Lillian Gish and Conrad Veidt may as well be random names from a phone book.
The Wizard of Oz? Probably. Gone With the Wind? Maybe. Citizen Kane? Uh-uh. The General? Never heard of that one…
Then I look more closely at people who are my age and younger, the people I’m around the most, and here’s what I see.
They, too, will smile if I mention Charlie Chaplin. But they’ve rarely, if ever, seen a black and white film. They consider movies and music from five years ago to be “old.” They have a big appetite for huge range of smart, surreal humor–inside jokes, satire, dark comedy, randomness, goofy pictures, bizarre videos. Their television shows (usually watched online) are smart, witty, satirical, and littered with pop cultural references. They are used to CGI to the point of complaining about it. There’s just so much of it, an avalanche of it. It’s getting harder and harder to inspire awe. They never forget those images aren’t real. They like things that are real–real stunts, real photos, real videos of natural phenomena.
They’ve never imagined wanting to sit down and watch a silent film. Still, when I mention Charlie’s name, they smile. They’ve never seen his films, and might not be able to clearly picture what he looks like…but they know his name.
There are hints, guys. There are signs. There are faint fingerprints on pop culture. Pixar has revived the practice of having a short film play before the feature. They study Chaplin and Keaton in making their gold standard animated features. The Big Bang Theory, the most popular sitcom on TV, features a main character who is often compared to Keaton. A now-iconic figure in modern pop culture, Captain Jack Sparrow, owes more than a little to the Stoneface persona. Johnny Depp‘s acting style in general is practically a twenty-plus year homage to Keaton–and he’s one of the most popular stars in the world. Faint fingerprints…a few of many.
I went to a movie recently. One of the previews was for a new animated film (not Pixar). It looked cute, basically well-done, probably funny enough to keep you entertained for an hour and half. But the laughter at that preview…! And I thought: imagine what would happen if The Scarecrow started playing. Or The Pawnshop. Or even The Butcher Boy or Big Business…
I have hope, guys. Teens and twenty-somethings have an appetite for something truly funny, something truly real, and they just need to find it. They want to see movies that make them gasp again. I’m sure of it. A door has been slowly opening. I think I see Chaplin and the rest of them standing behind it. And I think I can see Keaton opening the door.