Posts Tagged ‘UCLA Film and Television Archive’

Secrets of Silents

c22_PORTAIT-4Here’s a statistic: approximately 80 percent—maybe more—of all the silent films are lost. This is 80 percent of the early documented history of the predominant art-form of our age. It doesn’t seem that important until you watch some of the few remaining films, or pieces of films, that dedicated archivists have managed to preserve.

There’s a scene, for instance, from the 1923 movie Flaming Youth—which screened at this past weekend’s 46th Annual Cinecon Classic Film Festival in Hollywood—that contains true magic. It takes place at a Gatsby-like get-together, lots of men in tuxes, women in flapper attire, and the host of the party decides to intitiate a skinny-dip session with all the guests. This being 1923, the scene is filmed in pure sillhouette (though it was still too controversial to play in most theatres), and the result is nearly breath-taking, if only because this is the sole existing piece of footage. The shadowy figures of men and women diving into the pool look like ghosts jumping into the abyss of their own fragile mortality.

Film doesn’t last forever—its demise is inherent in the chemical properties that allow it to exist—yet it is still the most assured mode of preservation for the future, even in our digital world (as anyone knows who’s ever had a hard drive crash on them). The people behind Cinecon, and particularly the Saturday afternoon program I attended that was dedicated to lost (or previously lost) films, know this more than anyone. After the screening of what’s left of Flaming Youth, they showed a 1999 documentary called Keepers of the Frame. Highlighting such institutions as the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Library of Congress, and the Museum of Modern Art, the movie takes a ‘Technicolor’ look at the continuing history of film preservation. Along the way, it shows the only surviving footage of President William McKinley two days before he was shot, the sole motion picture record of Alaskan Inuit in the 1930’s, and actual news-reel scenes from the Hindenberg disaster.

Had these strains of film not been carefully and pain-stakingly preserved, they would have been lost, much like the prize posession of the program and entire festival was thought to be: Charlie Chaplin’s third appearance in a film, called The Thief Catcher. Found by fortunate accident amidst a pile of old films inside a trunk at an antique show, the Keystone comedy does not feature Chaplin’s patented “Tramp” character; he is instead cast as one of the Keystone cops. He appears on screen for maybe a minute, and despite what they say about hindsight’s vision, his star quality is undeniable. He seems to already understand, even at this early stage in his career, the secret to silent film acting (and it’s still true today), which is that you need a secret. You can’t let your face belie your subtext—that’s representational acting, as Stanislavski would say—only your physical actions. And Chaplin, whether the star or the bit-player, was a master of physical acting for the screen. His face always posessed a certain secret, and it’s up to us as watchers of film, as confidantes, to preserve that secret for future generations of fellow conspirators.

- By Joshua Morrison

For more information in Cinecon, please visit www.cinecon.org, and to pre-order a copy of the upcoming CHAPLIN AT KEYSTONE 4-disc DVD set, which includes The Thief Catcher, please visit www.flickeralley.com.

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