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Visual cues from the silent era

Such movies as 'The Matrix' and 'X-Men' make audiences focus anew on emotions rather than ideas.

June 08, 2003|Emanuel Levy | Special to The Times

Who could have predicted that, as cinema enters its second century, it shows signs of going back to its roots -- the silent era. Nearly 90 years after D.W. Griffith made his seminal epics, "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance," and decades after Cecil B. DeMille titillated audiences with his sensational biblical spectacles, Hollywood shows a renewed interest in grandiose mass spectacles that approximate the aesthetics of silent films.

The new spectacles -- "The Matrix," "Spider-Man," "X-Men" and their sequels -- adhere to a philosophy that sees moviegoing as an experience meant to stir emotions rather than provoke ideas. For the filmmakers of these spectacles, plot and dialogue, though potentially clever, are secondary to the medium's visual properties.

The rise of mass spectacles occurred in the 1980s in the high-tech, special-effects films of James Cameron and Tim Burton. Although different in sensibility, both directors stressed in their work the superiority of concept over character, imagery over narrative. In his "Terminator" movies and "Aliens," Cameron gave B-movie adventures a rough-edged, industrial feel, imposed on slender stories that unfold as long chase sequences. Their texts were ruthlessly simplistic, serving as proto-video games with their fast movement.

Cameron reinvented the sci-fi and action genres by using schmaltzy human and mythical tales that almost crumbled under the weight of his technological apparatus. As the most expensive film that had been made up to that time, "Terminator 2" signaled a new era that reached a climax with the global success of Cameron's "Titanic," an even more expensive film than "T2" with even more elaborate production values.

The big-budget, sumptuously mounted spectacles learned from "Titanic's" triumph. With the notable exception of "The Lord of the Rings," which boasts literary cachet, they are marked by slight narratives and shallow characterizations. Based on sensual experience, they overwhelm the eyes but neglect the mind. Labeled in the industry as tent poles and event movies, they are more than films: The soundtrack, video games and merchandise all contribute to their existence as global cultural phenomena.

The grandest showman

After "The Birth of a Nation," in 1915, Griffith became the medium's grandest showman. A defender of film as art, Griffith understood that more than anything else it was epic spectacles, inconceivable on stage by Ziegfeld or other extravagant showmen, that would elevate film's stature.

The narrative of "Intolerance" (1916) unfolds as four disparate historical episodes, linked through parallel action, nonlinear structure, cross-cutting and rhythmic editing. The fall of Babylon sequence, which depicts the collapse of civilization, uses set designs unmatched for sheer size. The sets exist almost independently -- to be admired by the prowling camera -- rather than grow out of dramatic need. The astonishing designs displayed what Frank Lloyd Wright once labeled "architecture of eclecticism," a myriad revival of Roman, Gothic, Italian Renaissance, English Tudor -- in short, kitsch.

Griffith's epic filmmaking had moral and religious ambitions. His naive philosophy is reflected in his instruction to actress Lillian Gish: "We've gone beyond Babel, beyond words. We've found a universal language, a power that can make men brothers and end war forever. Remember that when you stand in front of the camera."

While Griffith was developing an American film language, European filmmakers were experimenting with similar ideas. Consider Abel Gance, a hero of those who regret the loss of silent cinema's purity. In his films, especially "Napoleon" (1927), Gance made a fuller use of the medium than Griffith, employing such ingredients as epic-scale heroism, technical ingenuity and visual spontaneity. . . Some of the American spectacles resemble the European silents, which were like hallucinatory experiences of haunting dreams in their regenerating plots and astonishingly concrete imagery. Spectacles' directors understand that people go to the movies to relive experiences, and that regardless of educational level, their basic instincts are primal and sensual.

The silent era benefited from urbanization, the influx of upwardly mobile immigrants to big cities, which lent force to the new industry. Silent films were designed to create a homogeneous audience out of a hugely diverse population. Like America, movies were seen at their origins as primitive and sensory -- entertainment for the masses -- a belief fully embraced by the new spectacles.

But if silents were made for all people, the current spectacles are aimed directly at teenagers, America's most reliable moviegoers, who may see "Titanic" and "Matrix" multiple times. The new spectacles encourage, even depend on, repeat viewing. .

The nature of film

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