The Beginner's Guide to... Silent Film | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

The Beginner’s Guide to… Silent Film

This week we’re thankful Jayne Rudd hasn’t kept her mouth shut about these silverscreen gems Since the acclaimed silent film The Artist gained five awards at the Oscars...

This week we're thankful Jayne Rudd hasn't kept her mouth shut about these silverscreen gems

Since the acclaimed silent film The Artist gained five awards at the Oscars, there have been mixed opinions as to whether the silver screen still has a place within modern culture, or if it is now a forgotten relic to be laid alongside fax and letter writing as remembrance of an earlier, simpler era. When The Artist was released, filmgoers at the Odeon in Liverpool demanded refunds as they were not aware that the film was dialogue free - perhaps, then, a beginner's guide could help to draw more people into this golden era of cinema history.

The Beginning

In terms of American cinema, the inventor Thomas Alva Edison is credited with developing the first early motion picture cameras. America's first authentic movie studio, the Black Maria, was built on the grounds of Edison's laboratories, and it was there that The Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze became the first film officially registered for copyright.

One of the first cases of censorship within the film industry took place when the short film Carmencita was being filmed in 1894, and the dancer Carmencita was the first woman to appear in front of an Edison motion picture. Due to her legs and undergarments being exhibited, the film was in some cases forbidden from being projected, a far cry from the controversy and censorship of more recent films such as A Clockwork Orange or The Exorcist.

The Classics 

In my opinion, an archetypal homage to the horror genre, Nosferatu, is the earliest surviving screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula and also one of the first examples of German expressionist cinema. Described as a 'symphony of horror' and with the character Count Orlok making a fascinating Count Dracula through his hideous countenance, this film subverts today's stereotypes of vampires as charismatic, sexual magnets, and provides a new, fresh take upon a very tired genre.

The infamous surrealist short film, Un Chien Andalou, is also essential silver screen viewing. Developed by Luis Bunuel, and Salvador Dali, the film refuses to succumb to the limits of plot and uses the concept of surrealism and dream sequence, with disturbing images including rotting donkeys, a woman's eyeball being sliced by a razor, and ants swarming around a hole in a man's palm. Arguably an influence upon both the cult television series Twin Peaks and the film Blue Velvet by David Lynch, Un Chien Andalou demonstrates the establishment of film as an exercise in psychological irrationality.

If the silver screen or arthouse cinema is in any way a passion of yours, from foreign language films to 'mumblecore', The Electric Cinema opposite New Street Station is renowned for its monthly cult film nights, and occasional screenings of silent films with live music accompaniment. They're also screening The Artist until the 8th March, so if you haven't, go see it while you still have the chance!


10th March 2012 at 9:00 am