David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

Open, general discussion of silent films, personalities and history.
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Jeff Crouse

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David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostMon Feb 20, 2012 3:15 pm

This just published from critic David Denby. Though it's not as great as George Toles' must-see 2007 piece in Brick on silent film ("Silent Film -- An Aesthetic Call to Arms"), this is still a good article.

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/a ... arge_denby" target="_blank" target="_blank
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Ed Watz

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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostMon Feb 20, 2012 9:11 pm

Rather turgid going, actually...seems like the author is dead wrong about 80% of the time regarding silent films and silent film players...and what's this nonsense about silent comedies being played too FAST to be properly appreciated?
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostMon Feb 20, 2012 10:43 pm

It was relatively happy sailing until he described Valentino as 'a terrible actor'. I guess he's only seen 'The Sheik'.

I'm surprised that for all his attempts to emphasise the light and the shade, Denby does not avoid the tendency to regard 'silent film' into something homogenous; to speak of 'silents' as you would speak of 'Westerns' or 'comedies'. That's making an awful lot of assumptions about a 20-to-30 year period of artistic evolution.
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostMon Feb 20, 2012 11:16 pm

:? Felt the same way. I liked some of the article. Even thought it showed promise. Then he says that he struggles to tell what the actors are thinking or conveying until he reads the title card? I have never needed inter-titles to get any point across to me. The slam that John Gilbert wasn't much of an actor in any kind of movie was completely ridiculous. I'm sure he hasn't seen THE BIG PARADE. I think Jack was great at what he did. Even in BARDLEYS THE MAGNIFICENT there is the wonderful seen with Eleanor Boardman where he can't bring himself to lie to Roxalanne about who he is in front of the statue of the Madonna. The whole sequence plays out so convincingly between the two. I also have trouble in saying Fairbanks was the second biggest male Star to Chaplin. Not so sure that's true, and Chaplin made so few movies during the 1920's he certainly wasn't the biggest Star himself year by year either. :roll:
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 21, 2012 12:41 am

The slights to Gilbert & Valentino were most unfortunate (wish I could put Four Horsemen into his hands), but his contrast of the histrionic techniques of stage-trained actors still playing to the last row with the camera-conscious style of Griffith constituted a useful clarification to readers with limited exposure to silents. His assessment of The Artist, particularly that reference to its peculiar “glossiness,” was dead square on the mark, I thought.
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 21, 2012 1:28 am

Another pretentious and clueless New Yorker Critic, even quoting earlier and equally pretentious and clueless critics like Pauline Kael.


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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 21, 2012 6:28 am

I think it's a superb article! At least someone in a mainstream, half-way intelligent magazine has written about silent film. Most Americans under 30 don't even know who Humphrey Bogart was, let alone Rudolph Valentino or John Gilbert. And Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. isn't even a question mark, just a 'uh-huh'. Denby may not be our own mentalities about silents - and, yes, ours may be a bit more pencil-pointingly correct - but I think he gives an overview that is both thoughtful and - I'm sorry, but this is my opinion - learned (in its somewhat 101ish, simplified way).

Wish there were two or three more articles about silents in the next year in The New Yorker. There won't be.

If only they'd all get the Gilbert-lost-his-soundie-role because-of-his-voice right - for a change...
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 21, 2012 7:19 am

Terrific article in its descriptions of Garbo, Davies, Gish, Brooks, Keaton, and even Fairbanks. But Denby is dead wrong about Valentino and Gilbert (the "his voice was too high" blather yet again).

Too bad there wasn't a "comments" space after the article.
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 21, 2012 7:34 am

Robert Benchley wrote a piece in Liberty about anthropologists in the far-off future finding a newsreel of 1930 and offering their cultural evaluation to the masses...of course their conclusions are hilariously screwed-up...and this piece by Denby doesn't sound that much different, except that Denby's piece is merely pretentious and makes ridiculous assumptions. The piece is of no help to anyone who may be curious about silent films.
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 21, 2012 12:21 pm

I wonder if critics believe one should never, ever, ever have FUN at movies? Does Denby really think that for thirty years, people went to their local Bijou solely to be whacked over the head with Great Arte of Critical Importance?

Feh. I'm gonna watch Thor again.
Fred
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 21, 2012 12:27 pm

Frederica wrote:I wonder if critics believe one should never, ever, ever have FUN at movies? Does Denby really think that for thirty years, people went to their local Bijou solely to be whacked over the head with Great Arte of Critical Importance?

Feh. I'm gonna watch Thor again.



'Cuz as we all know; that's what slapstick comedy was ALL about! :lol:
Cheers,
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 21, 2012 12:44 pm

From a purely selfish standpoint - I'm glad he mentioned our upcoming "Cruel and Unusual Comedy" show. (Ron Magliozzi, Ben Model & myself).
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 21, 2012 2:43 pm

You almost wonder if he's ever seen a silent, since he couldn't tell if Peppy loved George or not. Did he not notice the arm in the jacket, trying to give him her number, buying up his stuff, and then the film ends with their arms around each other's waists? Pretentious and boring.
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 21, 2012 3:15 pm

By the end of the article I felt that he had more discouraged than encouraged contemporary audiences to have a look at the real thing.
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 21, 2012 5:26 pm

I'd say the first half of his article is really quite good in its observations, thoughts, and attempts to educate its readers. Around half-way through until the end, however, he increasingly demonstrates how little he really knows the authentic silent cinema, and his own inability to understand what he thinks he does know about it, its films, and its personalities. While he makes some valid points on the merits of the acting in THE ARTIST, his dismissal of it comes across as someone struggling to defend his position by citing examples that attempt to show off his extensive background, but which instead reveal that his background is limited to the familiar silent film canon of a half-century ago (film history 101, as someone has already remarked) and the prevailing attitudes about silents widely held from the 1930s through the 1980s, which were just starting to be changed after the explosion of home video availability and more widespread screening of silents that began in the 1990s.
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 21, 2012 11:27 pm

Christopher, did you ever notice how many New Yorker articles seem to go on about one or two pages too long? That was sure the case with this one.
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostWed Feb 22, 2012 4:21 pm

Lokke Heiss wrote:Christopher, did you ever notice how many New Yorker articles seem to go on about one or two pages too long? That was sure the case with this one.

The last online page or two of Denby's essay seemed to be mostly padding for a space he was expected to fill (like a lot of student papers, actually), and should have been condensed to a paragraph or two. I imagine a lot of writers are told to crank out so many thousand words, which is limiting for some and way too much for others. Still, it's nice he got some space to give silent films a little more public exposure. I hope his readers do a bit more research. The Pauline Kael quote about film speeds is specifically one I remember reading in our high school library (I think it was in the New York Times magazine section) back in the early 70s, which influenced my own thinking considerably, falsely believing that no silent films should be shown at 24fps until I actually got to experience enough silent films to realize the speeds were not constant from film to film or even within a film. That single article resulted in my spoiling my first experiences with THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and THE BLACK PIRATE and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME by running them at 18 fps when they really should be seen at 24+ fps. At least he correctly mentions that silents were intended to be shown slightly faster than they were filmed.
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostWed Feb 22, 2012 8:13 pm

Christopher Jacobs wrote:
Lokke Heiss wrote:Christopher, did you ever notice how many New Yorker articles seem to go on about one or two pages too long? That was sure the case with this one.

The last online page or two of Denby's essay seemed to be mostly padding for a space he was expected to fill (like a lot of student papers, actually), and should have been condensed to a paragraph or two. I imagine a lot of writers are told to crank out so many thousand words, which is limiting for some and way too much for others. Still, it's nice he got some space to give silent films a little more public exposure. I hope his readers do a bit more research. The Pauline Kael quote about film speeds is specifically one I remember reading in our high school library (I think it was in the New York Times magazine section) back in the early 70s, which influenced my own thinking considerably, falsely believing that no silent films should be shown at 24fps until I actually got to experience enough silent films to realize the speeds were not constant from film to film or even within a film. That single article resulted in my spoiling my first experiences with THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and THE BLACK PIRATE and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME by running them at 18 fps when they really should be seen at 24+ fps. At least he correctly mentions that silents were intended to be shown slightly faster than they were filmed.



But then he gets it wrong about silent comedies being projected too fast (then again, how do people without senses of humor ever "get" silent comedy at any speed?).

Pauline Kael's comments about Paul Killiams THE SILENT YEARS series were as dead wrong as most of her criticism, she was always even more useless than even the average critic. That show did more to push the cause of silent film in America than ANY critic's words ever did. How many Nitratevillians can thank that show for getting them interested in silent film?


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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostThu Feb 23, 2012 8:21 pm

Valentino was a finer actor than given credit and made somewhat plausible THE SHEIK playing an Arab with a sort of respect. In BEYOND THE ROCKS his acting is polished and natural and outshines Gloria who didn't like to be outshined by anyone mainly male costars. Perhaps that's why lackluster 50 year old Elliott Dexter is her leading man in several films. In her book she bitched about both Valentino and Wallace Reid, but favored a now almost forgotten Rod La Rocque(I believe she knew Rod & Vilma personally for years after silents ended and up until Rod's '69 death). Denby gives the impression he's seen the God awful 1976 Ken Russell movie VALENTINO. An exploitation piece well shot with no effort to tell Valentino's story in context or truth. Russell got correct that the actor's name was 'Rudolph Valentino'. If Ken Russell made it to heaven, Im sure Rudy's in his face asking him wtf.
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostThu Feb 23, 2012 8:51 pm

Frederica wrote:I wonder if critics believe one should never, ever, ever have FUN at movies? Does Denby really think that for thirty years, people went to their local Bijou solely to be whacked over the head with Great Arte of Critical Importance?

Feh. I'm gonna watch Thor again.


There was a period in the 1980s when Ursula K. LeGuin lost her way as a writer and I almost gave up reading her stuff for a few years. One of the things she wrote which kept me going was some movie reviewing. In it she wondered if critics ever watched a movie in a theater in which their shoes stuck to the floor from all the semi-dried soda.

There are some screening rooms that critics get to see movies in occasionally in New York City. I've been in them a couple of times when my cousin, who used to review movies, took me along. You get to sit on a couch or a very comfortably upholstered chair, look at a pristine print with a superior sound system with half a dozen of the elite around you. Surely that affects your perception. So must the realization that you have to find a few cogent words to write on the subject of this latest movie, whether it be ALBERT NOBB or THE ARTIST or TRANSFORMERS 3 or THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, to run the gamut from ridiculous to ridiculous. I've contributed some reviews to the IMDB, but I don't unless I think I have some insight to the movie. To be in a situation where you must dredge up something willy-nilly must lead you to say the most ridiculous trash on occasion. The knowledge that someone thinks your opinion is worth paying a salary for must surely make you delusional about the validity of what you are saying. If THE NEW YORKER offered any of us a few thousand dollars and a byline for an article, no matter how little we knew about the subject, who here would turn them down?

However, that doesn't mean that critics say much of any value to anyone who has spent any time watching movies with some intelligence and assiduity. I can't begin to count the number of times I've come across reviews that start with the assumption that so-and-so is a great film maker, so this must be a great film.... when that's nonsense. When I went to see THE ARTIST I hoped for a good movie because these were the people who turned out some funny spoofs of 1960s spy movies. I had a great time, not because it's a work of sublime genius, but because it was a highly competent effort that hit all of my buttons. If they had decided to a Henry James novel, I wouldn't have bothered. I very pleased that THE ARTIST turned out to be a financial success on top of it.... but we all know that the fifty megabucks they have done worldwide won't even begin to cover the costs of a major motion picture. I suggest we stop talking about a revival of the 1920s style of moviemaking and stop being continually astonished at the cluelessness of the critics and continue to air our own, far better educated opinions of the sort of films we like to talk about here. We know that some of the people here won't care for slapstick comedies and others won't care for the suffering-in-mink soaper and others can't stand the B horse opera. But that's ok.

Bob
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 28, 2012 12:06 pm

Playing devil's advocate here but the reaction to David Denby's essay is quite intriguing because as usual, opinion is a bit divided.

But if it was written by anyone else...may it be some of you who are part of the silent film erudite, I would bet that even that person would receive the same amount of opinions of those who disagree.

Aside from Kevin Brownlow's works, will there be a silent film essay, observation or written article that a general consensus of silent film fans can agree on or be satisfied? [Even with video releases from David Shepard and from other companies, no one is generally satisfied...lol...].
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 28, 2012 12:46 pm

I certainly give silent film fans their opinions about various films and artists. We all have different likes and dislikes, but I really get exasperated when writers continue the same old incorrect stories for 80 years ago or more that really don't have relevance now even if they WERE true.
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 28, 2012 1:12 pm

If Ken Russell made it to heaven, Im sure Rudy's in his face asking him wtf.


He'll have to wait behind Franz Liszt, I'm sure.

Denby is of an age where his formative film education was at the zenith of the 50s art house names-- Bergman Fellini Truffaut etc.-- and then the Hollywood directors who followed them-- Penn, Altman, and so on. The critics of that era are almost uniformly under informed on the silent era because they got what they thought they needed out of it-- a certain knowledge of how Griffith, Eisenstein etc. fit into their big picture-- and didn't feel a need to revise it with all the discoveries that have come out since then. Thus, as I've noted elsewhere, David Thomson could still dismiss Rex Ingram as unknowable when I'd seen half a dozen of his films, almost all on TCM. It also means they don't necessarily want what silent film's got, versus what Italian movies of the 50s and 60s do.

I suspect the next generation, some of whom are here I suppose, will turn out to have found it easier to see American film of the 1920s than Italian film of the 1950s much of the time, and understanding will shift accordingly.
If you truly love film, I think the healthiest thing to do is not read books on the subject. I prefer the glossy film magazines with their big colour photos and gossip columns, or the National Enquirer. Such vulgarity is healthy and safe. —Werner Herzog
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 28, 2012 1:18 pm

Mike Gebert wrote:
If Ken Russell made it to heaven, Im sure Rudy's in his face asking him wtf.


He'll have to wait behind Franz Liszt, I'm sure.

Denby is of an age where his formative film education was at the zenith of the 50s art house names-- Bergman Fellini Truffaut etc.-- and then the Hollywood directors who followed them-- Penn, Altman, and so on. The critics of that era are almost uniformly under informed on the silent era because they got what they thought they needed out of it-- a certain knowledge of how Griffith, Eisenstein etc. fit into their big picture-- and didn't feel a need to revise it with all the discoveries that have come out since then. Thus, as I've noted elsewhere, David Thomson could still dismiss Rex Ingram as unknowable when I'd seen half a dozen of his films, almost all on TCM. It also means they don't necessarily want what silent film's got, versus what Italian movies of the 50s and 60s do.

I suspect the next generation, some of whom are here I suppose, will turn out to have found it easier to see American film of the 1920s than Italian film of the 1950s much of the time, and understanding will shift accordingly.


I'd agree with that assessment, but it is sort of damning with faint praise. Or damning with objective comment, I guess. The piece reads like a mid-term essay in a 1970s Film History 101 class. Really, it's not too much to expect someone who makes a living out of film criticism to keep up with film availability and scholarship.
Fred
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Re: David Denby's New Yorker Essay on Silent Film

PostTue Feb 28, 2012 1:19 pm

Good point. A whole generation (or 2) has grown up with VHS, DVD, Blu-ray copies of films we never had a chance to see except for bowdlerized versions on local TV stations... if that.
Ed Lorusso
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