Why Silent Film Stills Still Fascinate Us

Fewer than 14% of American silent films still exist today in complete form according to “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929,” a recent Library of Congress report by film historian David Pierce. All we know today of the vast majority of those lost films are either tantalizing fragments of footage or the still photographs taken to advertise and promote the movies and their stars. Looking at those still photographs now reminds us of whole worlds and personalities lost to time. David S. ShieldsStill: American Silent Motion Picture Photography masterfully recreates and celebrates a genre of photography originally intended as a marketing tool but today recognized for its own artistry, separate from but still related to the films and actors it saves from the dustbin of history. “Photography preserved what was most vivid and splendid about silent cinema, the unprecedented visual elaboration of places and people—the beauty, the horror, the moodiness,” Shields writes in rebuttal to modern viewers bored by the perceived limitations of the silent films. Silent film stills, Shields believes, “speak with a force little diminished by ninety years of history.” Shields, likewise, speaks with a force powered not just by his passion for and knowledge of the field, but also by sharing the stage with the work itself in his beautifully illustrated book. By its end, Still reminds us why silent film stills still fascinate us.

“Beauty was the trump of trumps—the quality that could change a shopgirl into a society matron, a slumgullion into a star,” Shields asserts. “It was, par excellence, that quality explored in the publicity photography generated by silent cinema.” Beautiful faces captured in still photography found themselves looking down from the walls of theater lobbies, from publicity prints handled by collectors and fans, and from the newspapers and magazines with their ever increasing hunger for imagery as print technology allowed photography to be reproduced on a mass scale as never before. Shields resists postmodern readings of silent motion picture photography fixated on the “male gaze” that renders female subjects passive objects rather than the active participants in a creation of identity founded on the earliest ideas about glamour. Instead, Shields hopes to “recast[] the story of glamour… by recognizing the primacy of the visual culture of the stage in these developments and exploring the relocation of the focus of glamour from the vicinity of the face in girl glamour to the luminous body in woman glamour.”

Along the way, we meet such forgotten stage figures as Elsie Ferguson, an early Broadway star convert to motion pictures, none of which survive today except through stills. Where Ferguson “gave good face” (as Madonna vogued over Greta Garbo), other actresses such as Evelyn Nesbit embodied more three-dimensional charms. “Nesbit flares with the flame of the flesh,” Shields waxes poetically. “Ferguson shines with the luminosity of the soul—to use the characterizations of that era.” Despite such analysis, Shields contends that his “aim is not to deconstruct beauty or excavate the dubious political visions that subtended the worlds articulated in silent film photography.” Instead, he hopes “to understand the enchantment” that made these films and the people in them iconic around the world. Rather than murder through dissection, Shields wants to “recover a poetics of mystification” and thus restore some of the magic viewers experienced when they first saw these stills and the cinematic pleasures they promised. It’s a tall task—nothing less than creating a photographic time machine for the film-lover’s soul—but Shields delivers more than his share of magic.

Perhaps Shields’ greatest trick is not in reminding us of those who stood in front of the cameras—moving and still—but in introducing the mainstream photography fan to the people  behind the camera—the visionaries who translated charisma onto the negative: Richard Matzene, who wanted his subjects “poised” not “posed”; Jack Freulich, who helped Theda Bara become the original “vamp” and found manly beauty in wrinkles and peculiar features; John Van den Broek, a stylist who “suggested the existence of whimsical, romantic worlds” in which “the exotic trumped the exotique” of faux, stereotypical orientalism; M.I. Boris, former portraitist of kings who manipulated negatives to create “uncanny” portraits that Shields feels anticipate “our age of digital aesthetics” by almost a century. These men and so many more come alive both through their photographs (many from Shields’ own collection) and through Shields’ vivid prose and exhaustive research.

Into this boys’ club of silent film still photography Shields inducts two actresses who contributed their visual insights to discover and inspire still photographers—Alla Nazimova and Lillian Gish. Nazimova served almost as her own art director in enticing photographer Arthur Rice to travel west to Hollywood despite ill health to photograph her as well as her friend, Rudolph Valentino, whom Rice turned into “a new male icon, fancier, more temperamental, more expressive than the matinee idols of the day,” Shields writes. Rice’s still photography for Nazimova’s 1923 Salomé perfectly captures the art nouveau artistry of the film, which, unlike so many other films, fortunately still exists complete. Shields devotes a whole chapter to “The Eyes of Lillian Gish,” who Shields feels “better knew how to convey [the] interior splendor and soulfulness… of the girl, the Anglo-Saxon angel” than any other woman (and probably better than any man, too). The antithesis of the sexual vamp, Gish perfected the inaccessible sexuality of a living, pseudo-religious icon. Gish discovered and inspired photographers such as James Abbe, who perfected an “intimate dark” in which actors caught candidly in costume fascinated viewers with the idea of “a mystery encountered”; Charles Albin, a tonalist who created portraits of “pearly luminousness” epitomizing the saintly Gish persona; and Milton Brown, whose stills for Gish’s last silent film, The Wind (1928), paradoxically capture the relentlessly blowing wind as “the external correlative of a woman’s soul… materializing the tortured anima.”

Shields’ ideas and expression pair beautifully with the photographs he selects to stand for the silent era. Bert Longworth’s famous “two shot” of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in 1926’s Flesh and the Devil, known by aficionados simply as “The Lovers,” exudes the passion and romance of the best silent film couples. I’ve always had an interest in the films and photographs of actress Louise Brooks, so Eugene Robert Richee’s 1927 photo of Louise Brooks with pearls (detail shown above) brought all my “Lulu” love to the surface. (For those looking for an introduction to the world of silent films, I highly recommend Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By.) Shields managed to make even that familiar photo by “Mr. Still” Richee fresh for me with his analysis of how Richee used curves like the white line of pearls to mimic art nouveau lines as part of “[t]his minimalist masterpiece show[ing] the modernist beauty in subtraction. Beauty without ornament.” Just as Brooks’ head, hand, and pearls stand out in negative space against the inky sameness of black hair, dress, and backdrop, Shields’ ideas stand out against all the negativity stacked against silent films as things of the past.

In Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography, David S. Shields emerges as the last romantic—a knight tilting against the windmills of what passes for modern glamour in a quest to show us what the real thing once looked like. He truly believes that “[t]he ingénue innocence radiating in the ‘girl’ portraits of certain early actresses seems strangely fresh to eyes glutted with the urban worldliness of current fashion photography or the preppy slut posturings of the more notorious of the current generation of young female celebrities.” The overt sexuality of contemporary culture robs us today of the glamour and charisma found in the best silent film stills. Pictures of Louise Brooks speak sexy just as loudly as those of Miley Cyrus—just in a different language. Shields wants us all “to recapture the freshness of that visual morning” when glamour was new and awakened the whole person, both the head and heart. Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography is the perfect wake up call for those hoping for more from their idols.

[Image: Eugene Robert Richee. Louise Brooks with Pearls (detail), 1927.]

[Many thanks to the University of Chicago Press for providing me with a review copy of David S. ShieldsStill: American Silent Motion Picture Photography.]

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.