In my lifetime, I’ve only watched five silent films. Sadly, that is probably more than most people have seen. In chronological order of release, they are:
- Frankenstein (1910)
- Nosferatu (1922)
- The Ten Commandments (1923)
- Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde (1925)
- The Docks of New York (1928)
I watched The Docks of New York (beautiful screenshot below) a few nights ago. It was directed by Josef von Sternberg, who is considered one of the first auteurs, and is considered a masterpiece.
While watching it, it occurred to me: Although I know it is considered a masterpiece by film historians, what basis do I have for determining whether it is a masterpiece or not?
We have a cinematic vocabulary with which to evaluate movies. Americans grow up watching movies. We start watching movies before we can speak. I don’t know if anyone’s ever researched how many movies the average American has watched by the age of twelve, but I’m sure it’s in the thousands.
When we watch The Lord of the Rings or Transformers then, we have a cinematic vocabulary with which to evaluate whether they are good or bad films. If an Amish boy who had never seen a movie before watched Transformers, would he have anyway of knowing whether the film was trash or a masterpiece?
I’ve watched 374 movies that were released between 2000 and 2009. But does that prepare me to evaluate silent films? Silent films seem to have a cinematic vocabulary of their own. Before I can determine for myself why The Docks of New York is a great film (in contrast to just accepting what I’m told), I need to watch a lot more silent films.
Have you watched any silent films? Which ones were your favorites?