#6 – Altman – “Silence of the Silents”

So far, this class has been a systematic breaking down of the myths and assumptions we hold about the early years of cinema.  Like Tom Gunning’s theories about early audiences and Kathryn Fuller’s dissection of the early developments in exhibition, Rick Altman’s lengthy essay about theatrical sound in the ear of the silent film takes an issue we thought was simple and shows its complexity.  He begins by refuting the loose notion that “silent film constitutes a single, homogeneous period,” and goes on the show that the practices of providing sound to accompany silent films were extremely diverse.  Some exhibitors used mechanical devices like phonographs or player pianos, some used like orchestras or fiddlers or pianists, some used scripted music and some improvised, some used sound effects, and some simply allowed silence.

He is sure to point out that the practice of silent film music had precedents in folk musical and the musical theater of the previous century, but simply trying to base our understanding of it on previous practices is another oversimplification.  Basically, we can never talk about the history of a century ago in completely concrete terms because even an idea as basic as “film” meant a totally different thing to those audiences than it does to us now.  We can’t spend all our time second-guessing ourselves and overqualifying every statement, but we must recognize that in areas like cinema, the terminology is always more fluid than we might think.