“The Pickford Paradox”: Between Silent Film and New Media

For some years, I’ve used clips from silent films in getting students to think about the visual vocabulary of contemporary video games. Silent films construct situations posing many of the same creative problems that level designers face and do so in a language which is primarily pictorial.

For example, consider the classic sequence from Harold Lloyd’s film, Safety Last, which might be described as a vertical scroller — as Lloyd has to make his way up the side of the building, past a range of different obstacles. In teaching games, we often talk about “verbing,” based on the remarks of Shigeru Miyamoto that he likes to add a new verb to the vocabulary of games with each new title he releases. So, the question to ask the students is what verbs, what capacities for action, would be required in order to enable game designers to capture the essence of this scene. In the discussion, I may also get students to reflect on why it is difficult for games to produce laughter as compared to the rich comic experiences offered by silent film comedies. And from there, I also get them to think about what difference it makes that this scene is played by a live actor rather than a virtual character in terms of how we react to the risks depicted here.

Here’s another clip I’ve often used in classroom discussions — this time from D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East. The highly codified emotional language of early 20th century melodrama would be relatively easy to capture in the pre-programmed behavior of game characters and the situation here — trying to navigate across ice floes before reaching a waterfall — has strong resemblances, again, to the kinds of situations encountered in classic scrolling games like Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog. Generally students find it much easier to imagine converting this sequence to a game than adapting the Lloyd sequence, but again, part of the power of the scenes comes from seeing real people in real spaces.

The point of the activity is not to bash games for not being able to achieve what cinema can do but rather to get students to think about the nature of the different media, the language that media makers draw on in producing their emotional effects, and the unrealized potentials which emerge when we look comparatively across media.

I was reminded of this classroom exercise when I heard last week from Manuel Garin Boronat, a researcher in Spain, who has produced a series of remarkable videos which juxtapose sequences from early films and early video games. I asked him to share with you the impulses behind this project and several of the short pieces he has produced. You can see more examples of his work at his website, GamePlayGag. These videos encourage us to look backwards and forwards in time, making comparisons across media, in ways that I find both liberating and illuminating.

Between silent film and new media

by Manuel Garin Boronat

Once upon a time, in the west, Mary Pickford said: “It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the talkie instead of the other way around”. In this direct statement, an early Hollywood actress -not a director, not a critic- touched an essential aesthetic problem that not only relates to a specific process of film history but also opens a potential path to question media evolution. Would it be possible to look backwards, to silent visual forms, as a privileged platform for comparative media analysis? Isn’t the study of early film, through its intense and varied visuality, a powerful resource to better understand today’s changes in videogame and new media languages?

By picking the word “logical” Pickford throws us into the limits of a paradox. Beneath her phrase lies the possibility of conceiving silent cinema as a door towards abstraction, given its concentration on visuals that escape the restrictions of dialogue-centered narration… Pickford envisions silent films as a reaction against the constraints of sound cinema, as an attempt to open more space for visual imagination (silence, motion, tempo) and less for the impression of realism. But what if we applied the “Pickford Paradox” to think about the evolution of new media, looking backwards to move forward in terms of developing an expressive language for games.

Nowadays, realistic graphics, dense dramatized plots and constant dialogue seem to be the self-imposed goal for the videogame industry (or for a big part of it). In a way, the visual freedom of the first computer games and arcades, which opened the possibility of a certain abstract-motion expression -concerned with gameplay visuality and not necessarily sacrificed to verbal storytelling-, is being constrained by a high-tech race towards anthropocentric realism. The so-called “cinematic sequences” inserted throughout the narration, as well as a number of allegedly film-realistic procedures, make games look more and more like talkies (but not necessarily like films). Is history repeating itself? Could Mary Pickford’s claim be adapted to contemporary videogame design? Of course better and worse games will always be made independently from its talkie/silent orientation, but are we simply facing a matter of technological and programming improvements or could we affirm that a certain aesthetic possibility is at stake?

Perhaps engaging a true comparison between silent film forms and early interactive games, through concrete sequences and examples, may be a good way to put into crisis our personal notion of media evolution. With a bit of luck, looking back to the origins of film history might help us to value the amazing discoveries and possible creative paths -yet to be developed- of early videogames and new media. Under that perspective, Mary Pickford’s husband may be resurrected as the ultimate silent version of Megaman, and the sight gags of Buster Keaton could maybe teach us a trick or two about Super Mario’s love affair with gravity… Perhaps it all boils down to jump, chase and pie-in-the-face.

Keaton Mario Scroll

Among the masters of slapstick, from Chaplin and Lloyd to Semon and Chase, Buster Keaton was probably the one who brought his obsession with motion, interfaces and Goldberg machines to a higher degree of visual lucidity. Sight gags, based on the creation, repetition and variation of a kinetic pattern (as in a three time musical structure), unveiled a world of infinite gameplay. As in the Super Mario games, the trace of the character’s action -jump, chase, pie in the face- and its physical developments -platform, rotor, slide, cliff, pendulum, pulley, seesaw, zip-line, lever…- define a screen trajectory while opening the question of gameplay laughter. Maybe, as Gilles Deleuze instinctively prophesized, Buster was secretly developing the first videogame (avant-garde) machine: “…the dream of Keaton, to take the biggest machine in the world and make it work with tiny little elements, transforming it into something that anyone can use, to make from it a thing for everyone”.

Fairbanks action arcade

As Will Rogers showed with his parodies of Douglas Fairbanks’ action routines, the Jump can constitute a mode of narration by itself. The silent cinematic hero, although being engaged in certain love requirements, was essentially a proteic pixel running, jumping and fighting across the screen. As in early arcade and action-platform games, the power of physics, motion and timing thrilled the audiences in a constant push “beyond what’s possible”. Prince of Persia, who now seems to be re-shooting the marvelous visuals of Raoul Walsh’s masterpiece The Thief of Bagdad.

Pathé magic puzzle

Visually enclosed by what Noel Burch called the “autarchy of tableau,” silent fantasy reels shared with early games an aesthetic awareness of the frame. Within that determined, magical space, a path was open for visually stunning effects and changes in shape, form and motion. In this segment, humans become geometrical figures, game pieces, whose movements and combinations resemble the legendary gameplay of Tetris, helping us to see in this classic video game traces of the cinema attraction.

Chomón arcade

Early mischief gags and pickpocket reels soon started to work around chases, jumps and visual transformations. As in certain arcade and scroll games, the relation between the main character, his antagonists and the surrounding space constructs a system of vertical and horizontal relations inside the frame. Stairs, connecting floors, holes, diagonals and magic bikes engaged a certain development in early film montage, much as these same devices became key motifs in early video games. The secret of Pathe silent films was a fascination with transformation which invites the viewer to play along with the characters.

Manuel Garin Boronat is a graduate in Humanities and Audiovisual Communication at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. He works as a research scholar at the Department of Communication in the same university, and teaches as assistant lecturer in the Area of Ideation and Script. In 2008 he defended, within the Ph.D. Programme in Film Theory, Analysis and Documentation, the first part of his doctoral thesis: The visual gag: form, character, game-play. He is currently finishing his thesis on the relations between audiovisual language and game forms, after a research stay in Tokyo University of The Arts (Graduate School of Film and New Media). His main research interests focus on media hermeneutics, sound analysis, videogame theory and forms of serial fiction.

Comments

  1. Kevin McLeod says:

    An ingenious entry. I consider the Jenkins usages of Way Down East and Safety Last much more apt than the analogies made by Boronat. Pickford’s paradox has some necessary qualifications. Mary Pickford was one of the shrewdest thinkers in silent era Hollywood and she was the first female studio chief (she, Fairbanks, Chaplin and Griffith all owned United Artists) so to label her an actress erases her levity and perceptive domain. Not only was she poetic in labeling silent film pantheonic over her talkie successors, her statement became a prediction that Boronat seems to miss or ignore. Film had to evolve through dialogue before it could achieve a more complex level of storytelling: ‘silent cinema”s modalities and spatial expression clearly reappeared in the 60′s with alienists like Antonioni and Kubrick (among many others, Tarkovsky, Blake Edwards, Terrance Davies, Lynch’s Eraserhead, the list is nearly endless) all indicate a group of thinkers rejecting the lure of dialogue-based plot and inventing a form far superior to either early silent or mid-century talkie. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a primarily silent film and Kubrick has argued the dialogue is intentionally misdirecting, to take it verbatim is to miss the entire purpose of the film. Even George Lucas has adamantly compared the Star Wars films to the era: “My films operate like silent films, the music and visuals are where the story’s being told.” And there are era parallels: Star Wars and the age of the proto-glyph videogame were born practically at the same time. The paradox is not Pickford’s, again it seems the paradox lies in the search for realism within the desire for great gameplay. Silent cinema is not a ‘door towards abstraction,” rules apply, math, balance, etc. Silent cinema is a conflict between what is possible and what is not and the incipient resolution. Space Invaders and Asteroids, the earliest arcade hits, are MUCH more abstract than anything silent film could offer, and consider these games with their 8-bit graphics STILL outgrossed Star Wars 5:1. And the earliest filmmakers (the parallel to Asteroids) like Emile Cohn, though perceptively abstract, still were forced to manufacture complexities like bilateral symmetry to compete for eyes in the audience, videogames never had this barrier, though show me the equivalence of Pong in 1904 and I would reconsider. The comparisons Boronat makes are clever but are merely structural. The real mental dialogue lies out there in the post-structural and the hidden currencies in realism.

  2. mgarin says:

    Thanks for your comment, but I really think there’s been some kind of misunderstanding with my short paragraphs, taking them as some kind of “literal truth”. I wasn’t at any point trying to make general assumptions about Pickford or about the evolution of silent film language, discussing these complex issues would take hundreds of blog entries and here -just as Mr. Jenkins suggested- I was only trying to add some general comments about the compared edited sequences, without entering any deep academic discussion (I thought that might be clear once I decided not to introduce footnotes with the quotes). My few lines in the blog only try to question the possibility of a gaze backwards to silent film forms in order to rethink some of our assumptions about the way videogames and other new media work, in what I intended to be a harmless “poetic license” that uses a couple of quotes as simply analytic platforms, to suggest but no to assert, as general notes to sound along with the images and not as “literal assumptions”.

    I think that we could agree about the complexity of a truly deep discussion on some of these matters. I’ve been tyring to work on it for a couple of years, having defended the first part of my thesis, and still have many doubts and analytical problems… that make me question everything really often. But what I want to make clear now is that here, in these short paragraphs that Mr. Jenkins asked for some days ago, I didn’ intend at any point to start a debate about such complex issues as:

    - Mary Pickford. For example, as you might guess, I could have written about where her quote comes from or the issues related to her poetic insight, issues interpreted by several generations of film critics in specific books, as in the case of Walter Kerr’s “The Silent Clowns”. But I didn’t, since I simply wanted to modulate her sentence as a suggestive tool, not to “force” deep historical debate, neither to assert anything about her life or her work.

    - The evolution of the visual language throughout film history, and especially around the years of the sound transition. And I think we wouldn’t need to “jump” until the 60′s, we could spend hundreds of hours only discussing about transitional cases like the one of Frank Capra’s work with two actors: H. Langdon and G. Cooper, without having to escape to Kubrick or Antonioni (filmmakers that you mention, and that I’m in love with, but that I didnt’ mention at all here… neither many others). We could even put into crisis any assumption about “sound” and “silence” regarding early cinema, discussing for hours and hours while trying to understand recent research made on these issues by scholars from the Domitor Group, like Rick Altman or François Jost.

    - The level of abstraction in early videogames. I could agree with your comments about 8-bit graphics -I don’t think I said anything contrary to that-, even though I think it would be much more interesting to discuss using Mark J. P. Wolf’s powerful writing on the issue, or some other concrete approach.

    - Any early filmmaker… I assume you probably refer to Emile Cohl (with a final “l”), at least if we are talking about the same creator. I truly think we might agree in many terms once we decided which specific examples to talk about -and let me insist-, not necessarily having to “jump” to avant-garde auteur examples (where the frontier would be endless), but just keeping close to a couple of early Hollywood filmmakers, around slapstick for example.

    What I mean is that I would really like to seat together and discuss with you some day any of these issues, even send you my academic work on the matter, so that you can question specific analytic writing and not a few well intentioned, even passion-driven, general lines in the blog… But here, as a respectful reply to your entry, I can only say that my intention was not to make general comments or assumptions about the history of moving images, but simply to accompany the little compared sequences extracted from my work with a few suggestive, orientating paragraphs, a bit “poetic-licensed” if you want (probably the European analytic tradition where I’ve grown betrays me), that didn’t intend to give anything for granted, especially not as wide, complex and varied issues as the ones you bring up. That wasn’t my intention at all, and I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. By the way, my surname is “Garin” (“Boronat” is the second surname often used in Latin countries), another misunderstanding I guess! Best, Manuel Garin.

  3. The real currency of player-participation seems to reside at the heart of this discussion of form, medium and intent versus execution.

    I’d like to thank the learned participants for demonstrating the properties of language that render it fairly useless in stimulating participation. I’d like to thank them also for the points of clarification and references for further study.

    But looking beyond the very-mixed blessing of creative reliance on dialogue in film, would anyone care to address the persistent use of camera (seemingly) to utterly defeat the viewer’s perception of a consistent, coherent, participatory point of view? I’m asking for references beyond Montgomery’s The Lady in the Lake and the first half hour of Dark Passage.

  4. Sofia says:

    Any early filmmaker… I assume you probably refer to Emile Cohl (with a final “l”), at least if we are talking about the same creator. I truly think we might agree in many terms once we decided which specific examples to talk about -and let me insist-, not necessarily having to “jump” to avant-garde auteur examples (where the frontier would be endless), but just keeping close to a couple of early Hollywood filmmakers, around slapstick for example.

    Best regards, Sofia, CEO of iscsi boot windows 7

  5. Rca Ieftin says:

    Hello prof. Jenkins,

    I’ve seen the fragments of movie posted here and I think your correlation is very well done. In fact, the most interesting thing is that the silent movies seems to have “life”, comparing with the actual video games. I suppose the silent movies can be good source of inspiration for the game producers and new media as well.

    Best regards.

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