"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.