Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and David O. Russell’s American Hustle exemplify contemporary cinema’s dependence on dialogue. Not only are they undeniably ‘talkie’; both pictures are about talking. Ironically, however, they also emphasise the emotional poverty of talk: Jasmine’s soliloquies are combustible self-deceptions, whilst the characters in American Hustle use language as they do catsuits and quiffs – smokescreens to hide the manipulation of others. The films are almost caged by words and reflecting experience outside their remit becomes near-impossible.
Yet cinema was not always this reliant on words. In fact, silent cinema was defined by an absence of dialogue. Its films, instead, are in love with faces: their humanity and drama, their revelations and manipulations. It is this love affair that, in part, makes silent films the purest form of cinema. At moments when all focus is on the face, the silent film can totally disavow the tropes of other art forms of literature and theatre.
Three years ago The Artist took the box office by storm. Devoid of dialogue and made entirely in black and white, the film was a direct homage to the golden age of silent cinema. Although, did it signal a grand contemporary return to this past form? Absolutely not. If anything, The Artist’s candy-coated exterior did exactly the reverse: it emphatically declared the death of silent cinema, while charting the ascendancy of the spoken word. A more literal embodiment of Frederic Jameson’s notion of postmodern pastiche has perhaps never been achieved.
In order to recover the real value of what has been lost, I will attempt to exhume silent cinema’s corpse as it was, and examine the significance of the face through the films of one particular director.
For me, the ultimate lesson in the power of the face, and the ultimate face itself, is found in Murnau. With Dracula movie Nosferatu (1922), the director had already established Max Shrek as the iconic face of the macabre. And two years later he released The Last Laugh, imbuing the face of Emil Janning’s hotel porter with a similarly monumental magic. Whilst the count’s fangs are guaranteed exposure every October, the hero of The Last Laugh receives far fewer big screen outings. It has been unfairly short-changed. The Last Laugh is a highpoint of silent cinema. In its full-scale embrace of the world of all-expressive faces, it elegantly achieves Murnau’s stated aim: ‘abstracting everything that wasn’t the true realm of the cinema’ (everything, it seems, but faces).
The film is about a descent in social standing: from porter and community legend to toilet attendant and local laughing-stock – a tale of riches to rags. And the crux of the tale is Emil Janning’s countenance. Indeed, the face is the tragic tale. It reveals, or even is, his fatal flaw: his hubristic job-satisfaction, clear in the first act, in the stiffening of his jowls and preening of his moustache as he salutes the customers. Likewise, when he is relegated to bathroom attendant, his eyes are humiliation.
The porter’s face is also a signpost towards that which lies both beneath and beyond the tragic narrative. The quixotic epilogue, in which the porter wins the lottery and eats a luxurious meal at the hotel, is often criticised: the tragedy considered ruined by this happy ending. Previously, however, when the porter skulks towards the hotel after his demotion, his beard appears disturbed by the wind, swept into dramatic tangles. The moment is a visual nudge towards Job; the wildness in his eyes and facial hair redolent of the face of William Blake’s famous rendering. Murnau knowingly corrupts the tragic shape, in favour of one of Biblical redemption, in which the film-maker is God. He preludes the epilogue with the intertitle: ‘… the author has decided to look after this person long after he has been abandoned by all the others, by giving him an epilogue, wherein things turn out… unfortunately… as they seldom do in real life’, evoking the caprice and might of an Old Testament God. The epilogue is a recognition and ribbing of the divine compassion of any storyteller. The irony however is that it is not God, nor even the filmmaker, but the face that has brought the audience on this journey.
What Janning’s face so naturally facilitates is an exploration of the porter’s mental life that is impossible to access through speech. Murnau is painterly: the shots come closer to existential portraits in the spirit of Rembrandt than sequential images. Consider two integral scenes. First, the moment when the porter loses his job: his face expresses something beyond words. It is given the space and time that real life would never provide. We’d look away immediately out of embarrassment, for the porter is truly naked in this moment. The face becomes a mixture of disbelief, shame and that particular strand of fury that, for a passionate second, becomes indistinguishable from hatred. Of course, the face is richer than this – that’s the point – and these descriptive reductions do just that, they reduce the power of the image.
The face doesn’t express a fixed mental state, but fluctuation: a tumult of realisations, too many to register properly. It’s a face that could, without warning, embrace the absurd – or insanity. This takes us to the second moment, when the porter attempts to steal back his coat. He looks confusedly back as he approaches the hotel. His eyes scream: ‘I don’t understand what I’m doing!’ He continues anyway. Words obscure those flecks of mental life that float on the edge of judgments and reason. Without intertitles, there is no way to neatly express the correspondent thoughts and feelings to discreet speech acts – as a result, these thoughts and feelings exist much more fully.
All this makes The Last Laugh among the most truly cinematic of films. It completely renounces the rationality of everyday life – and its words – for the rationality of films – and their faces.