Gradually, over the last 10 years or so, silent films have defied the stupid orthodoxy that they are a contradiction in terms. There are film festivals, such as the one at Pordenone, in Italy, that undertook a special pledge to maintain and restore silent films. In the US, the Turner Classic Movies channel has reserved Sunday nights for the revival of silent films, usually in the best prints available, and played at the proper speed. There has been a wave of interest in writing new music - with intriguing orchestral line-ups - to accompany silent films. In Britain, the Barbican has just shown the 1929 silent Throw of the Dice (it is also planning to tour, with Nitin Sawhney's new soundtrack); the National Film Theatre is currently presenting a season of silent films; Matthew Sweet and David Thompson have combined to make an intriguing documentary about silents, Silent Britain, to be shown on BBC4 next month; and, after the success of last year's Mitchell and Kenyon films, the BBC is now screening those of Claude Friese-Greene.
It's interesting to wonder why this is happening. The first point is that anyone born in the year when sound arrived, 1927, is now coming up on 80. That means that there are now few people left alive who can recall a steady diet of silent pictures - or what the world looked and felt like before about 1925. I do not mean to suggest that the generality of silent films were "realistic" or honest reportage - though there were newsreels and many naïve attempts to show citizens what the remote parts of the world looked like. The stories were, all too often, intensely romantic or melodramatic. No one in the mid-1920s felt capable of looking at the world with a camera in the way that Scott Fitzgerald managed with The Great Gatsby, or Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway.
But there are many historical questions, or avenues of research, that may be rewarded with study of the miles of film that accumulated in the silent era. Sometimes you can see what cities looked like, or how dense the pedestrian traffic was. You can see how women wore a certain dress or a hat. In all the movies shot in the Los Angeles area, for instance, you can sometimes see the stretches of orange groves and arable farming that separated the groups of buildings. That background was not tampered with, not dressed or altered - it is just there.
I live in San Francisco where last week we celebrated (though that is not quite the word or the mood) the centenary of an earthquake that was said to be 7.8 on the Richter scale. We can see the burned out newsreel footage that shows the largest city in California (as it was then) in devastation. You can see the people, in long dresses and bowler hats, who came out to see the upheaval. And you can, somehow, see the innocence or the novelty. America had never really had an earthquake before, and from the outset people looked on with the confidence that they would build the city up again.
The spectators are not dejected. They are there to see a wonder of the world. And they are ready to begin again - for most of them that's what America was, beginning again. People looking at that silent footage again now in 2006 are less sure. A 7.8 today could inflict such damage that as many people might quit the city as have given up on New Orleans. The lesson of Katrina, so far, is that we cannot begin again, or not without going somewhere else. America is so much gloomier and more downcast a country.
Now, you can say that that's a ton of speculation over a few feet of film. But silent films have acquired a new wonder - the imprint of history. Moreover, a lot of film enthusiasts may notice that in the 1910s and 1920s, when making moving imagery was so much newer, there was a readier grasp of beauty. Whereas, I venture to suggest, movies stopped being as lovely or as commanding in the 1970s. But you can go back to the great moments of silent film and be struck by the awe of the film-makers - that something could be so powerful. It's very moving. Run five silent films for your children, and just see what happens. Which five? I'd say Buster Keaton's The General, Dziga Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera, Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, F W Murnau's Sunrise and Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Unfit for children? Not at all - they are radiant with a beauty that was still in its infancy.
Silent Comedy, NFT, to Sunday, 020 7928 3232; 'Throw of the Dice', www.barbican.org, 020 7638 8891; 'Silent Britain' will be shown on BBC4 at the end of next monthReuse content