Keeping Silent Films Alive
Got a craving for some classics of cinema’s deep past? Want to experience pioneers in the film medium from the cosiness of your home? Roaring Twenties Cinema Brisbane will help answer your calls for excellent silent films.
Joel Archer is on a mission. Through his local screenings of silent films largely taken from their golden era in the 1920s, he hopes to expose and educate Brisbane cinema-goers to the enduring charm and quality of silent-era movies both iconic and obscure. We had a chat to him about what goes into curating these movies that are nearly a century old, the importance of film preservation, and how Roaring Twenties Cinema Brisbane is coping with their change to online screenings.
When asked about why he started this initiative, Joel made no secret to his thoughts on modern mainstream cinema and why it’s important to value the medium’s past. “Short answer: sick of Marvel movies. Long answer: I just want to bring more interesting films for curious people and to take them back to a more pure, more fascination time in film compared to today which has probably never been worse with mass franchises and sequels and very, very small amounts of originality.”
To put it lightly, Joel knows his stuff about silent films and has built up an impressive collection to share with the public. “I’ve got around probably 1600 silent films in my collection. Some of those are home video releases, others are just electronic copies or whatever I can get my hands on. So, there’s a lot to show.”
Roaring Twenties Cinema Brisbane was screening silent films monthly at the Lumen Room which was part of the former Metro Arts building on Edward St. Due to that centre closing down earlier this year, and compounded with the ongoing impacts of the coronavirus, screenings have been moved to their Facebook page, free for anyone to enjoy some nostalgic film classics. However, that social cinema experience is something Joel misses deeply. “Personally, for me, I can’t stand it, but then I’m old-fashioned. I think it’s been good to keep the community alive – that’s a positive.”
“I always used to laugh – so many people would come in with a concerned look on their face thinking, ‘god, I got to sit through two hours of silent film’, but then would come out at the end saying, ‘oh my gosh, that was so fascinating, so interesting!’”
Choosing what films go into the program is not as easy as it sounds. Joel explains: “It’s a little tricky because you have to walk the line of screening films that are exciting and new and vibrant, and those that are familiar and connectable. We always have to include something with Charlie Chaplain or Buster Keaton once a year because they connect with people. Once you build up that rapport with an audience, then you can show them a film from 1919 that’s brilliant and they’ve never heard of.”
Speaking on why these films are so timeless, Joel feels their technical limitations end up being some of their biggest strengths. After all, compromise breeds creativity, and with early film, this was most certainly the case. “I think there’s a lot of charm in them being very visual with their storytelling. And, some of them are just so innovative, so ahead of their time, and so interesting as time capsules of their era.”
Behind the joys of reliving these fascinating relics that helped shape the film industry as we know it today is a passion for preservation by righting the wrongs of the past. A large portion of films from this era simply do not exist today due to their original copies being destroyed. Film preservation wasn’t seen as a necessary task and this misguided approach has cost modern audiences the chance to experience several lost classics. It’s a tragedy that Joel knows all too well.
“There are still so many incredible films that have literally just disappeared off the face of the Earth. Australia is one of the most tragic; we have such a huge perish rate. There was a film we made in the twenties that had a huge pirate ship that went up in flames, and it looked pretty cool in the film, until you realise that pirate ship was filled up with every silent film that had been made in Australia up to that point…and they just burnt them all up.”
However, Joel explains that there is hope in recovering some of these lost treasures of film’s past. “They’re doing an amazing job with all the films they have found. I went to the world’s largest silent film festival in Italy last year and there was something like 27 new films that they had recovered and screened at that festival. That’s pretty staggering considering they’re around 100 years old!”
Returning Roaring Twenties Cinema to an actual cinema presents issues relating to cost, venue availability, and adhering to the ongoing social distancing regulations.
“When we go back, we’d look to have more diverse programming. But the problem is the (lack of) venue, and where do that, and the cost of everything. Sometimes you do shows, and you barely make a profit. That’s okay for a time, but after years it does get a bit draining. So, we’re trying to get to a place that’s not too commercial, but a bit more financially viable. That’s our goal.”
Roaring Twenties Cinema Brisbane are currently hosting online screenings of Joel’s incredibly deep silent film collection on their Facebook page. This has recently included a Buster Keaton double bill, with the next event scheduled for August 21st. So, if you have a hankering for some old-timey, black and white, brilliantly-scored greats of twenties cinema, then check out what’s coming up in their program and help keep the spirit of silent films alive.