Wherein Summer Intern Alexandra Greenway discusses this week’s Silent Sunday Nights pick: ASK FATHER (’19)
Hello! It’s me! I’m back and ready with another silent film to put on your radar: Harold Lloyd’s ASK FATHER (’19). Much like last week’s MASTER OF THE HOUSE (’25), this one is for sure required watching – but for quite different reasons. While MASTER OF THE HOUSE was a social masterpiece, ASK FATHER is one of Lloyd’s many achievements in slapstick, the tour de force of the silent era. Like Keaton and Chaplin, Lloyd did all his own stunts, often putting himself in danger. On one occasion, Lloyd blew off two of his fingers after what was mistaken for a fake bomb exploded in his hands while he was using the wick to light a cigarette. For the rest of his career he disguised his deformity with a prosthetic glove which, although useful, was pretty noticeable.
These stories are mind-blowing when compared to today’s film production, but the thing is – they’re pretty dime a dozen. Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd all did their own stunts which – AGAIN – is AMAZING. But what I think is most significant to recognize is how influential the camera work of these films is. For a long time, film theorists have analyzed film by cataloging a film language. What does the light suggest about the mood? What does the editing suggest about the characters’ inner consciousness? How does the soundtrack support or contradict the context of a scene? These are the kind of questions most often posed by film analysts. But silent film can point to a new way of understanding film, Gilles Deleuze’s ‘movement-image’.
I’m not gonna get too heady here, I promise. All I’m tryna do is emphasize the importance of slapstick in silent films to how we understand (and probably why we appreciate) movies. Now, Deleuze (like many scholars) is a deep, heady, wordy guy. He’s a philosopher, so his job is talking, thinking, and writing about the kind of stuff that most of us sort of nod along to in between more pressing concerns like, “how do I register for health insurance…?”. “what’s wrong with my foot?”, “is there a squirrel stuck in my wall or am I under demonic possession?”, etc. In any case, he’s come up with this idea of a ‘movement-image’ as a way to re-think not only cinema, but our understanding of the world. To Deleuze, cinema is not just a bunch of still images played in succession, it is a new way of viewing, a way of creating that is spontaneous and not necessarily causal. The image does not build the movement, the movement defines the image. Basically: gifs. A gif (which is really just a capsuled version of video media) captures emotion that exists without context. It’s not a photograph, but it’s not a video. It’s a Deleuzian dream – so tell THAT to your professor who thought your inclusion of Mean Girls highlights in your final presentation was trite.
Why do I bring all this up? To point out that silent films are not fossils – they don’t belong in a museum/attic/basement/tomb/forgotten storage cube. They are just as relevant - if not more relevant – than ever. There’s a reason that a lot of gifs come from film – especially silent film. The images are so striking, they evoke something intangible yet extremely visceral. Silent films (perhaps like all relics) point us to the core of our film appreciation. They are basic at times, but they are the building blocks of cinema, not to mention media in general. Harold Lloyd is why we have Tarantino, Kubrick, Varda, Spielberg, et al. So – like I said last week – we should savor them.
Tune in to ASK FATHER this Sunday, June 18th, at midnight on TCM. We’ll also be showing THE FIRST AUTO (’27), another can’t-miss from the silent era. I’ll see you next week – and in the meantime, tune in to TCM for all the classic content your heart can desire.