A century ago, moviegoers attended silent-film screenings with the anticipation of reading title cards. Before the advent of motion-picture sound, filmmakers relied on bits of printed text, at various moments in a film, for dialogue and description. Nevada State College professor Gregory Robinson is among the few—perhaps the only—title card scholar in the entire world, and his new collection of prose poems and images, All Movies Love the Moon (Rose Metal Press), explores the meaning and lyricism of the lost art of silent films. Vegas Seven recently sat down with Robinson, who is throwing a book-launch party in the Event Cube at Container Park (707 E. Fremont St.) 7 p.m. March 26.
How did you assemble the images in your book?
The text on each card is from the movie European Rest Cure. I started by looking through [films] for text that looked evocative. This is easier in some movies than in others. Then I played around with that particular piece of text. I’m not a graphic designer, so I hope my ideas outweigh the limitations of my abilities.
You don’t use the term “ode,” but isn’t your book really a chronological series of odes in praise of silent films and their title cards?
These are definitely odes, and some certainly praise more than others. The movies are often starting points to think about something else entirely. For example, the film Hell’s Hinges is a western about a gunslinger who finds redemption. Some of the title cards are lovely, but the theme itself is pretty common. I was more drawn to the image the title produces—a door at the edge of hell—so I ran with that. I barely mention the movie’s content, though there are traces.
You seem particularly intrigued by how silent-film techniques predate current inventions.
Overall, I’m interested in speaking about silent movies as if they were released last week … If you could become unglued from time, you could view How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900) as a contemporary art film, challenging progress and the spectator’s gaze in a way that’s still completely meaningful. Those ideas don’t go away just because cameras got better.
In “Last Laugh (1924),” you bring everything to the poetic table, from the film being referenced in Fight Club, to your memories of working a fast-food job. Were you surprised where each film took you as a poet?
Yes, and it felt a little selfish at times … For the pieces in the book, I watched the films multiple times, thought hard about the ideas they conveyed and then tried to make connections. There’s no piece in the book that’s just about the film. Each work is about the network of ideas that surround a movie.
Do you believe silent films are more interesting in terms of their technical and philosophical layers than the talkies that followed?
I don’t think silents are necessarily better or more intellectually stimulating than talkies. What they are is more surprising, especially if you’re not familiar with their conventions. Silent movies break all kinds of conventions; they speak in a different language than the talkies. Many times, completely conventional silents would be totally avant-garde art films by modern standards. They break the fourth wall, speak directly to the audience via title cards and make changes in the course of the narrative that seem, to me, totally unexpected.
Are they more poetic?
I think so. I love the graininess, the jumps and the flicker of silent movies. There’s something mysterious in all that grain, texture and darkness. This is another thing I love about silents—their inherent spookiness. Maybe it’s the speed, or the frame rate, or the ghost-like images of the actors. I’m not sure. But they hit me as strange in a way that talkies do not.
Isn’t poetry the silent film of written entertainment?
There’s a lot of potential in poetry, and it seems there’s so much more that can be done with the book as a form. One possibility is hybridity—not just image-and-text works, but anything that defies convention and breaks genre restrictions. We subtitled the book “Prose Poems on Silent Film” for the sake of clarity, but I like to think of it as a mix of genres, including a history textbook, an art book and an autobiography.
Let’s say I want to see the best silents ever made. Your top five recommendations?
Most critics put one or all of these in their Top 5: The General (1926), City Lights (1931), Metropolis (1927), Joan of Arc (1927) and Sunrise (1927). These aren’t noted as often, but are worth seeing: Show People (1928), Underworld (1927), Where East Is East (1929), Rescued From an Eagle’s Nest (1908) and 3 Bad Men (1926).