Sleeping in the (silent) Cinema

There’s a nice gag towards the beginning of The Parson’s Widow (Carl Th. Dreyer, SE, 1920). The warden of the village church is equipped with a long pole, so that he can reach across the box pews in order to poke at members of the congregation who have fallen asleep during the sermon. It’s an image that seems curiously appropriate for Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto – the big international festival of silent film at Pordenone, for it’s an open secret that many – perhaps most – delegates drift off at least once during the gruelling schedule of screenings. Practically the first thing I heard about the festival was an anecdote from a veteran who recalled looking down the row one afternoon to see a clutch of the most famous scholars of film history gently breathing in unison, with their eyes rolled back into their heads, blissfuly oblivious to whatever cinematic masterwork was unspooling before them.

Initially, in fact, I had planned to snooze through The Parson’s Widow. It wasn’t a film I was much keen to see. You have to be in the right mood for Dreyer, and having slept through the brilliant but worthy Passion of Jeanne d’Arc on numerous occasions I was quite prepared to catch up on some zzzz while awaiting the next movie. My assumption was wrong, of course. The film started as a brilliant broad comedy and gradually changed into a charming and beautifully observed story of village life and cross-generational respect which held me spellbound for its whole running time. It doesn’t always work out like that. The previous day I’d been excited to see Captain Blood (David Smith, 1924) a full blooded American adventure film which had come highly recommended. Within 20 minutes I realised the film was boring me, the star uncharismatic and the plot really convoluted in a way that wasn’t much fun, so I bedded down to get some kip. I had a lovely snooze, surfacing just in time to listen to the lush accompaniment to a charming love scene set in a garden, and then again for the final battle complete with pirate ships being blown up and sinking right there on screen. I didn’t regret not putting the effort in to follow the plot through – the significance of these moments were easy enough to grasp, and the seat was warm and comfortable.

One can snooze in all films of course, if the first 20 minutes of the latest Hollywood release has failed to engage me, I often bed down and sleep through the rest. I loved Gladiator when it came out, and saw it quite a number of times in the cinema, but the early scenes with Richard Harris banging on about the ‘dream that was Rome’ used to bore me and I’d make sure to have a pleasant snooze whenever he showed up on screen. In that example I was somehow able to wake in time for the good stuff, but it doesn’t always fall out like that. One’s susceptibility to sleep doesn’t always vanish in front of a good and thrilling film, and conversely sometimes one is stuck wide awake, counting the minutes through a tedious epic, like an insomniac awaiting the dawn. Silent cinema is particularly prone to sleep – there’s a special soporific quality to a warm, darkened room with only the sound of a piano playing, and of course once you’ve gone off, there are no explosions or sudden urgent shouts to waken you up, unless the accompanist is particularly ambitious. And film festivals, with their full on schedule, their late night networking sessions in the bar and their probably jet-lagged-to-start-with delegates are hotbeds for cinematic slumber parties.

On the one hand of course, this is a real problem for silent cinema fans and scholars – who wants to travel half way around the world to be asleep in front of a rare film that might not come out of the archive for another twenty years? But on the other it is simply a fact one has to accept, and might as well admit. I’ve been going to silent film festivals for almost thirty years and I still haven’t mastered the art of remaining awake though everything that interests me. Sometimes you are into the film, gripped by the action and yet you still have to fight the urge to graciously slip away. You can see people doing this. Nodding, nodding and then suddenly trying to shake themselves awake. Some have devised strategies to combat the creeping snooze. Some sit bolt upright throughout the screening. Others suck on mints or clench and unclench their fists. I used to bite at my moustache, much to the irritation of my friends. In this situation silent films have an extra spice because there’s no dialogue to keep you on track when your consciousness starts to fail – no sound to pull you through as you rest your eyes. If you miss an intertitle, it’s gone. And if it revealed a key plot point then you’re close to lost. It will take some work to reconstruct retrospectively the information you’ve missed and nodding is no mental state to do this in. I often find myself taking note of a particularly interesting shot or plot reveal – a suddenly significant minor character perhaps – only to realise when I come to a moment later, that it was a product of my sleeping mind.

But what of the historical audience? How did they cope with the problem of drifting off in the cinema? It’s noticeable that of all the things one can do in the cinema, this is perhaps the least remarked on. There are plenty of studies of weeping in the cinema, of snogging, laughing, courting and even fucking in the cinema, but there seems to be very little material about snoozing. While moral reformers were inspecting to ensure that no hanky panky was going on, were there no concerns about folk using the space as an informal daytime doss-house? The only reference I can think of is the sleeping man in the cinema scene of A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, GB 1929).

COD Screenshot

A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929)

Similarly, theories of spectatorship emphasise identification, desire, even touch (or ‘haptics’) as key ways that audiences relate to the screen, but sleep seems quite absent – which is quite surprising because in more ordinary language the cinema has often been understood as a place of ‘dreams’. As I’ve said, silent cinema in particular lends itself to that hypnagogic impulse – that half and half place between sleeping and waking. Where else but in a dream might you notice poison dropping though the ceiling, and on investigating find an old lady attempting suicide in the room above you, then casually invite her to live with you and your wife, only later to discover that she is in fact your own mother. That of course is the plot of another film we saw at Pordenone, The Song of Life (John M Stahl, 1922). You needn’t be angry with me for revealing spoilers though, because all of that happens in the first twenty minutes. Which leads me to another question about sleeping in the cinema. Back as film students we were taught that the ‘Classical Hollywood Style’ in the days of ‘continuous programming’ is plotted so that anyone walking into the cinema can pick up the threads of the story within a few minutes at any point. But can this really be the case? How on earth can you follow the myriad reversals, confusions of understanding, identity reveals, and reconciliations in The Song of Life if you happened to sleep through the first ten minutes and miss that the old lady living above is in fact the mother of the hero? It seems incredible, but I reluctantly have to accept that it’s true. While some films are constructed badly enough that a lost intertitle or key scene means that you spend the rest of the time wondering what the hell is going on, most silent films are so well constructed that the narrative gap is filled quite quickly. So my hot tip is: if you feel yourself drifting off, don’t fight it. When you wake – probably after only a few minutes – you’ll be much more refreshed and able to construct what you’ve missed by the ongoing reactions of the characters to each other. And if you can’t, then the film probably wasn’t that good to begin with.

One thing is certain though – even if you only wake five minutes before the end of The Song of Life, you’ll want to phone your mum as soon as you get out of the cinema.

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