Seductive Cinema

For Card, a lifelong collector, curator, teacher, and friend of many stars and directors, film is quintessentially silent film. He looks back nostalgically to the first few decades of the twentieth century and marvels at the quick maturity of film as an engaging art of visual splendor, spectacle, and subtlety, an art with so many resources that it did not suffer noticeably because it lacked audible spoken conversation. Quite the contrary: From Card’s perspective, the widespread adoption of talkie technology in the late 1920’s led to if not the ruin then at least the decay of the art and an apparently irreversible trend toward films with the ability to speak but without anything to say.

Card’s preference is for visual imagination and what might be called a cinema of the heart. The experience of film at its best is likened to a love relationship, not only with the actors and actresses—individuals such as Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Gloria Swanson, original and unforgettable figures who set the pattern for future stars—but also with the medium itself. Nearly every page conveys Card’s emotional and physical involvement: in the aura of the old-style motion picture houses, which were truly palaces of pleasure; in not only watching but, as he says, participating as films are screened; even in discovering, owning, and literally holding strips of film in his hands.

Card writes to correct many common mistakes about early film history and to revise some critical judgments he finds insupportable. For example, D. W. Griffith and Eric von Stroheim are overrated, he notes, and Cecil B. DeMille vastly underrated. Yet ultimately he is less concerned with argument than with elegy: While critics misunderstand the silent films and modern viewers turn away from them, the films themselves are physically decomposing, crumbling, vanishing. Card celebrates the achievement of what he calls the pre-dialogue film and mourns the loss, through disdain and decay, of this immense archive of not only cinematic and cultural history but also irreplaceable precious pleasure.