It’s a weird business to write a book about silent film. One asks you to follow a thread of thought without sound, and the other asks you to do the same without pictures. How can you take a subject that relies so heavily on the ability to see, and do it justice without the audience being able to actually see it?
Perhaps you can’t. At least, I don’t think it’s a problem that Paul Merton’s Silent Comedy manages to overcome, although it’s hard to tell on first reading if the fault lies with the writing or with the subject matter itself. I’ve seen few silent comedies, and the ones I have seen are considered the cream of the crop, but even they have flat moments. In fact, it makes me wonder if we haven’t moved on from the appeal of watching people fall over or get kicked up the arse.
But here’s the thing – as viewers, we still have a great affection for the pratfall in particular, as proved by the huge amount of views such incidents receive on Youtube, for instance. So maybe we really haven’t moved on at all in terms of comedy, which means it’s purely the act of describing everything that renders it unfunny. When we get into the section of the book where Merton hashes through each comic film in detail, it’s hard to feel the love for them. If you know the film you might not want to relive it in such a dry way, and if you’ve never come across it then any surprise it could hold for you is ruined. And surprise really is the key to a good comic moment. The blurb for the book tells us, “…he brings a comedian’s insight to bear on the art of making people laugh…” but that’s also a big ask. How, exactly, does comedy work? I suspect it’s another subject that could never be explained adequately on the page.
Okay – now I’ve got the negative stuff out of the way, I’m the situation to be able to say what’s great about this book. Mainly, it’s lovely to be in the company of Paul Merton. He manages to convey his personality through his words, and you feel that he’s genuinely enthusiastic about the subject. The best parts are the sections of the book where he describes the key players in the worlds of vaudeville and silent film – Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd – and also some of the lesser-known actors, such as Ben Turpin, who made a living out of being cross-eyed and getting turned down onscreen by women. Acting back then could be a thankless task.
Merton also has a great way of tackling the murkier side of that life. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s famous rape and manslaughter trials are dealt with in a very straightforward fashion, and here Merton brings his detailed knowledge of the era to bear, and offers some interesting conclusions about the case. I think the sections that deal with Arbuckle are fascinating, and try hard to find truth amidst the sensationalism.
Silent Comedy is a strange mix of the very interesting and the very monotonous. I wonder if it might not have been better if the descriptions of the silent films themselves were cut back and a smaller but much more informative book about the history of the films and the stars had been released instead. There’s so much riveting stuff here that made me want to seek out the performances of those early actors; the last thing I wanted was to read about them rather than watch them.
But here’s the thing – the nature of the printed word is changing, and this kind of material offers an opportunity to publishers to incorporate the digital format in order make a much more fulfilling experience. As an interactive e-book Silent Comedy could really shine. Merton’s talent for enthusing the reader could then lead to the chance to see the relevant clips directly. If there’s one area that could benefit hugely in the changing world of publishing, it’s film criticism. I’d love to see a move towards writers using embedded clips, say, to explain their point of view. Then we could all go and watch Buster Keaton being kicked up the arse when Merton writes about it, and feel that much more involved in the book as a result.
But, for now, Silent Comedy remains a little bit brilliant and a little bit boring. I don’t think it’s the limitations of the author so much as the limitations of the format to blame, but, either way, enjoy what you can from it, and perhaps go and watch one of those old Harold Lloyd or Laurel and Hardy films afterwards. The best physical comedy really doesn’t need words. In fact I’m beginning to suspect that words actively damage it.
Our next Den Of Geek book club fiction choice will be ‘Little Brother’ by Cory Doctorow. Kaci will be discussing it on Wednesday the 15th of October.
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