In a review of the book, ‘Faxed: the rise and fall of the fax machine’, Conor Farrington (in the ‘Times Literary Supplement’) writes: “the history of fax echoes those of other technologies which reached their zenith shortly before obsolescence, including steam locomotives, piston-engined aircraft and (more recently) the iPod.” In my mind I immediately thought of silent cinema made obsolescent by the technology of the talkies just as silent film narrative attained an unprecedented fluency and expressiveness that makes many cinéphiles lament its passing, including myself in maudlin moments.
Of course it was not a technology that was made obsolete but a form of artistic expression, which entails a different set of reflections. Email replaced fax, and we all applauded this as progress. Sound cinema superseded silent cinema but this was not necessarily to be applauded as progress. In our own time digital has replaced analogue but one can legitimately regret that so few films are made now with pre-digital technology. And then colour superseded black and white, except there is still a place for black and white: The White Ribbon, for example, and indeed Edgar Reitz’s Die Zweite Heimat mixes colour and black and white sections to striking narrative effect.
There is a history to be written of how the sound cinema makes use of silent narrative techniques, in which the fact that they come in the context of sound makes them all the more arresting. I have just been reminded of that watching Hitchcock’s Topaz in which for the sequence of the theft of some documents Hitchcock gives the audience two conversations of exposition behind glass so that they are silent. The effect is electric, for since we don’t know what has been said we are drawn into finding out with our eyes in the action that follows.
Just as with the silent cinema audiences were crying out for sound, so nowadays we should be crying out for images accompanied only by sound effects, if that, and certainly not words and coercive music.