Saturday, October 31, 2009

What writers can learn from Lon Chaney and silent film

Tonight my roommates and I went to the 1923 silent film adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, staring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo. I thought it might be interesting to see what the silent film genre and its actors have to teach me about my own work, and here is what I came up with:
Lon Chaney was extremely dedicated to his work. He spent lots of time and effort working with makeup and finding ways to contort his own face and body, without regard to pain, and it is for good reason he is called 'the man with 1,000 faces.' Chaney clambered up, down and around Notre Dame wearing a nearly 50 pound hump and harness that kept his body twisted and contorted. That’s what I call dedication. Now, writing and art don't generally involve facial and bodily contortion, (if it does, you may want to reevaluate your writing process), but emotionally and mentally, it can sometimes be torture. When that happens, remember Lon Chaney, and just be glad you're not gallivanting around Paris with a 50 pound hump on your back.
Another thing Chaney demonstrates is this: The best monsters and horror characters are also somehow sympathetic. Chaney's Quasimodo obviously and poignantly craved affection; that is something every human can understand. We all fear the grotesque and unlovable within ourselves. If as an artist you are going for more than just blood and guts, you can look to Lon Chaney for an example.
One last thing I think we can learn from the silent film genre in general is what I guess I could call significant expression. I'm sure we're all familiar with the over-the-top style of acting in silent films, and we don't need to go that far. But I think that what we can take away from this is that every glance, movement, and action has an obvious meaning and deep significance. If everything your characters did, said, or expressed meant something important to the reader, how much richer would those characters be? Again, I'm not saying we need to be didactic or unnatural, but taking away the parts that don't mean much to your characters takes away the parts that won't mean much to your reader.
Anyway, there's my Halloween artsy experience. Hope all of you had a fantastic Halloween, and now that it’s over, happy NaNoWriMo!
Write on!
Sarah Allen

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