This past weekend, I attended the annual Library of Congress workshop on silent films in Culpeper, Virginia, where those who love solving mysteries are challenged with real mysteries. Specifically, the LoC shows three days of snippets of unidentified silent movies to an audience of about 125 experts, collectors, academics, and fans (like me!) in the hope that the group effort will nail down some facts about these orphans.
The projector rolls and we see some bit of a movie–it could be as short as 6 seconds, it could be an hour (we don’t watch the whole thing in that case); it could be a comedy, a tragedy, a cartoon, a western, a foreign film . . . whatever it is, the members of the audience shout out clues and thoughts as they spot them. “The eye makeup looks German,” says someone. “No, the cuts are faster than Germans usually did . . . maybe it’s Danish or Scandinavian?” “The typeface in the titles resembles the sort used in Rex productions,” says a voice. “That looks like Dot Farley,” calls another. “1912 to 1914,” says a man behind me. “That’s an American upright piano on the right,” meaning it’s not likely to be a foreign-made film. “That’s Billy Quirk; he was a Solax comedian.” On and on . . .
About half the presentations are identified, meaning the Library of Congress now knows at least something about the title, the actors’ names, the date, the director, and the place where it was filmed. Three times someone in the audience was familiar enough with a particular location to identify the place as a park in southern California, a historic mill in New Jersey, and the ruins of Palmyra in Syria (recently destroyed by ISIL). Amazingly enough, I don’t get tired or bored sitting in the audience, even though I have very little to offer during this process. It’s fascinating listening to the experts working together to solve each mystery as it comes to the screen.
What do I get out of this besides fun? I meet interesting people and I learn little things I can work into my stories, which are set in the 1920s when silent movies were at their height. Like: I can use the word “plane” for airplane, something I’ve been afraid to do until now. I know what a bus in L.A. looked like in 1925, with an open top deck with wicker chairs for passengers. Minor details, of course, but they bring the era to life. And best of all, I get to participate in genuine mystery-solving! This is my second year at Mostly Lost, and I hope to be back next year for another round.