A Vermont Mime Speaks! ... of His Love for Silent Films

Rob Mermin watched silent films and fell in love with them. (Courtesy photograph)

Rob Mermin watched silent films and fell in love with them. (Courtesy photograph)

In the fall and winter of 2007, mime and Circus Smirkus founder Rob Mermin holed up at his home in Montpelier, with a tough (but someone’s got to do it) job ahead of him. Commissioned by the Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier to produce a program on the artistry of the silent film era, Mermin spent the long, dark, cold evenings watching silent films. He didn’t go out to movie theaters and he didn’t look at television but instead immersed himself in a universe that now seems alien to many of us: the dreamy, luminous, long-ago world of silent film.

“It was fabulous,” Mermin said of the experience. It took him a few weeks to enter fully into the spirit of the enterprise because the conventions of silent film are so different from those of sound film, but once he did, he didn’t want to look at anything else, likening it to a love affair that only deepens over time. “Your imagination is working harder as a spectator, you’re filling in gaps and you participate more in the viewing.”

The result of all that research was Silents Are Golden: A Celebration of Silent Cinema, a nearly two-hour program of film clips and discussion that Mermin will bring to the Eclipse Grange Theater in Thetford at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 1. It’s the only screening this year in Vermont, he said.

Mermin shows scenes from some 100 silent films, including the famous comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, as well as dramas starring Louise Brooks, Clara Bow and Gloria Swanson, the adventures of Douglas Fairbanks and the Westerns of William S. Hart. The screening is followed on Saturday by a workshop on acting at the Grange from 9 a.m. to noon.

The idea behind the commission was to get Mermin, who, as a mime, also acts without words, to talk about why silent film, in its heyday from 1920 to 1930, produced so many big talents and so much indelible work.

Mermin, who founded Circus Smirkus in Greensboro, Vt., in 1987, was a student in the 1970s of the renowned French mimes Ettiene DeCroux and Marcel Marceau. After that apprenticeship, he spent years traveling through Europe, working as a clown and mime in circuses in England, Denmark, Sweden and Hungary. He was also dean of the Clown College at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which sounds a bit like the circus equivalent of being provost at Harvard. And his observations about acting are trenchant. While many moviegoers think that all silent movies consist of hammy, exaggerated gestures, eye-rolling and mustache twirling, which is true to a degree of the earliest films, Mermin sees in stars like Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish or Charlie Chaplin “great intensity and subtlety of expression. There’s something mysterious about the effect of watching a silent film actor.”

It is, he said, what Marceau called “the silence of the soul.”

“Don’t the deepest emotional parts of our lives leave us without words?” Mermin asked, paraphrasing Marceau.

What modern film acting sometimes omits, in its pursuit of the close-up, is what Mermin terms the “rhetoric of gesture.” And silent film actors were masters of physical acting, both in drama and comedy. “Most actors, when they’re going to be emotionally expressive, fall back on words,” Mermin said. What he shows actors in his workshops is not that words are useless or replaceable, but that there is great power in “expressing emotion and thoughts through the body.”

He has taken Silents Are Golden to schools and colleges, to introduce a “new generation to the richness of the silent era.” And even if audiences know almost nothing about the acting talents involved — Mermin recalled one boy asking him “Who’s that little guy with the mustache?” — they generally respond with great enthusiasm. The movies, he said, speak “a universal language at any age in any country.”

For information on tickets to “Silents Are Golden,” and the silent acting workshop, go to www.parishplayers.org or call 802-785-4344.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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Letter: You’ve Done It Again

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

To the Editor: Valley News, you’ve done it again! You prompted me to leave my warm stove and venture up dark, snowy back roads to be delighted and transformed by actors knocking themselves out to make us laugh, shriek and cry — and love life all the more. This time it was Nicola Smith’s preview of the Parish Players’ presentation …