THE ARTIST (2011)
Running Time: 100 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Language: Silent with English language intertitles
Distributor: Weinstein Co.
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Ed Lauter, Malcolm McDowell, Nina Siemaszko, Missi Pyle, Beth Grant, Joel Murray, Ken Davitian
Silent films, as any good film critic or cineaste could tell you, were never silent. They were shown with music. Even if it was just a mean piano or piano violin duo in a nickelodeon, or a symphony orchestra, there was musical accompaniment. Films were distributed with special scores or just appropriate cues to be played along with the films. In fact, the Warner Brothers invented the sound film principally to save money by not having to hire musicians, as they owned the theaters that played their movies. Having the music already available, canned as it were, they could eliminate the musicians. The addition of dialogue was just an improvisation.
The importance of the music cannot be stressed too much as the “silent film” was the melding of image and music to one end–the production of emotion. In this way opera can be seen as the precursor to cinema. That is, drama plus music. There were “titles”, words describing scenes and identifying personalities and their connections to each other as well as lines of “dialogue”. However, the art of mute films was becoming more refined and DER LETZTE MANN (THE LAST MAN) by Murnau was famous for having one title and no dialogue titles, a story completely told in images. The addition of dialogue changed cinema into an intellectual experience. Stories were delineated with words. Popcorn was first introduced into theaters because now it was possible to follow the stories without having one’s eyes glued to the screen.
The early talking cinema has gotten a bad reputation that has been blamed on the requirement that the actors had to remain static because of the demands of the primitive microphones of the time. In fact, now being able to present talking pictures, the moguls decided to ransack Broadway and buy up the plays, hits and non-hits, which had appeared on Broadway the previous decade. Of course the Depression started at almost exactly the same time and the subject matter, country club comedies, white tie romances, college cut ups, were far removed from the concerns and daily life of the great mass of filmgoers. They wanted escape and fantasy but could no longer lose themselves in a world they had once pictured themselves being a part of.
Even more bizarrely was the public’s desire to leave the world of the silent film far behind them. Less than a decade after the introduction of the sound film, the silents were being cut up and made into “humorous” short subjects with voiceovers mocking them. There were even compilations reveling in the maudlin sentimentality of dead stars. All we have of Lon Chaney’s THE MIRACLE MAN is a scene used in one such film. There were some holdouts; most famously Charlie Chaplin who made the ironically titled MODERN TIMES in 1936 as his last silent though he did sing a gibberish song in it.
The Japanese continued with silent films long into the ‘30s. Though Mizoguchi made one of the first Japanese sound films in 1929, it didn’t take and silent films continued almost right up to WW2. Japanese silent performances were further enhanced by the use of a benshi (narrator) who specialized in foreign film and who not only described the setting but also vocalized the various characters. Cinemagoers would seek out performances by various “star” narrators more that the film. Akira Kurosawa’s elder brother was the most famous benshi and when sound films began to enter Japan he committed suicide. Still, Naruse and Ozu did not make their first sound films until 1935 and 1936, and late as 1938, over a third of all movies produced in Japan were silent.
By 1940 even Chaplin was making talkies. THE ARTIST, from France but largely shot in Hollywood, is not the first silent film since the ‘30s, as any ignorant and uninformed critic will tell you. Mel Brooks made one called, of all things, SILENT MOVIE, in 1976. It was made in color and wide screen. THE ARTIST is not only in black and white, but shot in Academy ratio, that is, the proportions of the screen are nearly square. In cinema language, 1:37 to 1. In other words, about a third as wide as it is tall. Wide screen is anywhere from 1:66 to 1 to 2:66 to 1 or more, roughly 3 times as wide as it is tall. Actually silent films were more like 1:33 to 1 with some early sound films 1:20 to 1.
This leads to an interesting problem. How will this film play in multiplexes? This is usually not a question asked of foreign language films. Their subtitles disqualify them from consideration by the Great American Movie-going Public. But THE ARTIST, being silent and dialogue-less has no subtitles, and the American distributor, The Weinstein Company, is famously aggressive. Conventional wisdom be damned. My question is will what passes for projectionists at the mall know how to properly mask the screen for the proper ratio? I know “the kids” today, with their widescreen panel TVs, will watch Academy ratio material either compressed and stretched to fill the 16:9 screens, or have the picture chopped at the top and bottom of the frame. And these are NYU film students I’m talking about, just as their parents preferred to watch cinemascope pictures that had been panned and scanned (look at the old VHS “full screen” videos of popular releases). The director thinks they will mask the projections properly, but I wonder. That’s the usual heady bravado of the European director watching his first film break wide in America. I worked for an Austrian producer who was thrilled his jungle movie played a split week on a double bill on The Deuce, so I’m sure director Michel Hazanavicius had his head in the clouds the minute he landed at JFK. It’s sure to do some business, as they say, because it is sure to be nominated all over the place.
The film itself is a film lovers dream. Film lovers will love this film. Others may find it all a mystery. No vampires, no zombies, no twenty somethings passing themselves off as troubled teens, no gross outs, no explosions, no transformers, no etc., totally outside the normal run of mall multiplex fare. It has people in it and not animated figures. Well, there is a dog, a very special dog. It will do well, very well in fact on what’s called the art house circuit. Word of mouth will be strong. But what about the film?
The story, to be true, is a well-worn one and not terribly original. A huge silent screen star is riding on top of the world in 1927 when sound films are introduced. He remains adamant in continuing to make silent films even as the business has made a definite change to sound. He has grown disinterested in his wife and met a cute extra on the set of his latest film that he decides to mentor but they keep getting separated. Eventually he finances his own film and loses everything. He drinks and hits rock bottom. His dog, did I tell you he has the greatest dog?; his dog saves his life and the cute extra whose career he started redeems him by her love.
Now you may think that this derivative script is only made palatable by the gimmick of being silent but rather it’s the creative way the story is told. Every scene has been thought out fresh and original. Sure there are moments when one expects the protagonist, Georges Valentin, (Jean Dujardin) to break out into Singing In The Rain or to walk into the Pacific or blow his brains out in front of a mirror, but the scenes and the storyline go off in other directions. In fact every time the film could trod a well-worn path, it does something different and original.
Valentin is big hammy star in the mold of Douglas Fairbanks, but whose fate seems married to that of John Gilbert and his precipitous fall. The extra girl, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) is more of a stock character, the poor girl who makes good in the pictures, but actually there were any number of actresses from Carole Lombard on down to actresses of varying success whose stories were similar.
The strange element of this film is not that it is silent, but that it is NOT shot in the silent technique. The director is well aware of what that technique was as he shows it in several parodies of silent films. The opening is in the style of a feuillade, named after the pioneer French filmmaker (FANTOMAS, LES VAMPIRES) the progenitor of the action film, which became the cliffhanger serial in America, perfected by Fritz Lang and the direct ancestor of contemporary films such as the Jason Bourne trilogy. Valentin is seen bound and threatened with torture unless he talks. He refuses to talk, and, in the manner of Harry Houdini, escapes and captures the gang. Being tortured with electricity and forced to talk but refusing to talk, the theme of the film is easily laid down.
The scenes showing the filming of the silent films are very cleverly done, shot in modern technique but showing the action within the scene using the silent mise-en-scene. There are dozens of grace notes that will titillate the cineaste and film buff. How this will play to the average or even smarter than average audience remains to be seen. At one point there is synchronized sound, but it is a nightmare Valentin has. The sound is loud, scratchy, indiscreet and treble biased, just like the sound from the earliest and most primitive sound equipment. But when Valentin tries to speak, nothing comes out.
I expect THE ARTIST will get a slew of Academy Award™ nominations and do more business than a film of this type usually gets, so there will be some reaction from the unexpected eyes of some surprised patrons. This could get interesting. (I still wonder if it will be projected correctly at mall multiplexes. It could be that digital projection will automatically see to it. That would be ironic.)
Mel Brooks’ SILENT MOVIE was also a film about film. So film may be the ideal subject for making a modern silent film. The other great subject for retro silent film is the caper film. THE THIEF (1952) was totally without dialogue, and RIFIFI (1955), had a very famous 32-minute wordless sequence. GE Theatre also had an episode with no dialogue starring Harpo and Chico Marx. At the end Grouch appears to speak the only line of dialogue, the punch line, “We’re not talking until we see our lawyer” or words to that effect. SILENT MOVIE also had one word of dialogue, given by French mime Marcel Marceau, a loud “NON!”. THE ARTIST also finishes with one word of dialogue. I guess the temptation when making a modern silent film to use a single word of dialogue is irresistible. In the case of THE ARTIST its not only the punch line, but supplies the raison d’etre for Valentin’s clinging to silent films.
THE ARTIST is strictly a one-of-a-kind, original piece, a film to be savored and deeply enjoyed. It never makes a false step; it never betrays either itself or the audience. More importantly, it’s fun and entertaining. If you love film, do yourself and go see it, and see it in a theatre.
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