At the time of its release, my local cinemaplex only showed The Artist at 5pm. Who in their right minds would go and watch a French silent movie? Several prizes – including some Oscars – later, The Artist is back in the cinemas, this time at nearly every possible slot. Who in their right minds wouldn’t want to watch an Oscar-winning flick?
Several people, apparently – because everywhere people were reported leaving during the film. It even happened during my visit to the cinema. Surely this means The Artist must be an awful movie! Erm no… but it may be interesting to put some things into a perspective. Sadly for you, that’s my perspective.
First and foremost, the fact that The Artist is a silent movie is not that breathtaking if you watch more than just Hollywood fodder. One recent example of a recent silent was Aki Kaurismäki‘s Juha (1999). True, that’s not entirely recent, but it’s closer to 2011 than a lot of critics noticed. That Kaurismäki made a silent movie isn’t the most flabbergasting fact of the day either: you had to be 18 minutes into his film The Match Factory Girl to hear the first word being uttered. Anyway, if you bother to look into the topic of silent movies for a mere five minutes you won’t have a tough time finding some fairly recent examples.
Which brings us neatly to the next point… The Artist is not a silent movie. Are we in a nitpicking mood? Perhaps, after all 99% of the film is silent, but the remaining 1% is of interest here. Given that the film has been so heavily debated, we’ll skip the usual synopsis of the film and dive straight into the review section. At one point, the actor is shown the latest hype: a movie with a speaking section. The actor is adamant in his belief this will never become popular, but the truth of the matter becomes clearly visible shortly thereafter: when retreating to his star lounge, the artist suddenly realizes he isn’t in a silent world anymore: the glass he puts down makes noise, his dog barks and there’s chitter-chatter from the chorus girls who pass by his door. He, however, is unable to speak.
Proof that The Artist isn’t silent? Not really, even at the time of silent movies, sound effects were occasionally used during the showing of a film. Of course, those were only gimmicks and required some props for the orchestra to use during the performance, but occasionally silent movies didn’t mind adding a gimmick. One of the sound-producing props in The Artist during that particular scene is a ringing phone, a nod to Alfred Hitchcock‘s transition from silents to talkies (in Blackmail). The Artist is crammed with similar nods to the movies of the 1920s and 1930s, including a musical number that’s a tribute to Busby Berkeley.
By the time you’ve followed The Artist up to that point, you’re well into the era of the talkies. The silent movies were no more (not counting occasional exceptions like Juha and, let’s not forget, Modern Times) and the talkies had taken over. The truly silent actors had remained silent and were on their way to oblivion and/or self-destruction. That things don’t remain awful should be evident: the final climax of The Artist (the silent actor and the it-girl of the talkies dancing) is probably the most shown clip of the film. What you don’t see is what follows… the dance routine is finished and you hear the actors breathing heavily. Another take is requested and here you hear the artist speaking he doesn’t mind doing one more take. The heavy French accent is hard to miss. Sure, the artist may not have had a voice in the film, but the actual reason was that actors like him, who barely mastered the English language and/or had a terrible voice, had lost their career due to the invention of “language”. In the silent era, actors were chosen for their looks and style. The addition of voices required fresh blood.
In a way this makes The Artist less a silent movie than a movie documenting one of the biggest transitions in cinema’s history. At a time when 3D is becoming all the hype (again) and digital screens take over the celluloid screenings, it’s nice to see a film reflect on a change in cinema that was even more decisive. That the film is showered with prizes, is hardly the movie’s fault: Hollywood has always been accused of being self-congratulatory and now there’s just another bit of prof suddenly people seem to mind? The problem here is that audiences, and especially mainstream audiences, don’t have the slightest knowledge of (and: interest in) cinema’s history. Bérénice Bejo (as the it-girl) is a wonderful example of a “slapper”, but how many people know that term? (Though of course, this is mainly a dictionary issue: the “slapper” style iconized by actresses like Clara Bow and Louise Brooks is more famous than its name – discerning enthusiasts may be interested to know the term was coined after the movie The Slapper.) Do not forget that most people growing up today can’t probably even name a Hitchcock title. By way of comparison, modern cinemagoers treating themselves to a night at the movies may undergo the same shock you’ll get if you start watching an Icelandic mythological movie without subtitles (offer not valid if you are or understand Icelandic).
True, some teens will be subjected to clips of silent classics (Nosferatu and Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari are often picked because of their expressionistic value), but that’s not the same as watching Hollywood pat itself on the back for one hour and a half in a semi-documentary silent film. To be honest, if you’d quizzed the Hollywood hotshots at the Oscar ceremony on their classic film knowledge, the results would have likely been quite disappointing too. Unfortunately, those modern cinemagoers will flock to the forums and other birdnoise-producing crannies of the internet and declare how awful The Artist truly is. Well, it is not. If you’re the sort of person that likes to ridicule quiz contestants who think Brussels is a country, then feel free to laugh at these idiots too. However, don’t feel awful about angrily waving a fist at the tv stations as well: chances are high you won’t see a classic movie before midnight tonight and only a handful of channels worldwide don’t mind showing a classic from the 1930s. Having said that, people who think Mount Etna is in the “European country” Japan are pretty hilarious, aren’t they?
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