Yesterday I went to the movies. In the past, that wouldn't have been a big deal, but I haven't gone that much this year. Partly that's because the films this past year have been utterly uninteresting to me, until very lately, and that is a first, since I love films so much, and have been a longtime student of them. Perhaps those reasons are why I was so smitten by the film I saw yesterday, The Artist.
This one would certainly have stood out, even in a crowd, since it is a silent film, crafted immaculately in silvery black and white, and without a soundtrack, except in the manner of silent films, except for a couple of well-placed scenes. The two leading actors, who are not Americans at all, but French, seem to pop off the screen, full of the requisite physical energy and charm of silent film. Their dancing chops as well as their style lends itself well to the clothing and acting styles of the period portrayed here.
But in addition to lovingly reproducing the iris shots, acting style, and other bygone techniques of the period and the look of the films of that time, this is an encapsulated history of cinema, with sly allusions to famous films. The breakfast table sequence between the main character and his wife was a pointed reference to Citizen Kane, where the slow disintegration of a marriage took place over the course of a few shots. Music, mise en scene, and the general tone (physical and psychological) pointed the viewer to Hitchcock, Wilder, and others, all filmakers who were not of that earliest era.
Some reviewers saw these references as clumsy anachronisms, but I think they misunderstood the director's effort to recreate with a loving eye the history of Hollywood. If the plot was at bottom trivial and overly melodramatic, isn't it true that the majority of films have been just that, and still are? Of course, this is not an excuse; one of the first things I was taught in a writing workshop that creating a boring story about a boring character is not acceptable, but for those who recognize the cinematic in-jokes and notice the cinematic pyrotechnics, The Artist is at least a fun day at the movies.
Even the most transitory pieces of fluff, like Busby Berkeley's chorus girl extravaganzas, are remarkable for their technical accomplishments, and this director aims to celebrate the invisible technicians behind the movies, and most of all, the amazing subtleties of the lost world of the silent film, eclipsed so totally by talkies that we imagine it reduced to a few patched together Keystone cops reels or sentimental romances. As the few restored masterpieces we have been given reveal (remember Emil Ganz's Napoleon, for example), should we overcome our presuppositions long enough to view them, we might realize that we have lost as much as we have gained in abandoning the silent film, and see that our embrace of novel technology does not necessarily mean an improvement in all cases.
Think about 3-D for example. For the most part, it has been a bust. Though Omni-Max films make for impressive experiences, they can cause headaches or even double-vision, and the latest wrinkles in 3-D technology, except for a few cases, like Werner Herzog's documentary about ancient cave paintings or perhaps Scorcese's film Hugo, neither of which I have seen, seem mostly a pointless search for novelty, appealing to children more than discerning adults.
In the past, movies were different, but this doesn't necessarily mean worse or more primitive. Certainly our technology is better now, but the art has not progressed. It has just changed. We don't turn up our noses at the statuary of the ancient Greeks or the Palace Versailles just because our aesthetic is not the aesthetic of those periods. We are able to study these artifacts for what they are, and admire them, perhaps even because the cultures they embody and exemplify differ so much from our own. Can't we do the same with film?