Where to begin with The Artist? Perhaps I should just go out on a limb and repeat what everyone else has said: “It was sure risky making a silent film nowadays”. Well, yeah, I guess it was risky on some level, but The Artist isn’t a silent film through and through. “What do you mean this isn’t a silent film?” What I mean is that the film is certainly silent, and it’s certainly black and white, and it’s certainly been shot in the 1:33 aspect ratio, but it ultimately lacks a couple of the things that are generally part of the silent film experience. Maybe The Artist isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, or maybe its just been over seventy five years since the last true silent film (Modern Times.), and we’ve essentially forgotten how to make them. I’m not saying The Artist is a bad film. No, it’s great! But is it what you’d call a “technical achievement”? Not really, no.
The first “talkies” changed everything we know about cinema. If it weren’t for all the films that experimented with sound in interesting and imaginative ways, movies would not be as engaging as they are today. Just think about it for a second, Michael Bay’s Transformers Trilogy is the butt of many G33K jokes, but if there’s one thing the films got right, it’s the sound design. When Optimus Prime makes his first appearance and transformation, its great being able to hear all the shifting gears and sliding metals, the shwooms and screeches; not to mention, Peter Cullen’s voice sounds more badass in these films than it ever has, and the musical score is actually pretty good. But great sound design has its roots in films like Fritz Lang’s M, where an ominous and displaced whistle announces the approach of a mad serial killer. Or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho; we never quite see the killer’s knife stab Marion Crane’s body, but we certainly feel them, because we can HEAR them. Then there’s the original Star Wars; the sound design in this film is legendary. People don’t realize just how crucial an element sound is to this film. Just imagine for a moment a version of Star Wars IV: A New Hope, where:
-The sound of a lightsaber’s swing is replaced with the typical “swoosh”.
-Darth Vader does not “breathe”.
-R2-D2 sounds more like the clicking your hard drive makes.
-All laser blasts sound instead like . . . silence (Which they would, in real life).
All of a sudden, Star Wars IV: A New Hope wouldn’t be as interesting a film, would it? At this point, I’m sure you’re able to see why silent film died a slow and silent death. It’s because people not only found a sense of realism in the films they could hear, but it opened up the medium for storytelling possibilities that were just not possible before the advent of sound. Now, the point I’m trying to make isn’t that sound films are better than silent films; I’m a huge fan of silent films, ranging from the works of Fritz Lang to Buster Keaton. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the sound film has become such an integral part of our culture, that its taken for granted. As a result, The Artist might be a difficult film to enjoy for some. Hell, moviegoers across the country demanded refunds after find out it was a silent film! But in the end, it was the existence of the “silents” themselves that willed sound to be implemented into the cinema. The audience wished that their heroes could speak to them. They wished to hear their voices. I mean, if it weren’t for sound in film, would we have this amazing little bit of film history?:
The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is funny, heartwarming, witty, and dramatic as a whole, really. On one level, it’s amazing to see not only how much The Artist gets absolutely right, but how unexpected every moment in the film is, and how engaging and complex outwardly simple characters like George Valentin (Jean du Jardin) and Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) could be. On another, more subdued level, however, The Artist misses the point on what a silent film truly is. Hazanvicious gets everything right, from the obvious aspect ratio and coloring, but he seems to forget a few things. And no, I’m not going to harp on the fact that this film has a “soundtrack”, which also features some actual sounds and a bit of dialogue towards the end. My issue, which some of you may argue is a bit nitpicky, is that the entire film was directed with modern day sensibilities.
Yes, I believe there are many segments of the film where the camera work is unlike anything usually seen in the silent films of the 1920′s and 30′s. And I do know this was shot at the conventional 24 frames per second, rather than the usual 16 or 18 frames per second that many of the old silents were shot in. But that is not the meat of the issue I’m pressing here. Silent films are mostly famous for expressing ideas and emotions through the bodies of the featured actors and actresses. In a silent film, the body is a tool; the hands, the arms, the legs, and especially the face, become the mediators through which the audience gets to not only know a character, but is engaged and is essentially able to make unique observations of said character. Silent film allowed for expressions that transcended the spoken word, which is very much rooted in literalism. This is the power silent film has, and continues to have, over sound film. When a silent film is good, it can be a virtually hypnotic experience. I can recall being able to sit through Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen in a single sitting; it was a five hour experience, and there was no pausing, no bathroom breaks, and certainly no snacking. I was that mesmerized, and ultimately, it proves the point Norma Desmond makes in Sunset Boulevard:
The actors in Hazanavicius’ The Artist are a splendid bunch of talents. But the manner in which they express themselves is more akin to modern day filmmaking than it is to silent cinema. However, there are a few scenes where Hazanavicius does manage to capture the transcending nature of the silent film. Here’s one of them:
Peppy Milller having George Valentin’s suit come to life is a moment of magical realism in the film, but in the eyes of the audience it transcends to pure wizardry. In this scene alone, not only is Miller’s crush on John Valentin expressed to the audience, but also her dreams and aspirations of becoming a big Hollywood star. This is what I wish the film had more of.
But what do I really think of The Artist? Well, though I do not think this is a quintessential silent film, I do think it is a very amiable and honorable effort. From a certain viewpoint, one could argue that the entire film is driven by nothing more than pure melodrama, but what isn’t nowadays? Hazanavicius has constructed a film that is so tight, so well paced, and flows so well, that I cannot help but recommend it. The Artist is incomparable to its predecessors; the works of Lang, Wiene, Chaplin, Murnau. However, I do think it’s a fine piece of work and is most certainly in a class of its own. It’s one of the few films where I can honestly say that “everything about it works” and “not a scene is a waste”. Have at it.
Interested? You can purchase the Blu-Ray here: http://www.amazon.com/Artist-UltraViolet-Digital-Copy-Blu-ray/dp/B00782O7NE/