I love silent movies. Fire up a Humphrey Bogard special or a Charlie Chaplin classic, and I’m all set to be entertained for the next two hours. Beautiful classical music, emotive facial and body expressions, dialogue kept to a mere minimal. Silent movies were always meant to be an escape- not to imitate life, but to be larger than it. Watching a silent movie today- where directors are far more concerned about realism, is like a throwback experience. Fun, but well, we’re glad that’s over.
Nowhere was this more true than when I recently watched the Best Picture favourite, “The Artist”. All I’d seen before the movie was a one-liner synopsis: ‘silent movie star struggles to adapt to talking cinema.’ I certainly wasn’t expecting a movie that was entirely silent. But, well, it was. Even in the critical middle of the movie, when a transition is being made from silent movies to ‘talkies’ and we finally hear a voice for the first time, it turns out to be the voice of a female singer. Nope, no dialogue here. Move along now…
Silent Films are not subtle
For a silent film to go beyond ‘fun’ and be artistic and serious, it turns out, subtlety need not apply. “The Artist” is just about the most in-your-face arthouse film you’ll ever see. For example, the star’s last silent movie, his swansong, is screamingly titled ‘Tears of Love’. Just in case you don’t get it, we spend two minutes watching the actor die in the last scene of his movie: sinking slowly but surely into quicksand, never to return from oblivion.
There are tonnes of examples like this. As the one-time star crosses the road having just auctioned off everything he owned, a billboard in the distance flashes the film for the day: “Lonely Star”. And when the actor finally decides to see a talkie, he chooses one starring a girl he had a crush on, and who’s been silently looking out for him. The film’s name? “Guardian Angel”.
Then of course, there’s the fact that his best friend in the whole show, a great fellow actor, who at one point also saves his life, is a star that can never talk: his dog. At one point, as the actor walks out from “Guardian Angel”, a woman stops him. Is his fame still lingering? Does she remember? No, she wants to see his dog. “If only he could talk!” Our star sighs. Of course, the one refusing to talk- refusing to act in a ‘talkie’- is the star himself.
No worries. There is a happy ending, as there always is. The star does finally decide to act in a ‘talkie’. In the movie’s final five minutes, the star makes an amazing transition, skipping past the entire ‘talking drama’ genre, and reinventing him and his costar as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, tap dancing extraordinaires. So the artist gets to remain an artist (now throwing himself into dance), while finding a way to become relevant again.
Astaire himself would have appreciated the irony of this ending, having once quipped, ‘the actors today… they think they can dance with their faces!’ Dancing with his face is what the star of this movie, one George Valentin (movie name) does best. His smile is megawatt, up there among the best of them, and his ability to emote expressions is wonderful. But perhaps the greatest trick of acting he pulls off only gets revealed in the last scene. There he stands, having just finished a dance with his co-star, in the American studio “Kinograph”, for the American film “Sparkle of Love”, evoking one of the greatest American stars of them all, when he utters his only words of the movie.
“Perfect take, George… But can you do it again?”
That single scene sums up the best and the worst of a silent movie. A silent movie is truly art, and needs the finest director and actor to guide the plot so the audience wouldn’t get lost. But it was also an exceedingly difficult genre, and anything not-obvious (in this case, that the American star is in fact French(!!!)) would easily be missed.
“The Artist” is a movie with excellent acting, with great direction, but with a fluffy popcorn plot. In that sense, it’s very unlike most other Oscar nominees (the script seems to be serious + boring = winner). So why is it, in fact, a leading Best Picture contender? I think this reviewer sums it up best:
“If you’re looking for an explanation to all the Oscar buzz, then consider this — like Valentin, Hollywood loves few things more than its own reflection. No surprise they’ve fallen hard for the simple pleasures of The Artist.”