SILENT… BUT DEADLY?
As you may have heard, Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist” (The Weinstein Company, 11/23, ?, trailer) — which made a big splash at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (where it was a serious contender for the Palm d’Or and its star Jean Dujardin was named best actor), and which will soon be seen again at the Toronto International Film Festival — is not only in black-and-white, but also silent!
Many credible analysts — including Harvey Weinstein, who is as savvy an Oscar-prospector as anyone, and whose studio purchased the film’s rights shortly after Cannes — believe that it is visually beautiful/emotionally powerful enough to seriously factor into this year’s Oscar race.
But could a silent film, in this day and age, actually catch on with the public and/or Oscar voters?
Most people today dismiss silent movies as lacking something — namely, sound — but that’s not a particularly enlightened position. After all, sound was not one of the storytelling tools available to filmmakers prior to 1927, so they had to rely more heavily on others, such as lighting and cinematography, both of which were developed into true artforms during that time, (i.e. close-up and/or moving camera shots). And while it’s true that much of the acting in silent movies now seems either stiff or over the top, that’s because the more natural form of acting to which we are more accustomed (and that was made famous by the likes of John Garfield, Marlon Brando, and James Dean, with their groans, grunts, and stutters) would not have registered nearly as well without sound, whereas the more expressive pantomime of, say, Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky, in a film like “The Son of the Sheik” (1926), managed to overcome that hurdle and get a story across to audiences.
When “talkies” first arrived in the form of “The Jazz Singer” (1927), many people mourned the end of the silent era. Sound movies, they correctly noted, were arriving just as silent movies were reaching unprecedented levels of artistry — i.e. F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” (1927), the first best picture Oscar winner — and would inevitably shift the attention of filmmakers away from the visual and towards the aural. As the film critic/theorist Andre Bazin put it in his posthumously-published book “What Is Cinema?” (1958): “By 1928, the silent film had reached its artistic peak. The despair of its elite as they witnessed the dismantling of this ideal city, while it may not have been justified, is at least understandable. As they followed their chosen aesthetic path it seemed to them that the cinema had developed into an art most perfectly accomodated to the ‘exquisite embarassment’ of silence, and that the realism that sound would bring could only mean a surrender to chaos.”
Other noteworthy sentiments from before and after the arrival of sound:
- “Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.” –Mary Pickford, silent-era actress; see “Sparrows” (1926)
- “While watching a silent picture, each individual supplies the unspoken words according to his own understanding of the action. The dullard sees the story in his own way, as does the intelligent, the wise, and so on—each one, as I said before, supplying his own understanding and everyone is pleased. But when the actor gives through the spoken word his own interpretation—then—well, there is bound to be disappointment. Yes, the talkie is undoubtedly entertainment, but in my opinion lacks charm.” –Charlie Chaplin, silent-era actor/director; see “The Gold Rush” (1925)
- “Silent movies were well on their way to developing an entirely new art form. It was not just pantomime, but something wonderfully expressive… When sound came in, imagination went out.” –Lillian Gish, silent-era actress; see “Broken Blossoms” (1919)
- “When sound first came in, that’s when popcorn and all the drinks started, and necking in the theater, because you could turn away and do all sorts of things and still hear. You wouldn’t miss anything—the sound would take care of it. But in silent pictures you had to just sit there and try to figure it out.” –King Vidor, silent-era director; see “The Big Parade” (1925)
A few people — mostly high-profile artists who could afford to have independent streaks — insisted on making silent movies even after sound movies became commonplace, and some of those films turned out to be great masterpieces that have stood the test of time. Among them: Luis Bunuel’s “Un Chien Andalou” (1929), F.W. Murnau’s “City Girl” (1930) and “Tabu” (1931), Yasujiro Ozu’s “I Was Born, But…” (1932) and “A Story of Floating Weeds” (1934), and, most famously, Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” (1931) and “Modern Times” (1936).
Eventually, though, the Hollywood studio chiefs really clamped down on silent movies in the sound era — indeed, the closest they came to silent movies was ruthlessly satirizing them in films like “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) and “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) — and so they basically just went away. Even after the fall of the studio system in the fifties, people avoided them like the plague, for fear — probably quite justified — that they would be box-office poison. I can think of only one truly silent movie made/released in my lifetime — Dan Pritzker’s “Louis” (2010) — and that passed through art house theaters with barely a whimper.
The point of all of this history is to make it quite clear that “The Artist” is a rare sort of film that will serve as an interesting case-study for the American film industry. If it’s as good as people say it is, then it deserves to find an audience. If it doesn’t find much of an audience, which is probably what is to be expected, then that will confirm our existing notion that silent movies cannot exist in the era of sound movies. If, however, it does manage to break through and does well, then perhaps other filmmakers will also try to challenge themselves by working within the limitations of silence, just like some of the greatest filmmakers who came before them.
I’ll certainly be watching — if not listening — closely!
Photo: Jean Dujardin in “The Artist.” Credit: The Weinstein Company.
Tags: A Story of Floating Weeds, Andre Bazin, Broken Blossoms, Charlie Chaplin, City Girl, City Lights, Dan Pritzker, F.W. Murnau, Harvey Weinstein, I Was Born But..., James Dean, Jean Dujardin, John Garfield, King Vidor, Lillian Gish, Louis, Luis Bunuel, Marlon Brando, Mary Pickford, Michel Hazanavicius, Modern Times, Rudolph Valentino, Singin' in the Rain, Sparrows, Sunrise, Sunset Boulevard, Tabu, The Artist, The Big Parade, The Gold Rush, The Jazz Singer, The Son of the Sheik, Un Chien Andalou, Vilma Banky, What Is Cinema?, Yasujiro Ozu