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Wednesday, August 3, 2011
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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.

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  • Not sure what to make of the fart-referencing title of this piece, but I’m certainly intrigued about the possibilities of modern film techniques applied to the most arcane of cinema.

    Got another quote for you lamenting sound, from Tilda Swinton at Cannes this year: “Films were ruined the moment someone started talking in them.”

  • Minor correction: first best picture winner was “Wings” — “Sunrise” did win for cinematography and was nominated for art direction.

    • Dennis,
      That’s not quite accurate — there was no “best picture” at the first Academy Awards, but rather two similar awards, “most artistic quality of production” and “most outstanding production” that history has regarded as representing the same thing.

      As explained on the Wikipedia page for “Wings” (if I had the time right now I could provide you with an even more solid source):

      “On May 16, 1929, the first ever Academy Award ceremony was held at the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood to honor outstanding film achievements of 1927 and 1928. Wings was entered in a number of categories but in contrast with later awards, there was no Best Picture award. Instead, there were two separate awards for production, the Most Artistic Quality of Production, won by Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) and the Most Outstanding Production, won by Wings as well as Best Effects, Engineering Effects for Roy Pomeroy.

      The following year, the Academy instituted a single award called Best Production, and decided retroactively that the award won by Wings had been the equivalent of that award, with the result that Wings is often listed as the winner of a sole Best Picture award for the first year. The title of the award was eventually changed to Best Picture for the 1931 awards.”

      • Scott, thanks for the clarification. I had for gotten about the “unique and artistic picture” accolade, but I have never equated that with “best picture” or “best production” for “Sunrise.”

        Interestingly, Osborne’s “80 Years of the Oscar” (subtitled “The Official History of the Academy Awards”) uses “Outstanding Picture” for the category in which “Wings” won and “Unique or Artistic Picture” for the “Sunrise” win. I’ve looked at the old Unger index, Osborne’s earlier Oscar books, and other hard-copy references, but I can’t seem to find any text that duplicates Wikipedia’s mention of the retroactive move. I’m sure that’s what happened, but no book refers to “Sunrise” as a best picture winner — and that was the basis of my comment.

        I had meant to thank you in my initial comment for your perspective and history on silence and sound in movies and the consideration of the response to the upcoming “The Artist.” It will certainly be something to watch and monitor, with regard to both audience response and award consideration.

        With gratitude for your attention to detail and history . . .

  • @dialmformovies

    Great article.    Worth noting , the last silent film nominated for Best Pictures was ‘The Patriot’ (1928).  I believe it is still the only Best Picture nominated film that is ‘lost’.

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