The Art of Silence

Great film without the fuss of modern styles.
Great film without the fuss of modern styles.

I recently watched the marvelous film, The Artist. I was totally enchanted by the concept and the setting, having a deep affection for silent films and the art of coherent story telling using very little words. The movie has a seemingly simple plot: that of a well known movie star (equivalent to Douglas Fairbanks), George Valentin, who is soon to be replaced by the advent of talking pictures. He meets a pretty young woman named Peppy Miller, who wants to be an actress. He gives her some advice, including drawing a beauty mark on her face; setting into motion her career and the downfall of his own. He struggles with his identity, failing to see that his gifts as an artist extend beyond his own niche.

The people who love him show true loyalty—even his costar dog ends up saving his life. The old school Hollywood happy ending neatly ties up the movie, bringing to a close an extremely well done essay on what motion pictures used to be like. There is a beautiful scene set on the stairs in the Bradbury building in downtown Los Angeles, where Peppy and George share a conversation. The scene is shot from three vantage points, over his shoulder, over her shoulder, and one long shot showcasing the whole of the atrium of the building. Nowhere do zoom shots, shaky handheld footage, or anything resembling a steadicam appear.

Bradbury Building staircase, fantastic cinematography.
Bradbury Building staircase, fantastic cinematography.

The compositions of the scenes tend toward the actors, using the old 4:3 standard that was common during the golden age. The rich black and white leads us to see the images on screen in an almost stylized way; there is no attempt at “realism.” All of the scenes set on the streets of Hollywood are obviously shot on the New York backlot, fulfilling the classic movie trope of “Any Street, USA.” The technical consideration of using only filming styles of the 1920s and 1930s is compelling and deceptively simple, adding immensely to the quality and character of movie.

There is something about the truly great silent films that modern film makers have forgotten: Story is equal to style. I don’t need giant robots exploding, or death defying action goddesses leaping from crashing jets, and I definitely don’t want recycled garbage remakes that are now standard in the Cineplex. For every Modern Times or Wizard of Oz, 2001: A Space Odyssey or Cloud Atlas; there are a dozen dozen Charlie’s Angels Meet Godzilla or Teen Rage Racers Blow Up Manhattan.

I wish somebody would just yell Cut!

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