I was an eighties kid, I grew up in a time of neon and spectacle, where everything was becoming louder and more elaborate, not just movies, but music, fashion, opinion. Eighties movies were bright and bold, full of ghost catchers and time travelling deloreans, experience of anything else was usually caught idly on a rainy afternoon home from school, like the Carry On’s or Dr. Who and the Daleks. Imagination and farce would always win out.
The chances of watching anything black & white would have been unlikely, of course they were on, I just wouldn’t have watched them, and silent films were unheard of. As far as I was concerned if it was black & white it was old, but the thought of them not having any sound, bar a later recorded piano track, would never have crossed my mind.
I’ve seen some Chaplin and some Keaton, but as far as I can recall I’ve only ever watched one silent movie, from start to finish, 1925’s Phantom of the Opera, starring one the three kings of early monster movies, Lon Chaney.
1930 saw the rapid emergence of the ‘Talkies’, initially deemed a gimmick, with their meteoric rise came the equal demise of the silent era. Chaney however didn’t have the problem of having to make the transition, as he died from a combination of pneumonia and lung cancer that same year.
Now except for the slapstick comedy of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the movies of Chaney, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi the silent world has been left to die in peace, that was until recently, climbing from its coffin like Lugosi’s Dracula, coming back for one last scare.
Set at the tail end of the silent era, the film follows Movie star George Valentin, who at the height of his stardom helps kick start the career of Peppy Miller. As Miller’s star status starts to rise cinema gets a facelift with the arrival of the ‘Talkies’. Miller finds no problem transitioning from silent to sound, and her star only shines brighter.
Valentin however dismisses ‘Talkies’ as a fad, concentrating all his efforts in to silent films, and when the studio he’s contracted to won’t make silents anymore, he finances his own film. Unfortunately Valentin’s film opens the same day as Miller’s, and between poor ticket sales and stock market crash Valentin is bankrupted.
Valentin then spirals down into drink and depression, and it’s only with the help of Miller that he’s able to get his life back on track, and except that the world he knew has gone.
When I sat down to watch The Artist I knew it was about the silent era of cinema, I knew it was in black & white, I knew the basic plot of the film, I didn’t however realise that the majority of the film, except for the soundtrack, was actually silent.
There is the odd flashcard with some dialogue, to give the scene a bit more information, but it’s almost entirely free of sound. It’s something that you don’t notice straight away either, as the film starts with an audience, watching a silent film. It’s not until the star of that film, and star of this one, comes on stage at the end, presumably it’s the premiere, and silently introduces himself.
Once you come to realise the film is actually silent it feels a bit weird, as a part of a modern audience there’s something almost unnatural about it. It might be partly the fact I wasn’t prepared for it; I don’t remember having quite the same feeling watching Phantom of the Opera. But it is something you get used to.
The Artist won five Academy Awards, for Best picture (making it the first French film win, and the first silent(ish) film to win since 1927), Best Director, Best Actor for Jean Dujardin as Valentin (the first French man to win), as well as best original score, and Best costume design.
All of which I think are deserved accolades, this is a filmmakers film, a beautiful recreation of silent movies and the era from which they herald. I don’t think it’s a film most will watch twice, but is certainly an experience you won’t forget.
I wonder if we’ll now get re-emergence of silent cinema, like we did with Grindhouse after the Rodriguez/Tarantino double feature Planet Terror/Deathproof? But I doubt it.