The Artist: A Medium's Lament


The Artist, Warner Bros., 2011

by Chris Baraniuk

The moment you really begin to understand what it means to be watching a silent film in 2012 occurs very near the beginning of Michael Hazanavicius’s The Artist. Fictional 1920s silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), while standing behind the illuminated ‘silver screen’ upon which the credits for his latest hit have just rolled, listens anxiously for the audience’s reaction. We hear nothing but silence, but see his enthusiastic grin signalling the quality of the ensuing applause. Then a shot of the audience fills our own screen and there are hundreds of beautifully dressed, smiling, clapping people, expressing their adoration for Valentin’s rogueish portrayal of his character. This was one of a series of successfully poignant moments in a film which is not a recreation of 1920s cinema insofar as it, while adopting several familiar 1920s cinematographic techniques, instead provides modern audiences with a comment on the disappearance of silent film and, implicitly, the direction of the present-day movie industry.

Symbolic of the cataclysmic shift from one medium to another (‘movie’ to ‘talkie’, in the late 1920s), the film’s protagonist represents the high-minded and self-aggrandizing star who fails to take seriously certain technical advancements in the industry to which he owes his fame. George Valentin is a supremely talented actor, but his audience’s fanaticism is proven to be heartbreakingly fickle when his career is destroyed by the rise of the talkies – a medium in which he has no interest and to which his studio believes fresh-faced, younger actors with American accents are far better suited than he. Washed up and forgotten, Valentin realises he has become the personification of an out-moded medium and his walking obsolescence (as a mute who can hear but not talk) is driven home in one of the only scenes in the film which features sound effects.

What elevates The Artist above the status of a quaintly nostalgic detour through cinema history is the way in which Hazanavicius’s film captures the energy of an age which is at once progressive and destructive; an era in which fortunes were won and lost at a frightening pace and the ‘golden age’ of entertainment was born of technological innovations, ambitious screenplays and hysterical public obsessions with new film stars. When the female actor who usurps Valentin’s unchallenged superiority (Freudian critics take note) boasts in a radio interview that she and her contemporaries have effervescently championed the new craze for talkies, she embodies the carefree and dazzling enthusiasm of a generation which prided itself on ebullience and excess in direct opposition to the fusty traditionalism of its forefathers.

Throughout the film, of course, I was mindful of its implicit contextual commentary. The Artist is far from an anomalous love letter to traditional cinematography at a stable moment in movie history. Rather, it encapsulates the yearning for balance and romanticism common to a turbulent economic era within which record numbers of film sequels are trotted out and visual gimmicks such as stereoscopic 3D have yet to prove that they are worthy of the hype with which film studios announce their arrival. Scepticism similar to that which still hovers around the contemporary popularity of 3D cinema also met the ‘talkies’ when they first appeared in movie theatres, but the transition from movie to talkie was in many ways inevitable and mono-directional. Almost all 3D films are still available in 2D, and no-one would argue, even of the best applications of 3D visual effects, that they fundamentally alter the communication of a film’s narrative to its audience. Talkies, of course, did, and the seismic shift they initiated in cinema remains a singular moment in media history.

The Artist, Warner Bros., 2011

Naturally Hazanavicius wants us to think about these issues as we watch The Artist. His is an industry fraught with the desire to attract movie-pirating aficionados back to picture houses at a time when economic recession and increasingly discerning public opinion-voicing (mainly online) have made it impossible for any studio to blithely ‘give the people what they want.’ The Artist cannot help but engage in a romanticising of the silent movie medium, but then again who could blame the director for doing so? The strange experience of seeing objects collide, and mouths open and close, but only hearing a musical soundtrack, is unnerving for us in a different way from which it was once unnerving for the first ever moviegoers. However, our similar sense of uncertainty and curiosity is an adequate substitute for time travel.

What The Artist has been praised for, above and beyond all other attributes, is its ability to communicate so effectively the humour, surprise, distress, excitement and romance of the script – without a single audible word. Indeed, the film makes a special effort to avoid the incorporation of language wherever possible, using fewer screen-cards than many of the silent films it reminds us of. Instead we are taught to interpret and marvel at the fantastic facial expressions of Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman. Their ‘mugging’ is discovered by us, even from the high vantage point of our 21st Century, to be a perfectly intense and appropriate way of telling a story. It thrusts into one’s consciousness the question which all feverish adoptions of new media leave trailing in the wind: do we really need this? Whether it be audio tracks, 3D, HD, the internet, e-books or whatever, taking a questioning, sceptical approach to the arrival of any new medium is the exact position promoted by Kevin Kelly in his book What Technology Wants (2010) and is directly inspired by the caution practised by the isolated Amish communities of North America who adopt new technologies only on a case-by-case basis, and always tentatively.

Any new medium invites a rush to popularity. This is painfully obvious as the object of 3D-promoters today. My personal opinion is that 3D has yet to prove that it can redefine a medium in the same fundamental way that sound tracks did just under 100 years ago. But eventually some movie event will come along and, somehow, do just the same thing with 3D, and no doubt it will be marvellous. The Artist is not an attack on the direction taken by big movie bosses today. Rather, it is a lament which implores us simply to acknowledge the consequences of upheavals in any industry thanks to the inception of new technologies.

The Wikipedia page which discusses the historic changes ushered in (no pun intended) by the talkies includes a fascinating insight into an increasingly familiar inclination to mistrust the mechanical as being a destructor of humanity. A quintessentially modernist text, the advertisement, ‘Canned Music On Trial’ which appeared in a 1929 edition of the Pittsburgh Press vociferously challenged the redundancy of traditional cinema orchestras in the face of the new pre-recorded movie soundtracks. The piece championed “Real Music” in favour of coldly “mechanical music” and proclaimed, “Musical authorities know that the soul of the Art is lost in mechanisation. It cannot be otherwise because the quality of music is dependent on the mood of the artist, upon the human contact, without which the essence of intellectual stimulation and emotional rapture is lost.”

Piece crossposted with The Machine Starts