AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Don Simpson | October 28, 2011
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Writer: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, James Cromwell, John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Bitsie Tulloch
Most of us remember that video killed the radio star, but how often do we ruminate upon the fact that talkies killed the silent film? For those of you who have not brushed up on your film history in a while: Until the 1920s, films were made with no synchronized recorded sound — this means there is no spoken dialogue. Instead, the “dialogue” of silent films is communicated via facial expressions, body gestures, and title cards. Attempts to create sync-sound films might go back to the Edison lab (circa 1896), but it was not until the 1920s that sound-on-disc and sound-on-film sound formats such as Photokinema (1921), Phonofilm (1923), Vitaphone (1926), Fox Movietone (1927), and RCA Photophone (1928) came into common practice. The Jazz Singer (1927) is often toted as the first commercially successful sound film; and, by 1929, the modern sound film era totally dominated Hollywood.
But, come 1929, silent films were not discontinued completely; in fact, some of the most important silent films in the history of cinema were made after sync-sound became the norm. Charlie Chaplin made his two seminal silent films — City Lights and Modern Times — in 1931 and 1936 respectively; Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel released their groundbreaking silent film — Un Chien Andalou — in 1929; and Yasujiro Ozu released I Was Born, But… in 1932 and A Story of Floating Weeds in 1934. Flash forward a couple decades and Jacques Tati was releasing silent films such as Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot in 1953; Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie came out in 1976; and Guy Maddin’s short film The Heart of the World was released in 2000 and his feature-length silent, Brand Upon the Brain! came out in 2006.
We are here today, however, to discuss the most recently added to the silent film cannon — the 2011 French film The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies; OSS 117: Lost in Rio)…
It is very difficult to fault The Artist for anything. This, a silent film that created a lot of buzz when it competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival; and even though it lost to The Tree of Life, Jean Dujardin still walked away with the Best Actor prize. For any lover of silent cinema, such as myself, the attention and recognition received by The Artist is quite important to the otherwise lost art form. And while I find it questionable that The Artist will find much theatrical success in the United States, I do think it has the power to sweep whoever does see it off of their feet. In many ways, The Artist is precisely what cinema is all about: pure, unbridled escapism…
Shot on luscious black and white (of course!) 35mm by Guillaume Schiffman, Hazanavicius’ film is incredibly beautiful to watch. Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, James Cromwell, and John Goodman prove to be amazing silent film thespians; in fact, The Artist is able to rely upon very few title cards, thanks solely to the keen pantomime skills of the actors. I have said it before and I will say it again, silent films require much more than mere “mugging” for the camera (personally, I think it takes a lot of talent on behalf of the actors and directors to tell a coherent story without spoken dialogue).
So, like I said earlier, it is difficult to fault The Artist for anything. (And by now, my thesis adviser has already died of a cardiac arrest due to my lack of intellectualism.) That said — I am not sure The Artist holds a candle to any of my favorite silent films, so I will have to hold here with an 8 out of 10. But, if you want to read a much more favorable take (and a more traditional — less rambling — review), please check out Linc Leifeste’s 10 out of 10 review.