Evanston RoundTable, Jan. 5, 2012
Silent movies all but disappeared 80 years ago, replaced not by something better, but by something newer, the talkies. Now it seems we’re talked out. Or at least that’s one take on an interesting coincidence: there are currently two wonderful new films paying tribute to the silent era of cinema, in vastly different ways.
The French director Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist” is a film that takes as its subject the silent movie era, utilizing silent film technique. Title cards replace dialogue, and the movie, in black and white, has the slightly tinted look and melodramatic flair of many of the silent classics.
The movie takes place in a beautifully rendered Los Angeles of the late 1920s. The eponymous artist is George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin), whose chiseled good looks and charming personality have propelled him to a highly successful acting career in silent films. Think Douglas Fairbanks Sr. or John Gilbert, with their pencil thin mustaches and slicked back dark hair, starring in dozens of roles of dramatic derring do.
When talkies are introduced, Valentin has no interest in adapting to the new technology. Talkies, he says, are a fad. But as his studio executive (John Goodman) warns him: “People want new faces, talking faces. They want fresh meat.” Valentin turns his back on talking movies, for reasons that are never made quite clear. Pride? Fear? A squeaky voice?
Of course, we never hear his voice, except briefly, at the end. (Sound is introduced at a few key points for dramatic effect.) We can only watch as his career stalls and flames out, while new stars are born. One of them is Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a young actress to whom Valentin is attracted. The way their lives and careers interact is the focus of the movie.
There are nods to other classic films – “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Citizen Kane” come to mind – but mostly the movie works beautifully on its own terms. Like blindness is said to sharpen the other senses, watching a silent movie allows us to focus on the other aspects on screen: the fine acting, the cinematography, even the riveting score. “The Artist” has been nominated for six Golden Globe awards, and Dujardin won best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Its daring embrace of the old technology sets it apart, and its sweet love story and fine story telling make it memorable.
Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” takes place in the same era. Based on an award-winning children’s book written and illustrated by Brian Selznick (related to the legendary Hollywood producer David O. Selznick), the story is about a young boy who lives alone in a Paris train station, fixing the station’s clocks, and trying to fix his own sad life.
The boy, Hugo Cabret (wonderfully played by Asa Butterfield), runs afoul of an old man (Ben Kinglsey) who operates a small toy store inside the station. There are many lovely touches. Sacha Baron Cohen is fine as the comically villainous station inspector. There’s a paean to Harold Lloyd, and even Scorsese gets into the act with a cameo near the end.
Like “The Artist,” the new technology of talking pictures plays a pivotal role in the lives of the characters. It’s impossible to describe how this all relates to early cinema without spoiling the delightful plot.
But the plot is almost beside the point. The trains, the station, the clockworks and the city are rendered as if by Renoir. In the hands of the master Scorsese, every frame is a painting; every scene is an enchantment. This movie is a love song to movies.
For anyone who loves movies, these are two movies to see.