Was on a long-haul flight yesterday, and my headset didn't have sound in one ear. Instead of asking for a replacement, I decided to finally watch The Artist, a (near) silent movie which lorded over everything else at the Oscars this year.
I imagine the internet has provided tons of exegesis already, which I haven't read. I knew enough about the film to not be particularly interested in seeing it when it was out – it was about the fall / rise of two kinds of film technology and acting methods, and it was good. I preferred to spend my cinema money where the set-up appealed more (Cronenberg doing Freud!) and quality was disputed (Diablo Cody doing anything), thus maximizing the possibility of uncovering underrated movies to champion (Jane Eyre, Thor) and buttressing my self-image as a discerning viewer who stands apart / opposed to the consensus. What, that's not why you watch films?
The Artist is good, turns out. Two things I noticed (and right now I should come out and say I have NO experience with silent cinema). The first is that (unlike some) I did think it gave you some idea of what telling a story w/o sound looks like. Everything is pushed out more: acting, framing, visual symbols all arch and in-your-face. This got me thinking about Mark Kermode's 3D concession on Hugo (another movie about the history of movies) as effective because it works to alienate the audience from the action (he has a posher term for this, something to do with Brecht). Does The Artist also aim to do this by being a silent movie? How far does suspension of disbelief go in such a medium? Is immersion within the story ever completely achieved in a world where people talk thru intertitles? In certain moments, I think. Immersion / estrangement in a constant tussle while I was watching. Perhaps I'm just bad at multi-tasking.
Speaking of arch symbols, my fave is a shot where the shadow of a teardrop falls across Valentin's face. Which gets at the second thing I noticed – Valentin's talent as a silent film star, and struggle with the talkies, used as a metaphor for silent stoic male pride assaulted by the selfless feminine. Trust me to bring gender into everything, but I wonder if the rise of Peppy Miller nods towards the history of female empowerment in the 20th century. Not a theme you can really bang on about, in light of the male gaze still dominating the reproduction of images of women. But Hazanavicius may have had it in mind. Anyway, I thought Valentin's character was actually quite complex and interesting – a guy who has to learn to operate in a context where showmanship is being replaced with real feeling, in the arts and in relationships.