This month sees the opening of a film event we're not often accustomed to seeing - the release of a black and white silent picture. The film is called The Artist and was written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, the fact that his film exists is a miracle during an age of spreadsheet calculated blockbusters and 3D cash-ins but none the less he convinced the Weinsteins to back is passion project despite the huge risk. God bless them!
I would venture as far to say that no other film this year (one of this stature anyway) has created such a reaction and anticipation from critics and audiences. There have been some mighty releases over the year and many fine films, however, it seems that this little humble silent film could be the one to swoop up the goods during the awards season as everyone who sees it seems to fall in love with its many charms. The film's reception is mind blowing but life affirming from a cultural perspective, this film uses no dialogue to communicate to its spectators but only music and detailed physical performances, it's also in black and white which turns a lot of people off, and the biggest star it boasts is John Goodman. Despite all this the film seems to be taking over the lips of the film world as we await its release this month.
The story takes place during 1927 and follows silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), as the transition from silent pictures to 'talkies' seems destined to kill George's career he sparks a relationship with a beautiful young actress (Berenice Bejo) who is set for a big break in the new age of moving pictures.
We've seen this famous and tragic transition of film history played out before, most famously Gloria Swanson's fallen silent star in Sunset Boulevard (1950). My personal favourite silent film - Modern Times (1936) was a film that depicted Charlie Chaplin's reservations on the industry's change. On a more macro level, Modern Times showed Chaplin's fears of the modern industrial age and its responsibility for the hardships of the great American depression. In a similar fashion to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) we see imagery presenting humans fighting technology, resisting it but in the end consumed by it. Chaplin at first had decided that Modern Times would be his first 'talkie' before resisting the idea and clinging on to the format he knew and had mastered.
Like the relationship between the rising industrialised world and the depression that Chaplin presented us with, the same could be said for the transition from silent to 'talkies' as the results are strikingly close:
At the dawn of moving pictures all productions were silent and for decades performers perfected their craft and dedicated their lives to the moving pictures they found themselves in. When technology granted the opportunity for sound to be included, the industry was torn in two; the possibility for sound was exciting to some but of course would brutally redefine the industry and inevitably destroy lives. The Jazz Singer (1927) - the first talking picture redefined cinema for audiences but was responsible for many casualties. The people hit hardest by this change was of course the performers who no longer belonged on the screen due to a failure to adapt or due to unsuitable voices. Lya de Putti one of the great silent performers of the 1920s who with the introduction of sound was made redundant due to her strong Hungarian accent, the famed actress fell into obscurity and died at the age of 31 in a sanatorium with £800 pounds to her name, the amount of money she used to receive weekly. The greatest case however was Lillian Hall-Davis who was Hitchcock's great actress during his silent-era, she wasn't granted access to the new age talkies either and so died at the age of 35 after opening her throat with a razor blade. Like Chaplin's depiction of modern industrialisation costing people their jobs and their lives so was the arrival of talking pictures that was guilty of the same crimes.
[The Jazz singer (1927) did more than just kill the silent-era]
Anyway, lets bring the mood up a bit as it's not all doom and gloom. This month with the arrival of both The Artist and Martin Scorsese's Hugo we have seen a resurgence of love for the dawn of cinema and for the pioneers who were responsible for giving us magical moving pictures. It is great to see filmmakers looking back as far as the silent-era and even as far back as the Melies brothers, and so after the warm positive reception Hugo has gained the same can only be hoped for The Artist as it gets its release this month. The passion of cinema is still alive and with The Artist we not only have passion but a team of filmmakers willing to take a risk and for that we must embrace it.
The Artist is released in the Uk on 30th December