The Artist, Hugo, The Adventures of Tintin: Are We in a New Golden Age of Silent Cinema?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Nov. 21 2011 7:22 AM

The Return of Silent Cinema

The Artist isn’t the only movie harkening back to the time before talkies.

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This is fine as far as it goes, but if it’s the soul of cinema we’re fighting over, “the cinema of moments, of images, of sensory stimuli increasingly divorced from story” has a far greater claim on cinema’s central nervous system than the woozy psychedelia of Easy Rider. Looked at one way, Star Wars did not betray cinema at all but plugged it back into the mains, returning the medium, after a brief spell of aesthetic etiolation, to its roots as a carnival sideshow, a magic act, one big special effect, punching through the fourth wall and rocking the audience back in their seats, as they were first rocked by the Lumière brothers’ cho-choo trains.

Star Wars is basically a silent film, was designed to be a silent film,” said George Lucas when I interviewed him for my book Blockbuster. “In terms of people’s aesthetics, especially critics: They complained bitterly when sound came in, that the medium had been destroyed, but the concept of cinema started as a vaudeville show. It started as a magic act. They took the magician off the bill, put up this sheet and they ran this magic thing, where you could see things you couldn’t see. They say summer is now dominated by films that are aimed towards kids. Well, kids are the audience. It’s a market-driven medium and it always has been.”

So if Star Wars reset the clock, and the last 30 years of film have basically been the first 30 years of film on steroids, where are we now? Currently in the middle of the most frenzied period of technological innovation the medium has seen since the arrival of sound: go-motion, blue screen, green screen, CGI, motion capture, morphing, bullet time, digital compositing, virtual cinematography, 3-D, rotoscoping…  It is against this backdrop that The Artist takes on a fresh lick of relevance. The tale of a vain, swashbuckling silent movie star called George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who turns up his nose at talkies and embarks instead on his own self-financed silent folly, the movie is essentially a tale of one man’s hubris in the face of new technology.

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“You belong to another era,” says the cigar-chomping studio chief Al Zimmer (John Goodman), a message with added resonance for all the setmakers, scenery dressers, actors, and directors who have been forced up the beach by the incoming tide of technology—instead of the talkies, think T Rexes or talking apes. Maybe The Artist’s path through the various guilds necessary to secure a best picture win won’t be quite so steep after all.