Of all the cinematic surprises of 2011—the ascendency of Elizabeth Olsen, the excellence of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Woody Allen’s return as hit-maker—the renaissance of silent cinema was probably the hardest to see coming down the pike. When Harvey Weinstein enthused about a silent back-and-white film, starring two unknown French stars, which he’d just bought at Cannes, brother Bob suggested he check himself into a mental asylum. After it received a 15-minute standing ovation, Michel Hazanavicius’ homage to the days of swashbuckling matinee idols, iris shots, and Busby Berkeley dance numbers, The Artist, was marked up by Oscarologists as the outside favorite to win best picture.
Come Nov. 23, cinemagoers will have a choice of two valentines to the silent era: The Artist or Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s 3-D adaptation of Brian Selznick’s best-selling children’s book, whose poster echoes Harold Lloyd’s clock shenanigans in Safety Last (1923) and whose final 25 minutes turn into a loving revivification of the earliest days of cinema, from George Méliès A Trip to the Moon to the Lumière brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, which sent its audience flying in panic from the theatre to avoid being crushed by that train. For the earliest filmgoers, 2-D was 3-D enough. “Two ladies in one of the boxes on the left-hand of the horseshoe, which is just where the flyer vanishes from view, screamed and nearly fainted as it came apparently rushing upon them,” ran one newspaper’s account of a similar film, Empire State Express, in 1897. “They recovered in time to laugh at their needless excitement.”
Finally, in December, we have The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the much-loved Belgian comic strip, a movie whose sight gags and breakneck pace hail back to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and from there to the hey-day of Mack Sennett and the Keystone cops. Nobody could accuse modern blockbusters of silence, but the aesthetics of silent cinema—its favoring of the visual over the literary, action beats over dialogue, international markets over domestic— is alive and well. Over at Pixar, filmmakers have been steadily mining Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to give us the opening 20 minutes of Wall-E and the first ten minutes of Up—modern silent-movie classics. Meanwhile, James Cameron’s Avatar, whose earthling-alien romance, like that in E.T., proceeded via sign language (I-see-you), marked the evolution of an international movie grammar which vaulted borders and left critical sniping about Cameron’s creaky dialogue looking like the nit-picking of flat-earthers. And the guilty secret of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies? They play equally well with the sound down, if not better.
“The eye and mind are both bewildered by the too sudden and too frequent shifts of scene,” wrote William Eaton in American Magazine. “There is a terrible sense of rush and hurry and flying about, which is intensified by the twitching film and generally whang-bang music.” Eaton wrote this in 1914, but it could as easily pass muster as a critical harrumph from the summer of 2011. In fact, the further back you push, the more familiar it gets, as dialogue, plots, and characters all fall away to reveal an exo-skeleton of pure action beats. The very first movies were by definition action movies, made fast and sold by the brand (“every day a Biograph feature”) to an audience made up of largely immigrants and teens, all demanding something “happening every minute, allowing for no padding with word-painting, following climax after climax” as the Brooklyn Eagle put it in 1906. “The backbone of today’s business is the attendance of young people from seventeen to twenty-three years of age,” sniffed Harold Corey in Everybody’s Magazine in 1919. “At 23 other interests develop.”
For The Lonedale Operator, D. W. Griffith mounted his camera on the front of a speeding train in order to better capture the rush; for A Girl and Her Trust, he placed it onboard a car that was racing alongside a racing train, with another car in hot pursuit. His mastery of intercutting between parallel action reached its apogee in the chase sequence of The Birth of a Nation. When that film was released, in 1916, the film’s cinematographer, Karl Brown, noted “bigger and better, bigger and better became the constantly chanted watchwords of the year. Soon the two words became one. Bigger meant better, and a sort of giganticism overwhelmed the world, especially the world of motion pictures.” In many ways, this whiz-bang landscape of thrill rides, cheap scares, and teen kicks feels closer to us than the Golden Age of the 1940s and 1950s or even the 1960s and 1970s, when Hollywood, high on a mixture of the French new wave, auteurism, and pot, enjoyed an unparalleled creative growth spurt, one cut cruelly short by the kerr-ching of the cash registers for Jaws, and the boom of the laser cannons in Star Wars. As we all know by heart now, those two blockbusters flushed delicate arthouse sensitivities down the garbage chute and “pioneered the cinema of moments, of images, of sensory stimuli increasingly divorced from story” in Peter Biskind’s formulation.