The Artist has become the fifth silent film (and first since 1929) to be nominated for Best Picture. What about the movie’s snippets of dialogue and sound effects? Never mind those—if it’s not exactly a silent film in the strict definition, then at least we can agree it’s pretty quiet throughout. (I had a similar thought at the news that The Artist might be the first black-and-white feature to win the award since Schindler’s List: Was Spielberg’s film really in black-and-white? What about the color scenes at the very beginning and the end, and the girl in the red coat? Shouldn’t we call it a black-and-whitish film instead?)
There’s another throwback element in The Artist, and one that may not suffer from such half-measures: So far as I know, it’s one of only two feature films ever to have been nominated for Best Picture that features a scene involving quicksand.
The only Oscar-winning quicksand moment in the history of the Academy Awards occurred 40 years ago, in Lawrence of Arabia, when (spoiler alert!) Peter O’Toole watched his companion sink into the Sinai desert during a dust storm and then buried his face in anguish. As I’ve argued in Slate, this was the high-water mark for quicksand in the movies, and in the culture at large: A scene of sinking in a serious film, presented with gravity and grandiloquence. Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for 10 awards that year, and won 7.
Quicksand soon entered the mainstream as a metaphorical danger in Vietnam and a literal danger on the surface of the moon, and seeped into highbrow culture as well. In 1964, it returned to the Oscars by way of the art-house, with the Japanese existentialist masterpiece Woman in the Dunes. (That film’s main character escapes from the sand pit in which he’s trapped only to fall into a pool of dry quicksand a minute later.) A quicksand movie from overseas was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director.
Then the golden age of quicksand began to wane, and quicksand all but disappeared from the Academy Awards. The only time since the mid-1960s that a movie with a sinking scene even got close to the Best Picture category was in 1975, when the Mel Brooks spoof Blazing Saddles received nominations for Best Editing, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Song. (That last category is the only one The Princess Bride was recognized in 13 years later.) But the plot device had lost its primary appeal, and now served as the object of satire, not drama.
There were a couple of instances of near-quicksand making its way into the Oscars ceremony after Blazing Saddles. The trash-compactor scene from Star Wars, nominated in the late 1970s, can be seen as a kind of quicksand-on-its-side, with the drama of sinking transposed 90 degrees. Toy Story 3, nominated for last year’s awards, has a similar scene in which the characters are being sucked along a conveyor belt toward a garbage-melting inferno. The retro-quicksand in The Artist seems to be the real thing: A pool of old-fashioned jungle muck that pulls its hero slowly downward.
Seems to be, but isn’t: Just as The Artist stops short of being a true silent film, so does its invocation of quicksand tiptoe to the edge of the adventure gag without ever jumping in. The mud appears only in a film-within-a-film sequence, and its sucking action serves as a metaphor for the protagonist whose career, like quicksand itself, has begun to seem antiquated and obsolete. Director Michel Hazanavicius gives us a special, modern kind of quicksand, then—not the dramatic plot device of Lawrence of Arabia or Woman in the Dunes, nor the satirical quicksand of Blazing Saddles or The Princess Bride, but an ironic quicksand: The kind that draws meaning from its own inadequacy. The Artist has a pool of sinking mud for the same reason that it was shot (almost) silent and in black and white. It’s self-consciously anachronistic.
We’ve seen ironic quicksand before: In 2008, Steven Spielberg added some, with a wink, to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. When Harrison Ford, the creaky hero of a defunct series of adventure films, begins to sink into muck, we’re seeing one useless old-timer merge with another. But a similar move in The Artist stumbles on its false nostalgia: The idea that a silent-film actor in the early 1930s would long for the days of quicksand doesn’t make sense, because the best days of quicksand were still to come.
I’m guessing that Hazanavicius drew inspiration for his quicksand sequence from a film called Trader Horn, released in 1931—just the time when Hollywood was switching over to talkies. Trader Horn was notable for being the first feature to be shot on location in Africa, and its hero swings on a vine over crocodile-infested waters, and handles other jungle perils both real and imagined. Like The Artist, the film was nominated for Best Picture, but what sources I can find suggest that it did not include any scenes of quicksand. (If I’m wrong about that, please leave a comment below or send me an email.)
The gag did appear, however, when Trader Horn was remade in 1973, at the end of quicksand’s golden age, although the new version received no Oscar nominations. The adventure film King Solomon’s Mines tells a similar story: When it was first released, sans quicksand in 1950, the movie was nominated for Best Picture; then producers added quicksand to the plot for a star-studded remake 35 years later, and got shut out by the Academy.
That is to say, the classic adventure films of Hollywood’s early years were exactly the ones that didn’t have quicksand. So while the quicksand in The Artist very clearly (and cleverly) invokes a nostalgia for the early years of cinema—for the silent-film conventions and naïve serial gags of the 1910s and 1920s—real quicksand only started to spread many decades later. At a time when old-timers were either adapting to sound or getting flushed out of the business, the golden age of quicksand had yet to begin.