The Artist: Hollywood Roots Made in France

Can you venture a guess as to when this film was made? (Don’t scroll down, don’t cheat; just watch.)

It’s a silent French-American film, with an outstanding, almost purist cinematic styling of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist made its way into the Hollywood circuit in November of 2011. (It caused Harvey Weinstein to have an intense film-gasm.) The Artist has only seen a limited release in the US, but it has received unprecedented international acclaim, not to mention some intense Oscar buzz. A film like this – a bold homage to silent film –  instigated talk of career suicide for Hazanavicius, who is best known for French spy-movies such as Nest of Spies and its sequel, Lost in Rio. To the astonishment of many, it prevailed triumphantly and shattered many preconceived notions of modern film, sweeping up awards at the Canes Film Festival, the European Film Awards, and several others.

With a slight narrative similarity to A Star is Born, The Artist depicts a very popular silent film actor, George Valentin, and how his career nose-dives after the arrival of sound, or “The Talkies”. It has everything a great melodrama needs: love, betrayal, the fall to the bottom only to be picked back up by forgiveness and sympathy. Those who doubted the success of a 21st century silent film were certainly within their right minds to do so; there are few alive today that can talk about their experience watching silent film in its true infancy. While much of the historical/popular silent films are preserved and converted to a digital format, the modern audience only knows how to watch films with sound, with witty Judd Apatow dialogue and Michael Bay-sized explosions.

It’s an odd conundrum; removing my disenchanted view of modern-day Tinseltown from the equation, it is safe to assume that film is visual media (duh). It’s easy to spot the automatically Oscar worthy films that come out of Hollywood by judging them on their cinematic style and script. If film is a visual medium, it theoretically should be able to tell a story without sound just as effectively. Why the initial pessimism of Hazanavicius’ film? It is because audiences, and society in general, listen more than they see. To verbalize is to externalize, and since approximately 75% of the population are extroverts, their brains are wired to absorb sound and loud surroundings because it chemically gives them some sort of magic endorphins, hence the need for sound in film. The rest of the population are introverts. who gain their magic endorphins from internalizing thoughts and emotions. Introverts are not shy, nor are they agoraphobic, but an overabundance of external stimuli cause introverts to shut down. They are able to pick up on non-verbal cues and read facial expressions easily, therefore internalizing the character’s emotion and being able to understand the story without a single word or sound. (It’s a plausible reason as to why most artists of various crafts are introverts, and another reason to why I cannot stand Michael Bay films in addition to the poor dialogue and uninteresting plots.)

Of course, all this is just a theory, but it does start to paint a clearer picture of the hesitation of accepting the responsibility of producing a modern silent film. The lack of publicity and local showtimes throughout US cities proves just that. I’m not sure which is more insulting: an audience that has no interest in a fresh approach to film-making, or an industry that “proves” by statistics that its audience is simple-minded and too unintelligent to be interested in something that pushes the boundaries of contemporary film. That line of thinking is limiting and, if Idiocracy is nothing short of a grim outlook on our cultural future, very depressing. I find comfort in European art, particularly film. It’s the nature of the beast, I suppose; film in the US is industrialized and capitalized, run like a Fortune 500 company, while European film is independently funded through government art grants or one’s own pocket.

If there is any indication of why The Artist needs a wider release ASAP, Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 96% rating, with an audience rating of 88%. I am willing to drive the 40-some-odd miles to Los Angeles and shell out 20 bucks just to see this film. The price of a movie ticket is only expensive if the film sucks. Besides, a silent film does not need subtitles or an over-dubbed translation into another language. It is a beautiful experience that invites you to get lost in the images, and allows you to see cinematography at its finest.

Eat your heart out, Twilight.

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