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Now and Then: Do Silent Movies Still Matter?

Now and Then: Do Silent Movies Still Matter?

In some quarters I’ll be considered a heretic for even asking the question. But think about how many people you know — discounting film school types and critics, people pretty much required to do so — who have ever seen a silent film, let alone watch them regularly. I’ll bet the number is small. Should we care?

I think the answer is a definitive yes, but not because of “The Artist,” Michel Hazanavicius’ watered-down pastiche — a skillful, stylish, and enjoyable pastiche, true, but retread of classic Hollywood nonetheless. It doesn’t even come close to living up to its forebears: the kind of riffing exemplified by its breakfast table scene — a play on maybe the most fleet moment in “Citizen Kane,” perfection distilled — reveals the film’s fatal taint. This isn’t the anxiety of influence, it’s plagiarism disguised as “homage” (see clips below).

Hazanavicus’ version isn’t an exact replica but a timid paraphrase, dispensing with the brilliant economy of Welles’s montage: the life a marriage in three minutes, bookended by the deep-focus memory of Gregg Toland’s cinematography. Rather, “The Artist” cherry-picks the details (the stemmed bowl, the newspaper, the editing, the position of the actors) to do a bit of “character development.” The dog is cute. The protagonist is likable. The wife’s a scold. We get it — and we don’t need this scene, in so didactic a film, to do so.

Coupled with all its other allusions, this lack of originality is what renders “The Artist” hollow — and no boon for silent movies, either. I have no hard proof, but anecdotal evidence suggests that “The Artist” led few unacquainted viewers to the wonder of the great silents, or even to Hollywood’s later laments about the passage to sound. Its art-house niche is where many of the surviving silent lovers dwell anyway, and those viewers drawn in from elsewhere would, if they hadn’t already seen Chaplin or Keaton or Kelly or Welles or Wilder, be at a loss to catch the references.

That’s the thing about movies: they don’t usually cite their sources. And so “The Artist,” posited as a brave endeavor in the age of studio tentpoles, suffers from sequelitis as much as any prefab blockbuster. The last thing we need if we want the silents to matter is movies that make them seem a dead letter, unable to change or grow, as the old newsreel had it, with the march of time.  

It’s ironic, then, that “The Artist” won’t revive silent movies but does help us remember why the originals still matter so much. The era before sound was film’s adolescence, beautiful and risky in its own right and deeply formative for what’s come after; filmmakers built the syntax still used by CGI extravaganzas and ribald comedies alike, even if the vocabulary has changed.

It won’t do to turn the silents into a history lesson, a mere influence on later work. They remain fresh, even sometimes heroic, in their audacity. Telling a story without words requires replacing exposition with heightened emotion, enabling a certain kind of pure performance that, to their credit, the stars of “The Artist” capture with aplomb. I’m thinking here of Lillian Gish’s open, troubled face, seeking refuge from her abusive father in “Broken Blossoms” (D.W. Griffith, 1919), or of Emil Jannings’ aging doorman in “The Last Laugh” (F.W. Murnau, 1924), shamed by his family’s discovery that he’s been demoted to bathroom attendant. Words would only give them tools for subterfuge, for dissembling. As it stands, their respective feelings of abandonment and disappointment grow more potent because we have to look into their eyes and read their body language in order to suss out the meaning, as though they were standing before us.

I’m also thinking of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush,” out today in a new Criterion edition, which remains full of verve. It draws on vaudeville, but Chaplin does what Hazanavicius can’t quite manage, which is to take the old forms and create from them something that feels wholly new, almost improvisatory. The cheeky scenes in the Yukon mining outpost — the way The Tramp glances around, embarrassed, as he picks up a torn photo of his dream girl and stuffs it in his coat pocket — do wonders for the hidebound traditions of maudlin romance, and the extended sequence in the cabin, as revelatory now as it was 87 years ago, makes me feel like I’m watching the invention of slapstick. He didn’t invent it, at least not alone, but in “The Gold Rush” he melded it with the surreal fantasy that would come to define his work for United Artists. There’s the iconic boot eating; or Big Jim’s dream of a tasty chicken becoming, momentarily, reality; or the literal cliffhanger, doing more to popularize (and undermine) the laws of physics than any high school science experiment ever did.

Chaplin showcases an immense physical talent and an eye for the telling, funny detail that would put most contemporary comedies to shame, so maybe I’ve been too hard on “The Artist”; maybe most film humor seems derivative when measured against “The Gold Rush.” I don’t think silent movies are coming back, except in periodic re-releases and special screenings designed for those of us who are already fans. It is exceedingly likely that the they will never matter to the mainstream in quite the same way they once did. But I’ll say this: if everyone tempted to see “The Artist” watches “The Gold Rush” instead, the silents have a fighting chance.      

“The Gold Rush” is available today on Blu-ray ($39.95) and DVD ($29.95) from The Criterion Collection. “The Artist” is available for purchase today on Amazon Instant Video ($14.99) and on Blu-ray ($19.96) June 26.

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