Tag Archives: Silent Film

The Artist (2011)

The Artist

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius

France, 2011, Silent, 100 minutes

“I’m the one people come to see.  They never needed to hear me.”‘

– George Valentin

I saw the Artist a couple of weeks ago, and since it may very well win the Oscar for Best Picture next week, I thought I would share my opinions on it.  First of all, I enjoyed the movie.  As I walked out of the theater I could only think that film, at as artform, is primarily about images.  With every new innovation, we continue to build this edifice on top of that foundation, whether those innovations are in sound, deep focus, stop motion animation, jump cuts, CGI, or what have you.  Sometimes it’s refreshing to visit the basement from time to time.

The Artist introduces us to silent film superstar George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who along with his little dog, is on top of the world.  He exudes the pure joy of a man who loves his work and everything about it.  His wife (Penelope Ann Miller) doesn’t seem to care for him much, but George is so smitten with himself that he barely notices.  This begins to change when a fan named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) cuts into George’s spotlight for a moment.  While George is still riding high for a time, the advent of sound makes silent starts like George obsolete in the studio’s eyes (think Douglas Fairbanks).

The minute that “The Jazz Singer” (1927) came out, the world shifted beneath the feet of Hollywood.  Hollywood began raiding Broadway for the best song and dance men and women they could find, and hundreds of actors who looked nice but didn’t have attractive voices were thrown by the wayside.  Only a select few, most notably Charlie Chaplin, were successful enough to resist the tide of dialogue. This subject is of course central to the plot of “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952).

The weakness of The Artist isn’t the acting, music, set design or comedy, all of which are superb.  It’s a feeling I recently described with the following analogy.  The “Sim” series of games, which include “Sim City,” “The Sims,” “Sim Earth,” and a few others, are sometimes referred to as “software toys” rather than true games.  It is fun to build your own city, social community, or whatever, but there is no way to “win” these games at the end – no payoff.

Like the Sim games, The Artist is a lot of fun, but in the end there’s no payoff.  As a silent comedy, it’s funny, but it doesn’t measure up to City Lights (1931) or The General (1926).  It serves its subject matter well, but not as well as Singin’ in the Rain or Sunset Boulevard (1950).

That’s not to say that it isn’t worth your time and money – quite the opposite.  Its witty, self referential comedy is a refreshing change of pace from the gross-out, frat-tastic humor so often pushed upon us by Hollywood.  Generally, it’s a fun way to spend an evening.  Just don’t expect it to be anything more than it is, a funny, well made film that doesn’t have anything new to say.

Rating:

You may like the Artist if: You’re in the mood for a fun night out at the movies and you want to see a comedy that is well acted, well produced, and funny without being juvenile.

You may not like the Artist if: You are looking for a film that connects to its subject matter in new way or you are looking for a film that is groundbreaking in its genre.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Metropolis (1927)

Metropolis

Directed by Fritz Lang

Germany, 1927, Silent, 148 min

“No! I must always stay at the Machine!” – Georgey 11811 to Freder Fredersen

Metropolis is one of the most important films ever made, but in many ways it is an outlier.   Fritz Lang (1890-1976) was far more interested in making dark, seedy, modern crime dramas than he was in dabbling in dystopian science fiction.  Lang himself never cared for what many consider to be his masterpiece, and the film itself has been subject to all manner of neglect, censorship, and re-editing.  It was once thought that about a third of the film had been lost forever, but in 2008 a nearly complete negative was discovered in Argentina, and thanks to the F.W. Murnau Foundation (http://www.murnau-stiftung.de/en/01-00-00-stiftung.html), a version of the film that comprises around 95% of Lang’s original can be viewed today (the original film was 153 minutes, the restoration, including inserted credits, is 148 minutes).

That was the version that I watched this morning.  The plot itself is predictable by modern standards (but only because it has been copied so many times) and the central message of the film is a bit simplistic and borderline naive.  That being said, those are the only weaknesses that I can think of, and the film continues to mesmerize 85 years after it was filmed.

Lang’s dark vision of the future takes place in a city where a vast system of machines sustain the prosperity of those who inhabit it, or more specifically, its above ground portions.  There are stadiums and nightclubs, pleasure gardens and terraces, and the people who inhabit these locales are well dressed, well fed, and happy.

This is not the case for the workers who operate the machines. These men and women toil ten hours a day in exhausting and repetitive jobs.  They work non-stop and in hellish conditions, risking certain death if they make any mistakes.  When they are not working, they are forced to live underground in squalid poverty.   The life in “The Depths” is a constant nightmare – a darkness of exhaustion, starvation, and isolation.

The hero of the story, Freder (Gustav Frohlich) is the son of the city’s ruler, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel).  One day while he is enjoying his, ahem, female companions (no, that’s not a type-o, there are more than one), Freder’s pleasure garden is crashed by the beautiful Maria (Brigitte Helm) and a group poor children from The Depths whom she has brought to the surface on an apparent visit.  After she and the children are thrown out by security, Freder, who is enchanted by Maria, darts from his pleasure garden to follow her.

While searching for Maria, he witnesses a terrible industrial accident.  An exhausted worker makes a mistake, and causes the massive machine he is operating to partially explode, killing several workers. To demonstrate Freder’s horror, Lang provides us with a hallucination of the workers being thrown into a monstrous oven.   Although the film is silent, Lang’s imagery allowed me to imagine the screams of the workers so clearly that their sound could have scarcely added to the horror.

It is the emotions of the workers themselves, not Freder, that drive the course of the rest of the film.  Maria brings hope to the workers by speaking of  a coming “Mediator” who will bring harmony and understanding between the rulers and the workers. She hopes that she has found that Mediator in Freder. In contrast, Fredersen and his ally, the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Logge), have created a “machine man” to manipulate the workers.  Fredersen hopes to use the automaton to incite the workers’ anger in a plot to maintain control over them, while Rotwang has his own, more devious objectives.

Many silent films have a hard time holding the attention of modern audiences.  Metropolis does not suffer from this problem, and I don’t think the film would be greatly improved by adding dialogue.  The film moves along with such fluidity that the audience doesn’t have time to consider its weaknesses or hunt for clues as to what would inspire films such as Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Gattaca, Dark City, the Matrix, and hundreds of others.  Despite the opinions of its author, it remains a landmark work that every fan of film should view at least once.

Rating:

You may like Metropolis if: You enjoy dystopian science fiction films or adventure films, you are interested in where the techniques used in many of your favorite science fiction films come from, or you are in the mood for a high quality, emotionally charged film with high artistic merit.

You may not like Metropolis if: You absolutely hate all science fiction or silent films, or you get really annoyed with films that use somewhat predictable plot devices, even if the movie is the first time those plot devices were used.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe