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The Silent Treatment: How ‘The Artist’ Stacks Up To Crazier Movie Throwbacks

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
February 23, 2012

If you’ve seen current Oscar front-runner The Artist, you know that the film’s a swell ride – the cat’s pajamas, even. Pantomimes and pencil mustaches! Terriers and tap dancing! Director Michel Hazanavicius gathered his most talented and fleet-footed friends, popped the cork and put on the Ritz.

The new debate is whether the movie is more than just a conglomeration of fun things from the ’20s and ’30s. It might be a revolution, too, according to some. TIME says it’s “audacious.” The Los Angeles Times proclaims it “manages the impossible.” To The Guardian, it’s “daring.” And, of course, there’s that whole “Oscar front-runner” thing.

It’s not enough of a dare, though, to simply make a picture using only what you could find in your studio’s storage warehouse. We need to be setting our criteria for innovative cinema a bit higher than that.

If you’re a contemporary film director messing with old things, boldness must be obtained another way: by introducing some new and dangerous 21st-century element. I’m talking about all those messy impurities the Hays Code warned us would pollute America’s waterways: Lust, violence, moral corruption, racial integration, homosexuality. Nothing any studio in the George Valentin era — or even the Peppy Miller era — wanted to touch with a ten-foot clapstick.

Boys and girls, I now give you the Swamp Thing of silent movies. In 2006, a quick-cut phantasmagoria known only as Brand Upon The Brain! clawed its way out of a sinister ooze to wreak havoc on our most delicate memories. Brand was Canadian auteur Guy Maddin’s attempt to channel a dark family past into a demented narrative involving a lighthouse, a domineering mother and a device that robs children of their youthful vigor via holes in the backs of their heads. And Maddin conveyed all his madness without having his characters speak a word, outside of a benshi-like celebrity narrator.

Below, a Maddin morsel: his 2000 short film The Heart Of The World, with a warning that its feverishness may provoke unwanted stares if viewed at work.

More have dared to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable in the silent realm. Pedro Almodóvar inserted a short film, an untitled sexually daring fantasia known on the DVD as Shrinking Lover, into the middle of his 2002 drama Talk To Her. His purpose: to literalize the movie’s theme of forbidden, impossible connections between men and women. I’d link to it, but this is a family blog.

Then there’s Dan Pritzker’s 2010 silent film Louis, a fanciful biography of Louis Armstrong that toured select cities with a live jazz band performing a score by Wynton Marsalis. In order to tell the tale of a self-made African-American success who had to fight his way to respect through a segregated entertainment world, Louis uses the screen language of that very same world.

Next to these selections, The Artist looks even more squeaky-clean – yes, even with that ludicrous PG-13 rating “for a disturbing image and a crude gesture” (oh, MPAA, what kinds of shenanigans would you have gotten yourselves into during the actual silent era?). Hazanavicius has a complete unwillingness to insert anything that might color some uncertainty into the margins of the age he’s depicting. It’s a regression, not only from his 21st-century contemporaries but also from Mel Brooks, whose 1976 Silent Movie at least came with the added twist of being set in the present.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with this approach. Nostalgia is perfectly fine if it’s still done well, and intended (as The Artist is) for a broader audience. The movie’s accessibility makes it an easy pill to swallow for those who aren’t hip to the jive of cinema history.

Academy, give the film the Oscar if that’s what it takes to get people to talk about silent movies again, since none of these other revivals seem to have done the trick. But treating The Artist as anything more than a dolled-up Remembrance of Things Past is disingenuous, and more than a little unfair to the others. Sort of like praising the special effects in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo without acknowledging Georges Melies.

In summary: See The Artist. Be thankful it exists. But if this is truly daring filmmaking, I’ll eat my felt fedora hat. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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