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“Wings” will be the only silent Oscar “best picture”; “The Artist” is not a silent film

February 26, 2012

I read a biography many years ago of the celebrated French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez that described his receiving a record player as a gift.  The maestro ended up throwing away the gramophone, explaining that he could not stand hearing a piece of music played the same way over and over again.

It is for this reason, undoubtedly, that despite the expense and inconvenience of live theater (and the rapidly decreasing cost of digital video recording) that concerts and plays and operas will continue to thrive even in the face of numerous recorded alternatives.  Even if a theater ticket is ten times the cost of a movie ticket, the opportunity for live performance will outweigh the alternative.

Where I live, there is a cinema that exclusively shows silent films, and four other movie theaters show one or two silent films each week.  I also have a moderate collection of silent films.  But silent film, because of the live soundtrack usually performed with it, is always fresh.

Silent film is in many ways superior to talkies, not least because of the unique style of acting, as David Denby explains in his current New Yorker essay:

After seeing Michel Hazanavicius’s exuberant and playful French silent movie The Artist, I found myself thinking of Louise Brooks’s back—her bare back, which she employed to such devastating dramatic effect as Lulu, in Pandora’s Box (1929), the German silent movie that made her an icon in the history of erotic cinema. I thought as well of Douglas Fairbanks’s satirical gymnastic shenanigans, of Greta Garbo’s heavy-lidded sullenness, of Emil Jannings’s tragic despair. In The Artist, there is nothing close to the intensity of the work of those actors. The movie’s principals—Jean Dujardin, as George Valentin, a swaggering silent-movie idol who is ruined by the advent of sound, and Bérénice Bejo, as Peppy Miller, the girl from nowhere who loves him and becomes a star herself—are eager, likable performers. But both characters, and both actors, move in a straight line in each scene; they stay within a single mood. The great silent actors did so much more.

The silent cinema hit the world like a hurricane, destroying élite notions of culture overnight. As a feature-length art form, it lasted less than twenty years, from 1912 to 1929, yet more than ten thousand features were made in that period in the United States alone. From the beginning, the silent cinema was an art devoted to physical risk and to primitive passions, to rage, lust, ambition, and obsession (silence made emotions more extreme in many ways), and it produced obsession in its huge audience. I’m hardly the first man to worship at the shrine of Louise Brooks’s careless but overwhelming appeal. The Artist, a likable spoof, doesn’t acknowledge that world of heroic ambition and madness—it’s bland, sexless, and too simple. For all its genuine charm, it left me restless and dissatisfied, dreaming of those wilder and grander movies.

We should be happy that The Artist exists at all, of course. Even after being nominated for ten Oscars and winning numerous awards from critics’ groups and the guilds, the film still seems arbitrary—one of those freaks of idealism which sometimes occur in the movies. And yet Martin Scorsese brought out “Hugo,” nominated for eleven Academy Awards, at the same time. Here we have, side by side, a French silent film about Hollywood and a Hollywood movie set in nineteen-thirties Paris, with extended flashbacks to the beginnings of French silent film. In Hugo, Scorsese lovingly re-creates the glass studio in which the director Georges Méliès wrought miracles, and the legendary 1896 Lumière Brothers screening at which audience members, panicked by the sight of a train rushing toward them, bolted from their seats. Scorsese celebrates the cinema as provocation, as revolution. Even in flashback, the momentousness of the early days comes through. […]

Silent film is another country. They speak another language there—a language of gestures, stares, flapping mouths, halting or skittering walks, and sometimes movements and expressions of infinite intricacy and beauty. The language is all the more difficult to understand because most of us haven’t seen silent movies as they were meant to be seen. In the early years, they were shot with hand-cranked cameras at varying speeds—sixteen or eighteen frames per second was roughly the norm—and projected a little faster. By the late twenties, they were often shot at higher frame rates. For those movies, a projection speed of about twenty-two frames a second is right. But, starting in the nineteen-thirties, music soundtracks were added to silents, and the films needed to move through the projector at twenty-four frames a second, so that the optical sound reader could handle the music track. Those versions were what people saw in film classes, revival houses, and on television. But when everything is speeded up too much the uncanny physical precision of the comedies seems helter-skelter and quaint. (Pauline Kael called a public-television series of silent films that were played too fast “the worst crime ever perpetrated against our movie inheritance.”) At the wrong speed, romance or drama may come off well enough in pensive moments, but then a character, reaching a decision, will suddenly race down the stairs like an excited spaniel. The mood is shattered.

Seen properly, the best early movies were a revelation, particularly the sight of actors in closeup—filling a screen fifty feet or more across the diagonal, they presented a new landscape of flesh that astonished viewers. Faces that large might have appeared on billboards, but they didn’t move—they didn’t tremble like a field of grain or surge like the sea. In the nineteen-fifties, Roland Barthes attended a revival of Garbo’s films in Paris, and he evoked what the original experience must have been like:

“Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced.”

Barthes was not given to extravagance, yet he was not exaggerating Garbo’s effect on the audience. In 1923, a year before she had her first starring role, the Hungarian critic, theorist, screenwriter, and librettist Béla Balázs described the cinema as marking nothing less than the rebirth of the human in art. In literature, the body was confined to ordered pages of type. Now, in movies, the word became flesh. And Balázs explicitly praised silence as necessary for the highest achievement:

“The gestures of visual man [i.e., the film actor] are not intended to convey concepts which can be expressed in words, but such inner experiences, such non-rational emotions which would still remain unexpressed when everything that can be told has been told.”

A daunting remark. Is it true? There’s no doubt that film, by using methods special to itself—editing techniques such as cutting from one face in closeup to another and prolonging climactic moments—gave an actor a super-expressive power. It could turn him into a larger-than-life metaphor, a quintessence of a mental or spiritual state that, as Balázs says, lies beyond words, just as music lies beyond words. The stories of silent drama may often have been elemental, yet, within the broad outlines, the artists among the actors could bring out shadings that had no immediate analogue in language. The ineffable had been re-introduced into art.

The only silent film to win the Oscar “best picture” was, of course, the Clara Bow-Gary Cooper Wings, which has just been lovingly restored as a first-rate Blu-ray.  And there is a lot of talk about The Artist taking home the “best picture” award.  But The Artist is not a true silent film – it has a soundtrack.  The economics of the multiplex largely makes silent film – with live accompaniment a rare experience today.

Yet, there is so much creativity possible in a live performance.  In the Criterion release of Pandora’s Box, there are four alternative soundtracks:  a live orchestra, a Weimar Republic-era cabaret score, a modern orchestral interpretation, and an improvisational piano score.  Artists as varied as Carl Davis, Richard Einhorn, Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet, and countless art rock and jazz groups have performing with silent film.  There is of course, another alternative, the benshi live recitation (if you have never seen this, you can get some idea of it from the 10 DVDs released by the firm Digital Meme).

Silent film, with contemporary musical or narrative accompaniment, becomes a completely mash-up post-modern entertainment.  It to me symbolizes the experience of living in the twenty-first century – mixing media and modes.  It is like reading Aristotle not from a dusty book but on a LCD screen.

A final note – you may have noticed I began this post by mentioning that I have a collection of silent film (on DVD, Blu-ray, and computer video files).  How do I avoid the Boulez-described tedium of hearing the same soundtracks over and over again?  It is very easy – I simply create my own soundtracks – either by playing an appropriate classical or jazz or art recording, or simply humming along on my own.  (In the same way, I enjoy making my own illustrated Bibles, by doodling in the margins.)  With just a bit of effort, one can have great success either by serendipitous musical combinations or creativity voicing.  And in the latter case, one becomes part of the process of creating art as well.

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