When silent film died, so did much of its technique. It merely took a sideways glance at my Early Cinema module peers to know that the films we watched were widely considered laborious no matter their historical significance. For myself there was the odd exception – the visually intense German Expressionist school – but D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East is, sad to say, one of few films I have fled from halfway through. It’s not that there is necessarily anything wrong with the particular films or the medium as it was, but I think it is fair to say that we are all irreversibly attuned to film convention as it developed after the talkies arrived.
It is thus surprising that a silent film made now might hit the mainstream (and win a hatful of Oscars as a result). Such a thing would need a good deal of skill to keep audiences entertained. Hazanavicus and co., well, they did their best and threw in a dog to compensate. The Artist is a moderately entertaining film; no mean feat in itself, but there is a good deal of dead time too. Maybe that’s what makes it safe fun. The plot is even more derivative than it is simple, and the characters could be conveyed to a complete degree within this sentence. But there is a wit to it, and the actors look the part to the point where one is (far too) inclined to say “Well that’s what the films back then were like” when faced with flaws.
In the struggle to maintain the audience’s attention one discerns gags that can only be described as throwaway – gimmicks, really. And therein lies the scandal at the heart of the piece which is, of course, a gimmick in of itself. If you want to make a silent film, if you believe in the medium, why does it have to be set in the silent period? It is a self-contained selling point. But unlike 3D (which audiences are still unsure of, it would seem), this appeals to nostalgia. Specifically, nostalgia regarding early cinema, which seems to be in right now. The Academy votes were all too happy to see a “love letter to the magic of cinema”, I’m sure. But for anyone below the age of 85, this is a constructed nostalgia. Those who lapped up the film would be horrified were they to see an actual silent film, but for now they can talk amongst themselves on the car ride home about how old is often better than new, in light discussion of a 2011 production.