The Artist Won Best Picture and I Partied Like It’s 1928

the artist cast

Hello! If you watched the Oscars last night and decided to check out this whole silent movie rigamarole, welcome! Bien venue! If you’re a loyal reader and you’re just dying to know how the Pretty Clever Film Gal is celebrating… suffice it to say champagne gives her headache but she has struggled through to put it all in perspective. Read on! If you read the blog just disagree with me, boo-ya and word to your mama!

Considering that I didn’t write, direct, produce, score, or act in The Artist, I feel irrationally excited by its Best Picture win. It probably doesn’t help that everyone who knows me and my singular fixation on silent movies, the same people who generally regard me with  bemused affection, are all but congratulating me on the win. While I always appreciate kudos, again, I didn’t really have much to do with it.

I spent the past few days in a somewhat pugilistic mood. I was taking all comers who challenged the possibility of The Artist taking the statuette. I *may* have said something to the effect that if War Horse were to win I would take to the streets and set fire to cars, but you can’t prove that in a court of law. If it was starting to sound like the lady doth protest too much, it’s probably because I was. I wanted to believe that The Artist would snag the top prize, but I was pretty sure it would be Hugo. So even as I insisted The Artist could (nay, should!) win, I quickly qualified that with, “But it might be Hugo.”

I don’t think I’ve ever watched an entire Oscars telecast before, but I tuned in last night at 6 pm sharp. That’s right… I watched the whole walking in on the red carpet nonsense. Why? I wanted to see Jean Dujardin‘s ice melting smile. I wasn’t disappointed when Jean reported that he really loved living in L.A. and especially he loves cinnamon rolls. I was hoping to catch a red carpet glimpse of Uggie so I could take another opportunity to point out to Classic Movie Puppy, my little Norma Desmond, that she too could be a big star if she would only focus on her career.

Of course, once Michael Hazanavicius won the Best Director, we knew, we just knew. Yet… I suppose it’s always possible that… no no it has to be. And so it was, the winner for Best Picture is a black and white silent film. A silent movie just won Best Picture at the 2012 Academy Awards. Well, holy shit. Holy shit! (Let me digress here for one moment. The Artist deserved to win because it was a fine, delightful, and charming movie. That it was a silent movie about silent movies was just gravy.)

So we, the dedicated legion of silent film fans, keepers of the silent film flame wake up this morning, slightly hung over, to find the stats for our obscure little blogs shooting through the roof. The Twitter feed is on fire and the Facebook fans are falling out of the trees. Suddenly film geeks are the arbiters of cool. At least for today.

What does this mean? I was asked last night, after the startling conclusion of my Oscar viewing par-tay, “So do you think there’ll be more silent films made.” Umm… no. Probably not. But hey, here’s to hoping. Because here’s the thing… 2011 saw not only a silent-filmy film without dialogue in The Artist, it also produced Hugo, which lionizes the film pioneer Georges Melies, and it brought us The Tree of Life, which despite some serious problems and a stupid voice over, is kind silent-like in its visual storytelling. Not to mention that the best film this gal saw in 2011 was Trotteur a short black and white film from Quebec that had not one shred of dialogue and not even a title card.

The Artist, and its Oscar win was just the cherry on top of a slight but (dare I hope?) significant shift in the way filmmakers are looking at visual storytelling. And it’s about damn time. Could it be that the current explosion of filmmaking technology is forcing the hand of story tellers? Again, I hope so. Silent movie and classic movie fans tend to have a knee jerk and cynical reaction to things like CGI and 3D, but I ask you, “What would Melies say to 3D?” I like to believe that the magician of the cinema would first say, “Hell to the yeah!” followed with a quick “Sign me up!” You can check out this post at the Bioscopic to find out how Melies, perhaps inadvertently but even so, actually did sho0t in 3D.

Here’s what I hope, though. Let’s get in the way back machine and set the dial to 1927. On October 6, The Jazz Singer hit American screens with its singing and its dancing and its talking. And that was kind of it for silent movies. The tragedy portrayed so heart-breakingly in The Artist actually happened. It’s not those old, silly rumors about stars losing their careers because they had terrible voices. It’s that an entire form of visual storytelling (poof!) disappeared. It might not have happened overnight exactly, but damn near it. It’s as if Hollywood had forgotten everything single thing it had learned about how to make movies. Suddenly, movies were nothing but talking. Talking, talking, talking.

If you watch movies from say 1930 or so, you may notice that the movie seems to consist of very little other than a group of people, usually shrill, annoying people, standing around a table with a potted plant sitting in the middle of it. The microphone was in the plant, you see. And those shrill people? They had all been to the same couple of voice coaches, so they all had the weirdo, vaguely British enunciation action going on. Movies didn’t move anymore, they just talked. Audiences, after the initial thrill of the novelty of talkies, kind of stopped caring. Ticket sales dropped. Eventually the Hollywood movie machine came up with The Musical as an antidote to the problem, which of course gets a wink and nod in the conclusion of The Artist. But it’s basically taken 84 years to baby step our way back to the possibilities of purely visual storytelling.

So no, I don’t really think we’ll see a slew of silent movies next year, though Hollywood has been known to jump on any old bandwagon and ride it til the wheels fall off. But I do hope that we’ll see more silent-inspired filmmaking or silent-ish films, if you will. I hope all those kids hanging around film schools right now are thinking, “Hmm… maybe there is something this silent movie stuff,” and then I hope they all go watch F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh which barely needed title cards to tell a tale. I hope film writers and critics of all stripes will go read the excellent The Shattered Silents: How the Talkies Came to Stay by Alexander Walker and deliver some thoughtful commentary about our current technological shift in filmmaking and what its impact might be.  And I hope that a few people, at least, who would never have willingly watched a silent movie, will give it a whirl and love it.

What do you hope this boon year for silent movies results in?

About prettycleverfilmgal

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films. I often watch, consider, and write about movies when I should really be doing other things.

Posted on February 27, 2012, in Genre, Silent Film and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. War Horse was a great film. But I love horses period. And personal stories of WWII and the great scenery and texure of design ~ it got nothing?

  2. Hitchcock’s silent films. The story/drama is in the casting and placement of many people and the details to them and scenery. This trend, In line with what they first said about talkies, “It won’t last”. But it may be more commonly done. Still need screenwriters.

  3. The Vitagraph smokestack getting historical landmark status!

    Also, don’t forget — “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore” won Best Animated Short, and that was inspired by Buster Keaton / silent films!

  4. I know… how gauche of me to have forgotten “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” which was also an exciting silent movie win! I did mention there was champagne, lots of champagne, right?

  5. I’m just pleased that the award for best picture went to something outside of the mainstream, something not pseudo-intellectual, dialog-dependent, with English actors or Meryl Streep (see what I mean: she still won Best.Actress), not about trials and tribulations of the underpriveleged, the minorities, etc., without guns, gore and grunts, bombs and death, computer animation or geared to the sensibilites of 13 year olds or those with the interests of 13 year olds, which “Hollywood” seems to think covers just about anyone under 50. And I haven’t even SEEN “The Artist.” Guess I’ll have to now.

    BTW, here’s another (Gulp!) book recommendation for you, about the transition to sound. It’s not necessarily a “revisionist” history, but one that takes the emotion out of the discussion, for the most part, and focuses on the 1920s obsession with technology, the marketing of sound technology by the big electronics and broadcasting corporations (think RCA, GE, AT&T, NBC), and the business decisions made by the film industry to adapt to sound and profit from it with a minimum of disruption. Much more interesting than it sounds: “The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926 to 1931,” by Donald Crafton (1997, 1999 paperback, Univ of Calif Press). It is part of the History of the American Cinema Series, this being volume 4 of 9 (I think). It also emphasizes something left out of most other studies of the subject, even those of academia — the responses of audiences of the period. And it’s not what one expects, necessarily. I highly recommend it. (But I won’t say it’s “good!”).

    • Those are the precise reasons that I’m please about The Artist win as well. The whole silent movie thing was a bonus, a really big bonus, especially for a silent film critic. But it was new and fresh and unexpected, and well… just different.

      Recommend away, Gene! I’m enjoying Cousins’ The Story of Film very much, though I haven’t gotten very far yet due to time or the lack thereof. But I officially deem your book recs trustworthy so I’ll check this one out too. I don’t suppose you’ve read “Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film” by Ray Zone? I just picked this one up yesterday and I haven’t cracked it yet, but I’m curious if anyone else has read it.

  1. Pingback: A silent film « Who Ate My Shorts

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