I went to see “The Artist” the other day as part of my efforts (not very strenuous) to see the Oscar contenders and buzzed-about movies. Occasionally I digress for the purpose of guaranteed mindless big-screen entertainment, as when I went to see “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” (excuse me, is it just me or is Jeremy Renner looking absolutely fabulous?) But I digress…
I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the film. I have middle-brow tastes when it comes to movies and I can scarcely be called a film buff. I love to look at color, although I have an appreciation of the beauty and mystery of black and white photography. I also traffic in words and none are spoke in “The Artist,” a love letter to the late twenties and early thirties and the entertainment that preoccupied America.
I loved it; loved the attention to detail; in the curl of a mustache or the arch of an eyebrow. I adored both the overt and sly references to classic movie tropes of the era: the highly choreographed scenes, the grand theatrical acting. Some of the references were out of the time period (defined as 1927-1932): I recognized a bit of Alfred Hitchcock; the lush score brought to mind the work of renowned film composer Bernard Herrmann and the supremely talented Jack Russell terrier put me in mind of Nick and Nora Charles and their beloved dog Asta. Wait: maybe I DO know my film history!
I noticed these oddities but I wasn’t bothered by them: this was a film about a film star and the culture he inhabited during a transitional time in American history. “The Artist” was captivating in every way and the symbolism evinced by the successful actor pushed out of his chosen profession by the advances of technology is certainly a parable for our time.
One thing that struck me was the absolute silence of my fellow viewers. It’s not just that no one spoke; I doubt my smart, sophisticated audience would have put up with that. But we were treated to plenty of cues about how audiences react to silent films via the film itself; we saw them laughing or clapping or gasping or murmuring at various moments during the plot. The silent-movie audience was vocal, not in an effort to impede the flow of the movie but in expression of their appreciation. Watching “The Artist” in a theater that was completely quiet except for the music was odd. No coughing, no crackling of paper; in fact, no laughing out loud, although I caught many smiles. No, we were reverentially still, as attending a concert.
Maybe the difference is in the present-day movie-going experience itself, which doesn’t teach us how to watch a movie without distraction. Maybe it’s the novelty of being several layers removed: a present-day audience watching actors who portray a long-ago audience using the same exaggerated style as the rest of the movie’s characters.
Or maybe, at least in this instance, it was just such a blessed relief to be free of the cacophony that surrounds us every day: to surrender to the music, to watch the action unfold on the screen, to marvel at the comic and dramatic elasticity of the actors and not need to have anything explained, enhanced or interpreted. We sat back and let the rich sounds of (relative) silence guide us.