Here comes the silence – The year of the silent film.
2012. Here comes the silence. Don’t worry this article contains no plot spoilers for ‘Dr Who the Movie’ (still thought to be in pre-production if a serious project at all). No, the coming silence concerns film direction rather than extra-terrestrials. Critics from all corners have suggested that the international acclaim levelled at The Artist, released nationwide this week, will lead to Hollywood copycat features for years to come; a deafening wave of silent pictures.
For those who have missed the furore surrounding the film, it stands a very good chance of being the first silent film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award since Wings in 1927, the inaugural winner. The Artist has received overwhelming popular and critical responses wherever it has shown and has brought fresh focus to a medium otherwise left unrecognised. Director Michael Hazanavicius perfected the art of pastiche on his French-language releases the OSS spy-film spoofs. He has brought these skills to bear on a topic close to his heart. Hazanavicius’s previous pictures also starred Jean Dujardin, The Artist’s charismatic lead. Dujardin’s character struggles with the transition to ‘talkies’ as the career of young Peppy Miller, played by Hazanvacius’s wife Berenice Bejo, takes off.
In the case of The Artist, the artistic medium is defined by the narrative; a silent movie about the silent movie era. Hopefully it is this obvious narrative appropriateness which will prevent Hollywood producers justifying unnecessary mimic movies. That doesn’t mean silence will disappear from the cinemas though. In fact, over the last few years silence, and directorial reliance on images, rather than dialogue, to carry a narrative, has grown into a prominent part of artistic cinema. Many of the 2011’s best received hits, such as Tinker Tailor, Drive, and We Need to Talk about Kevin, were stories told through images rather than relying on dense dialogue. Neither Ryan Gosling nor Gary Oldman can have been overly taxed learning their lines yet still delivered consummate, physical performances, inhabiting their characters in much more than just larynx. Terrance Malik’s The Tree of Life, Lars von Triers’ Melancholia and Andy Serkis in Rise of the Planet of the Apes demonstrated the variety of ways in which the silent image can convey meaning. Juxtaposition of familial drama and the conception of the universe played a central part in Malik and Triers films, connections and concept that can only be understood through images.
2011’s greatest cinematic loss, Ken Russell, keenly understood the power of the image. In interviews he often spoke of the ability to communicate with actors without words, almost telepathically, as the more he could do that with an actor, the more they could do that with the camera and audience. Whilst he was earning a reputation as a rebellious firebrand filmmaker he was in fact incredibly traditional in his philosophy. At its core cinema is an artistic medium built on connections an audience makes when viewing a series of images at great speed. Cinema, although certainly influenced by theatre and the written word, is an inherently visual medium. Film music plays a dual role in this process. Both aiding interpretation of the image through accompaniment and generating tension or suggesting realism in the silences.
Silence, in a performance setting, forces interaction. This is the premise at the core of 20th century classical music composer John Cage’s 4’33’’. The score directs a performer to sit in silence at a piano on the understanding that an audience will sit in silence, as they would for any piece of music, listening intently, interacting with the sounds of the world rather than a piano sonata. Absence of dialogue in a film forces an audience to interact with the images on screen; stitching them together, organising what they see. This is what allows people to understand a film like The Artist. It’s this interaction with the image that made Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy so interesting – what did that glance mean? It is what made The Driver such an enigmatic character; what made audiences empathise with an animated ape.
The Artist is part of a wave of mainstream films that celebrate the image, returning to the birth of cinema. (Martin Scorcese’s Hugo with its homage to 3D’s early life could be viewed as part of this movement.) We find cinema being introspective in its subject matter but in doing so it returns to a point of interaction; silence.