Silence Speaks Volumes: A Timely Message in THE ARTIST
5 February 2012
When a silent film gets released roughly 70 years after silent films ceased production, one logical question that comes to mind is, “Why now?” To be blunt, why The Artist?
In short, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a silent film about silent filmmaking. Set in 1927’s Old Hollywood, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent film superstar, the elite of celebrities, beloved and respected by all. However, with the onset of “talkies,” George’s status in Hollywood gets lost, seemingly overnight. Like many real-life celebrities of the time, George’s refusal to accept talking pictures as the future of cinema caused an abrupt end to his remarkable career. That, compounded with the stock market crash of 1929, forced George into bankruptcy and depression. Depression so bad he attempted suicide to escape his crippling sadness. Yet, young starlet, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who was unsuccessful in silent films, but found a prosperous career in the talkies, falls for George. The romance between the two blooms, which pulls George out of the depression and gives him the inspiration necessary to reinvent a new career within the rapidly changing film industry.
Today, we live in an era that will surely go down in the history books as a technological revolution. More prevalent in first-world countries, it seems every minute advancements in technology are made, creating newer, better, and faster devices. For example, upon the release of the iPhone 4S, people were already buzzing about the, still unreleased, iPhone 5. Surely, thanks to the brilliance of the late Steve Jobs and his contemporaries (assuming there are others who match his genius), this new phone will perform tasks more expediently and effectively. Yet, what was wrong with the iPhone 4S? For that matter, what was wrong with four other iPhones that came before it? The answer is nothing. In today’s world we no longer subscribe to the ideology, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Instead, we have stopped waiting for the breaks; we are focused on moving quickly enough to avoid them all together.
Antiquation is a necessary counterpart to technology. We are always making room for tomorrow and rarely glancing back at what is being thrown away from yesterday, and this is the message in The Artist. George Valentin was outsourced by talking pictures. There was nothing “broken” about silent films, but they became instantly antiquated when technological advancements supported sound in film, thus antiquating George.
From this, The Artist asks its viewers to consider what is being lost as technology progresses so quickly. Sure, George does land on his feet in the end (of course audience are treated with a happy ending…painfully typical and too often forced Hollywood conclusion, thanks a lot, The Artist), but George represents a generation of people who were not as lucky: Louise Brooks, Harold Lloyd, and Clara Bow, to reference some of the silent-era’s major players. Even Charlie Chaplin, who seems to have been a major inspiration for the character of George, faced setbacks when persevering to continue with silent filmmaking after “talkies” become the sensation. In consideration of what is being left behind, The Artist questions what all this feverish outsourcing is costing us. What are we “throwing away?” Evolution and progression are necessary, especially in technology, but who is accounting for the casualties, and where are they piling up?
The Artist, as a silent film, may initially seem out of place for 21st century audiences; yet, it is really no different than science fiction films set in other worlds or the far-off future. Like these sci-fi movies, Hazanavicius’ The Artist distorts today’s reality, or removes itself from it enough, to comment on it. The Artist’s message about rapid technological advancements is entirely relevant to today, making the film timely, clever, and highly appropriate for 2011 audiences to reflect upon.