Tuesday, February 28, 2012
A few years ago my sister and I were watching our favorite cable movie channel, Turner Classic Movies, which was showing The Awful Truth, when the scene that is set in an unbelievably lavish nightclub appeared and my sister said how wonderful it would be to have been in such a place at such a time. Bless her heart, but I had to tell her that no such place ever existed outside the Columbia Pictures sound stage where it was shot in 1937. The Awful Truth - and 98% of the movies made in Hollywood in the 1930s - takes place in Movieland, a terra incognita that resembles the real world purely coincidentally. Rather than imitate life, such movies imitate other movies. All the major studios developed a "look" that became unmistakable. Contract actors, writers, photographers, set and costume designers, and directors all contributed in some way to a recognizable appearance stamped on every one of their movies. With few exceptions, rather than titles, their movies could as easily have been called MGM Movie No. 9 of 1935 or Warner Brothers Movie No. 12 of 1939. What ultimately brought about Movieland's downfall was an insistence by filmgoers for a degree of realism - or at least a pretense to realism.
But there is a subtler and more insidious effect that Movieland has inflicted on films everywhere. Lapses in plausibility, violations of logic, fictions that strain - and often break - credulity. A film like the acclaimed The Artist has been called, like Martin Scorsese's Hugo, a "love poem to cinema". It is actually a love poem to Movieland.
The Artist isn't just a throwback to an old, outmoded way of making - and of looking at - movies. Erroneously called "silent", it is a regressive passage back, a re visitation to classic Movieland. It isn't so much a style as it is a concept, a frame of mind. If you had a chance to ask F.W. Murnau, who died in a car crash in 1931, why the people in his movies look and move so unnaturally, he would probably be puzzled by the question. He might try to explain that cameras, that were originally hand-cranked, recorded the action at a slower speed - around eighteen frames per second at most - and that when the movie was projected at the normal speed of twenty-four frames per second, everything moved a little faster than normal.
More likely, Murnau would probably inform you that the people in his movies aren't supposed to look or move naturally, simply because his movies weren't intended to be mistaken for nature. When I heard that Kevin Brownlow had endorsed The Artist, saying that the film "got it right", I knew what he meant by "it": not just a film without sound (which The Artist is not) but an aesthetic understanding of expression in the framing, the pacing and the acting. Every aspect of the film is handed over to, surrendered to, the images. Even the talking, which we don't hear, can be visual. New studies in child development have shown that babies begin to look at people's mouths within a few months of birth, in learning how words are formed. So we learn to read lips even when we can also hear from our infancy. When I watched The Passion of Joan of Arc on the Criterion DVD I saw the exact words in French that were spoken by the actors (they were the very same words spoken at Joan's trial) on the title cards. Since the director, Carl Theodor Dreyer, shot the film using extreme close ups, it was as if I could hear the words that the actors were speaking. A silent film, Vernon Young was moved to write that "this, one hour after you've watched it, seems hard to believe".
When I watch a great silent movie like Battleship Potemkin or The Passion of Joan of Arc, I am left with the conviction that the people who made them turned the liability of silence into a virtue and expanded the limits of visual expression. They are so much more than silent movies because they prove that sound is unnecessary. As much as I love some silent movies (Brownlow seems to love every silent movie), I love them right where they are. I would no more wish films to go silent and black and white again any more than I would wish myself back to 1925.