I have just been to see The Artist – brilliant, thoroughly recommended. It connects strongly with a major theme of this blog: people adapting (or not) to media change. OK, it’s set in the period 1927 to 1932 in pre- and post-Wall Street Crash Hollywood, but it’s about us, isn’t it? The setting of the film (black and white, silent film genre, music only) is so willfully distant to our contemporary world, so quaint, it feels playful, whimsical and light-hearted. But like sport or art, fiction or fantasy, this film is a lie that makes it easier to tell and for us to hear a darker truth.
The outline of the story: a successful silent movie star finds that the invention of the talkies is throwing him out of a job. About 45 minutes or so into the film, in a brilliant coup de cinéma, in the privacy of his dressing room the star puts a glass down on the table. Astonishingly, to both him and us, it makes a sound. He picks it up and puts it down again. It makes the same sound. He speaks to the mirror – we see him, he sees himself talking, but we hear nothing. Within the previously soundless mis-en-scène of the film the sound of the glass is transgressive and shocking. And his mouthed words have the terror of Edvard Munch’s perpetually mute The Scream – he is having a nervous breakdown. As his marriage degenerates he says nothing to his wife; the silence becomes more than just a kind of formal narrative premise or what people in the US call ‘a gag’, it is also a richly expressive metaphor for the implosion of his being-in-the-world.
This is a language not available to the original makers of silent films. This is a contemporary film that has lovingly borrowed the vocabulary of its precursors – and extends it. Its connection to previous media genres is parallel to the relation of the Kindle with the printed book (see my preceding post), which in turn repeats the derivation of the printed book from the manuscript codex … and so on, in infinite regress. Marshall McLuhan said that every medium contains another; each new medium also changes our perception of existing media. This (nearly) silent film is a contemporary media experience because we have movies with speaking in them – in the same way a traditional book is now different because we have e-books. It is is not worse, nor old-fashioned, it is simply expressive and newly modern in a different way. Perhaps we will continue to remember it when all the identikit frothy CGI-fests have all blended, in our memories, into each other. Will all our Kindle books seem the same too?
Of course I not saying that the film is only about media change – perhaps it’s about our attempts to defend ourselves, at least in our minds, against any kind of change. I’m not going to tell you the ending if you haven’t yet been to see it, but the film does not simply say that all we have to do to thrive in a changing world is to rush headlong towards the new zeitgeist – we have to know who we are, what we are good at, and be creative about it too.
And just in case we think the next generation has all the best lines, the film makes it very clear that the old have got something to teach the new, and that it is also not enough simply for the new – no matter how well intentioned – to try to turn the past into a church or a museum. For a supposedly retro and light-hearted film without speech, it says rather more than we might expect. I am impressed.