Category: Silent Films


Much like last year, it took me until the middle of the summer (with last year’s True Grit remake being the film with the very late DVD release), but I’ve finally finished all of 2011’s Best Picture Academy Award nominees. Yesterday, I finally got around to watching The Artist. I would have had my review up sooner but I haven’t been feeling well ever since I had Chinese food with my family for dinner. I hate the way that I’m ultimately going to approach this film critically, but at this point, it’s the only way I can do it. I’ll do my best to talk about The Artist on its own terms, but as the film that won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, I feel obligated to discuss how I feel about the awards that it won. I have a history of not agreeing with the film’s the Academy picks for Best Picture. As in, I haven’t agreed with the Academy on a Best Picture since Return of the King back in 2003. Unfortunately, 2011 is no different. Let there be no confusion. I think The Artist is a good film. I thought The King’s Speech was good last year. I just don’t think it’s a great movie and that the Academy was more impressed with the gimmicky nature of a well-made (as opposed to student) silent film than the ultimately simple and innocent nature of Michel Hazanvicius’ story. The fact that this film (especially in the direction department) beat The Tree of Life is one of the most egregious Academy fuck-ups since Danny Boyle and Slumdog Millionaire beat Paul Thomas Anderson and There Will Be Blood.

The Artist is a tragic spin on a story familiar to any fans of Singin’ in the Rain. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of Hollywood’s biggest leading men at the height of the silent film era. His films are smash hits and just accidentally being photographed with George helps to catapult aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) to stardom. However, it isn’t all premieres and glamour for George (and his adorable Jack Russell Terrier, Uggy). He’s in a loveless marriage with his wife (which isn’t helped by his rakish ways) and his ego and pride isolate him from his colleagues in Hollywoodland (the original name of Hollywood in the 20s). Though it isn’t mentioned by name (unlike Singin’ in the Rain), the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927 and the following rise of “talkies” destroys George’s career while Peppy finds fame as a “talkie” starlet. Out of pride, George refuses to make the transition to speaking roles, and he invests all of his money in one last great silent film. However, the movie flops at the box office at the same time that the stock market crashes to ring in the Great Depression. George is forced to sell off all of his belongings and watch his world (including his marriage) fall apart around him.

My feelings about the acting in this film are complicated. If we were judging the film on just how well Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo were able to ape the style of silent film stars like Lillian Gish or Rudolph Valentino, then they were a smash success. Particularly in the scenes where they are showing fictional films in the movie, Jean Dujardin nails the over-the-top (and let’s face it, ham-fisted) style that was the only way to get across emotion and/or exposition (in a weird sense of that word) when you couldn’t speak. However, both stars are guilty of the same kind of “mugging” for the camera that Peppy complains about in an interview once she’s a “talkie” star. There isn’t a lot of subtlety to Jean Dujardin’s performance when we see him going about his daily life. I understand that since he can’t speak, he has to emote a little bit, but when you compare his performance to far more subtle and nuanced roles like Woody Harrelson in Rampart or Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus, it’s sort of outrageous to realize that he won. Berenice Bejo’s performance was  much more subtle but she was still guilty of more than her fair share of over-acting. Jean Dujardin was capable of delivering some truly great emotional moments (especially when he was in the throes of his depression), but it would only be especially impressive if we hadn’t had 80 years of more mature acting techniques since the “talkies” took over.

While I certainly believe that Terrence Malick’s direction/cinematography/genius with The Tree of Life is one of the greatest film achievements of the 2000s, I must concede that Michel Hazanavicius guided The Artist with a brilliant hand (even if the script wasn’t as perfect). Shot in a gorgeous and crisp black & white, The Artist is one of the better looking films of the year (though yet again, Tree of Life is one of the most beautifully shot films ever), and the movie does an excellent job of shooting a more modern, Manhattan-style black and white for the regular sequences and then adopting the more antiquated style for the movies within the film. There’s a nightmare sequence that was one of the most inspired moments of the film (and of 2011) where George is having a nightmare about his inability to transition to the “talkie” world and so everything else in the world can make noise except for him. It was very brilliant. The shadow and contrast work in the film was second to none as was the attention to period detail, and for fans of old films, you can revel in all of the little historical details that the film tries to get right from the costumes to the cars to the Hollywoodland sign (instead of Hollywood). Also, I will say that there is one Oscar the film totally earned which was for Best Score. I can’t remember the last movie I watched on here where I wanted to go out and buy the orchestral score, but The Artist inspired that reaction. It was a perfect recreation of the scores of yesteryear but honestly, it was better and more stirring than the scores of the past.

At the end of the day though, The Artist is the sort of congratulatory celebration of Hollywood’s past that the Academy eats up like candy lately. Much like the L.A. centric-Crash (which beat the far superior Brokeback Mountain), it’s a film that hits home to the L.A. voting bloc that decides the Oscars. It’s not the best film of the year, and if you’ve seen all of the nominees, I’m not sure how you could disagree with that statement. Of course, I’ve long suspected that the films that most often win at the Academy Awards contain at least some semblance of a mass-appeal factor. Perhaps, I can’t blame them for not always choosing the artsy films that I enjoy. That’s my preference. Other people have theirs. And like I said, The Artist is a good movie. It contains flashes of brilliance and I enjoyed it, but much like Forrest Gump (and the way it fucked over Pulp Fiction) or Titanic (and the way it screwed over Good Will Hunting and/or L.A. Confidential), I’ll always think of it as the movie that stopped Woody Allen or Terrence Malick from more deserving wins. It’s sad but true.

Final Score: B+

It is incredibly difficult for me to step into “classic” movies with any real untouched objectivity. An entire life of hearing critics, fans, and popular culture build them up as “the greatest” or “one of the greatest” nearly inevitably leads to some measure of disappointmen or occasionally complete dissatisfaction. In my review of Juno, I’ve termed it the “Juno effect” as I’ve discovered an ability to better appreciate these films once I’ve distanced them from my initial expectations. I bring all of this up because despite this tendency, every now and then, I come across a classic film truly deserving of that title. From Casablanca to Singin’ in the Rain to Rebel Without a Cause, there are plenty of great classic movies out there, and despite being a mostly silent film, 1936’s Modern Times is undoubtedly one of the funniest and most clever films I’ve watched to date. Who knew that purely visual storytelling and outrageous physical humor could be such a rich comedy gold mine.

Set in an age where industrialism has run rampant and economic hard times have created vast swaths of unemployed, Modern Times is a satirical look at its age. Starring Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp (for the very last time), we begin with the Tramp as a cog in the ever-turning machinery of a nearly dystopian and dehumanizing factory. After suffering a nervous breakdown from repeating the same inane actions over and over (as well as a bizarre encounter with a robot meant to feed workers so they never have to stop working), the Tramp goes crazy in the factory and after being mistaken for a Communist, the Tramp is shipped off to prison. After getting pardoned for stopping a prison break-out while the Tramp was hopped up on cocaine (yeah, you read that right), the Tramp meets a homeless girl (the gorgeous Paulette Goddard) who he befriends when saving her from the police. What follows is an ever increasing series of antics where the Tramp tries to get himself sent back to prison, mostly fails, attempts to acquire gainful employment, generally causes unintentional acts of wanton destruction, and penguin walk his way from one disaster to the next.

I was simply amazed by how political and relevant this film still seems despite being 75 years old. In his later years, Chaplin would become an expatriate to the United States (only returning many years later to accept an honorary Oscar) when he was falsely accused of being a Communist. However, it’s startlingly obvious from this film that his politics, nonetheless, were remarkably leftist. In our era of massive unemployment and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, Chaplin’s vision of a Metropolis-esque factory system may have died, but his tale of survival in a world where corporate theft and wage slavery is ignored but stealing to survive is punished rings remarkably true. The fact that he was able to accomplish all of this with virtually no dialogue (until the end of the film, where the Tramp sings in French, any spoken dialogue was coming from machines, like the radio or a robot, or was the direct commands of the god-like Boss of the factory). Chaplin’s ability to craft a story almost completely from images is just as impressive as D.W. Griffith’s, and he manages to avoid all of the horrific racism in Griffith’s work.

I remember that in high school I tried to sit through one of Chaplin’s earlier picture; I think it was The Gold Rush. However, I immediately found it so boring that I wasn’t able to finish it. While I’m willing to chalk at least part of that to how much my tastes have evolved since high school, I can also definitively state that Modern Times was one of the most consistently hysterical films I’ve ever watched. With more knack for pure physical comedy than even the modern greats (like Chris Farley or John Belushi), Chaplin throws himself around the screen with a disarmingly elegant grace. While the Tramp is always destroying everything around him, Chaplin is in such complete control of his motions and moves with such fluidity during the more choreographed sequences that you can only stand in awe of his physical presence. All of my favorite comedies of the modern era are incredibly dialogue heavy full of witty and clever conversations. For me to enjoy humor that is so entirely based on Chaplin’s ability to exploit his body for jokes is really just a testament to Chaplin’s timeless genius.

The film isn’t quite perfect as not every scene can maintain the outrageous heights of its most hysterical moments. As unbelievably beautiful as Paulette Goddard was (she was Charlie Chaplin’s wife when the film was made), she was no comedic match for Chaplin and the scenes focusing primarily on her didn’t do much to add to the humor of the film. Other than those minor complaints, this was one of the most remarkable comedies I’ve ever seen, and it simply goes to remind me that despite my claims of encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, there are still plenty of great films out there that I’ve simply never seen. I’m pretty sure that The Great Dictator is also on my list for this blog, as it also comes near the top of lists of great Chaplin pictures. For any fan of comedy, you are doing yourself a disservice by not watching this true piece of comedy genius. Whether you like older films or not, and even if you could never see yourself watching a silent film, you need to move past those prejudices and give this movie a chance. You will not be disappointed.

Final Score: A

A Daniel Tosh joke springs to mind. “I was watching the Country Music Channel, and I fell asleep and woke up racist. I just wanted to take a nap during the Dixie Chicks, but when I woke up, there were holes in my linen.” I just watching 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, perhaps one of the most important films to ever be made in terms of the effect that it had on countless levels of the technical aspects of film making. However, it is also unapologetically and virulently racist. For decades, this film was used as one of the most integral and effective tools that the Ku Klux Klan had for recruitment, and clocking in at a lengthy three hours, I did not know that silent films could be so effective at conveying their points and messages. The film offended me at more levels than I could ever hope to describe, yet I am forced to recognize how well-constructed the film was in terms of scope and design. I might hate this film with every ounce of my being, but I was still left impressed with the power and ambition of the film.

The Birth of a Nation is a racist, propaganda film chronicling the destruction of the Civil War and then the social upheavals brought around by Reconstruction. Told from the perspective of two families, the Southern and noble Camerons as well as the Northern Stoneman’s, the film positions itself as a morality tale examining the evils of Northern aggression against the supposed nobility and gentility of the Southern aristocracy. The patriarch of the Stoneman family is a member of the Radical Republicans and wishes to impose his “evil freedom” for the Southern Blacks on an unwilling Southern white population. After the murder of his youngest sister at the hands of a freed black soldier, the eldest Cameron son becomes a central figure in the quickly rising Ku Klux Klan and bands together with fellow members to win back his South from the freed blacks. Incredibly racist moments ensue throughout the whole film.

Let there be absolutely no doubts. This film is simply reprehensible. If you have any sense of humanity or sensitivities to the terrible horrors our nation has inflicted upon minorities, then this film will leave you completely furious. D.W. Griffiths was a man of immense directorial talents who was light years ahead of his time in terms of film technique, and he uses his talents for such evil purposes as this film. Simultaneously, you can not deny how well made this film was, at least from a technical perspective. From the quick cuts and fades to the occasional uses of color (yeah, you read that right. it’s tinting, not real color but still way ahead of its time) to the sheer epic scope of the film to the way he would only allow the camera to show exactly what he wanted it to, this film was and is a technical masterpiece. I hate to say it. I want to demonize every single frame of this film. Yet, I can’t. For three hours, I was simultaneously horrified and in awe of this man’s talents, and it kind of makes me hate myself a little bit.

If you’re a student of film, it truly pains me to say that this is essential viewing. Much like the Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will, this is one of those films where genius was put to terribly destructive purposes. If I were judging this film purely on the emotional reaction it drew from me and how dangerous I think the film is, it would get an “F” and possibly a worse score if something like that existed. If I were judging this movie purely on its value on what it would do for the rest of film, it would like get an “A”. So, my score falls somewhere in the middle. I hate to even give it this high of a score, but I would be denying history if I tried to deny this film it’s value. I hate this movie. I can’t overstate that enough. It’s evil. That’s not a word I bandy around very often, but The Birth of a Nation is simply evil. However, it’s the birth of modern cinema so it pains me to say this.

Final Score: C