“The Artist” Wins Best Picture! An Essay.


“Silence at the proper season is wisdom, and better than any speech.” -Plutarch (46-120)

To most folks, my family and friends included, the best picture award at last night’s Oscars left them scratching their collective heads.  Many people on Facebook and Twitter expressed displeasure, shock and confusion about this “film” that they had never heard of upsetting the predictable balance of this all too predictable award show.  Where did this film come from?  Why should we all care?

I will argue that “The Artist” is one of the most significant best picture nods that the academy has given out in decades.  It is a wonderfully entertaining film!

First off, a primer for those who have no idea what this film is about.  The film is a virtually silent film.  I say virtually because there are a few lines in the film that play a significant role in the plot.  I won’t say any more about that in order to not spoil the surprise.  Centered around the charming actor George Valentine, (Jean Dujardin) it chronicles his life after achieving its peak in the silent film era of 1920‘s Hollywood.  Valentine meets an adorable young actress named Peppy Miller, (Bernice Bejo) who has come to Hollywood to become a star.  They share flirting looks and steps as she’s cast as an extra in his newest romp.

Everything seems to be great at the top for Valentine.  However, trouble erupts as the newest trend to hit Hollywood rocks his world:  Sound.  The studio boss Al Zimmer, (played by one of my favorite actors John Goodman) tells Valentine that the public wants “talkies” and that the studio is going to discontinue their slate of silent films to start making these pronto.  Valentine’s world is rocked as he goes from being the top dog to being tossed out for the newest “fad” as he sees it.  So, he strikes out to produce self financed films.  After things don’t go as planned, his world begins to crumble as Peppy’s stardom rises.  We are taken on a heart string tugging ride as Valentine must redetermine his role in this new film world of sound.

The Artist’s win at the 2012 Academy Awards is significant in many ways.  First, it’s the first silent film to win the best picture award since the film Wings in 1929 at the 1st academy awards.  That’s 83 years ago!  Since then, technology in film has marched forward at a ferocious pace.  But silent film has always been the core bedrock of filmmaking.

Film is a visual medium.  The recording of actions on celluloid or sensor at 24 frames per second.  We have been conditioned over the last 100 plus years to follow the story visually.  Our subconscious minds know this even better than our conscious one.  When you watch a bad film, more often than not it’s because this fundamental principle was forgotten.

The term “silent film” is a misnomer.  These kinds of films weren’t always silent.  They were meant to be accompanied by a live orchestra playing the score!  Even in small rural theaters, a piano player was on hand to accompany the film.  This is what gives us that typical “Keystone Kops” piano jingle in our minds when we typically think of silent films.  The score of a silent film almost becomes even more essential;  it’s the audiences only auditory input during the show.  Therefore, it must be the emotional undercurrent as well as accentuate actions and dialog with instruments.  This heritage of instruments as sound effects is used in a wonderfully heart felt manner in the film.

The Best Picture nod to “The Artist” could not have come at a more needed time.  Our silent film heritage has been crumbling in the last few decades.  Since the invention of “the talkies” many thought that these films should never have been preserved.  Allowing them to have been lost or crumble in neglect on shelves around the world.  According to an article on the ibtimes website:

“Nearly 80% of the silent archives were destroyed or lost when silent film was superseded by talkies. “Wings,” for example, raked in millions of dollars, won awards, and then vanished much like “The Artist’s” George Valentine. It was silent, old, and nobody took the time to take care of the reels that had circulated for decades.

“Wings” was officially considered lost until the 1960s when someone discovered a fragile nitrate print in the Cinematheque Francaise film archive in Paris and made a copy. Today, “Wings” is back from the dead, but in a fragile, cut-down state.
In 1997, the Library of Congress selected “Wings” for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Ironically, the restored and remastered version of “Wings” — presented in high-definition on DVD and Blu-Ray — was released just one month before “The Artist” won the Oscar on Jan. 24, 2012.” -Mark Johanson, 2012, http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/305294/20120227/wings-last-silent-film-win-oscar-1929.htm


Perhaps some reading this article find silent films boring.  I did in the past.  But as I’ve developed my appreciation for films, I grew to appreciate their visual artistry and ability to communicate at such a fundamental level.  I can only hope that this will become a call to not only make more silent films, but to continue to experiment with the techniques of the genre and expand it’s boundaries.


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