Film review: Enjoy the silents in the 'The Artist'

Hollywood doesn't make very many films about itself, let alone paeans to its ancient history. So how can we explain two such titles opening simultaneously — on the very same day — last month? I swore I wouldn't use the hack phrase “love letter to the cinema,” even though it's exactly appropriate for both Martin Scorsese's wonderful “Hugo” (reviewed here last week) and Michel Hazanavicius's even more wonderful “The Artist.”

So how about “fan letter to film”? “Bouquet for the big screen”? “Mash note to the movies”? Whatever.

Both releases deal with filmmakers who are stranded in the wake of industry upheavals, left behind after the parade's gone by. In “Hugo,” it's the real French pioneer Georges Melies, who during cinema's first decade saw possibilities in film that others couldn't have conceived of, only to be left behind when the new narrative techniques of D.W. Griffith and others became the ruling aesthetic. In “The Artist,” it's the fictional George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a star who looks like the young Fredric March and acts like Douglas Fairbanks, and who — unlike the real Fairbanks — refuses to accept the arrival of talkies. (Admission: Counting “The Artist” as a “Hollywood” — or even American — film may be a stretch. Its minimal dialogue is in English, and it was shot here, with a largely American cast, but it's technically a French production, whose writer/director and two stars are all French.)

Commercial movies barely acknowledge their history, perhaps fearing (correctly?) that modern audiences — viewing silent films, and even early talkies, through irony-clad eyes — will appreciate them only as camp. The most recent major film to deal with the silent years was “Chaplin” (1992), but even that was centrally about the man, not the medium.

The last big flurry of movies about the era was in the mid-'70s: “Inserts” (1974), “The Wild Party” (1975), “Nickelodeon” (1976) and, of course, Mel Brooks' “Silent Movie” (1976). Roughly 20 years earlier came “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) and “Singin' in the Rain” (1952), both about the painful transition from silents to talkies. And another 20 years before that — during, and in the wake of, that transition — were “Show People” (1928), “What Price Hollywood?” (1932) and the latter's kind-of-remake, “A Star Is Born” (1937). (Curiously, all three of these periods had versions of “A Star Is Born”; but the last two don't really figure in this argument, since they were contemporary updates.)

It would be simple to say it's just a cyclical thing, coming around every 20 years or so, but that strikes me as too easy; and, besides, it would have suggested a period of similar activity in the '90s. I think there's something more meaningful going on, though it may also sound simplistic.

These flurries all came in the aftermath of huge technological and/or business upheavals for the industry. The first, of course, was the coming of sound. The second was not only the arrival of free entertainment on television, but also the Paramount decree, which forced the studios to divest themselves of their theater chains. The third was the “death” of old Hollywood and of the studio system; and the anxiety caused by the success of “Easy Rider” (1969) and the birth of the “new” Hollywood.

And now industry rules and assumptions are being upended by the greatest business challenge since the Paramount decree — the digital revolution and its innumerable possibilities. The panic over digital piracy is only part of the story. There's also the constantly growing and mutating bundle of new distribution channels. Cable and home video have been joined by Video on Demand and online streaming and smartphone networks. Maybe, at some point down the road, space-saving USB drives will replace clunky optical discs. It's enough to make aging studio execs' heads spin … and ache … and even roll.

The world they know is disappearing as surely as Melies' magic cinema a century ago and the special beauty of silent movies a few decades later. What better time to look back to a comforting past? The guardians of today's Hollywood had better learn to appreciate the rusting scrap heap of cinema's past; they'll be joining it soon enough.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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