The age of innocence

Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret) and Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle) in Hugo

Two films currently on release have brought the subject of silent films into popular debate. Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese in 3D, is adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, set in Paris at the end of the 1920s. The French early filmmaker Georges Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley, is a central character, and the film serves as a celebration of filmmaking and the importance of recognising its pioneers. The Artist, directed by Michael Hazanavicius, recreates the end of the silent film era in the manner of a silent film, telling the tale of how an actress succeeds and an actor fails to meet the challenge of sound.

Both films have met with much acclaim. The purpose of this post is to consider why they have been greeted so enthusiastically, and to see what this may mean for silent film appreciation. The two films have been seen as complementary, though they are very different in technique, in finance (Hugo cost Walt Disney Paramount $170M, The Artist cost $12M), and in target audience. They do share a French background (The Artist is set in Hollywood but is a French production), they take place at the same period, and each shows us films being made and people enjoying watching those films. Both make numerous references to film classics (Safety Last for Hugo, the films of Douglas Fairbanks and rather oddly Citizen Kane and Vertigo for The Artist). Both incorporate archive films supplied by Lobster Films of Paris. Both rely heavily on dogs.

Hugo has been widely interpreted as a work of restoration: restoring an understanding of film, recovering Méliès’ ‘lost’ reputation, and championing the cause of film history overall (Scorsese is the leading figure behind the World Cinema Foundation). Roger Ebert proclaims, “We feel a great artist has been given command of the tools and resources he needs to make a movie about — movies.” For Jay A. Fernandez, the film is about “the transformative power of cinema, its unique ability to connect people, the need to preserve old movies and the truth that an artist’s legacy lives in those who treasure the work.” Philip French states, “The film is a great defence of the cinema as a dream world, a complementary, countervailing, transformative force to the brutalising reality we see all around us.”

Well, lucky the man who gets given $170M to make a film about the importance of cinema history. Disney Paramount wanted an adaptation of Selznick’s much acclaimed book, and Scorsese has been strikingly faithful to it, closely following a rather broken-backed story which begins with the repair of a mysterious automaton, but then turns into a concerted effort by all to bring Méliès back to general acclaim, rescuing him from his toyshop surroundings and his angry denial of his glorious past. Scorsese softens some of the ill-temper that characterises the book (the character of Isabelle is far less argumentative in the film) and builds up the part of the station guard (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) as comic relief. Alas, neither Scorsese nor Cohen have much feeling for slapstick, so Harold Lloyd is invoked but certainly not encapsulated.

But Scorsese’s film also adopts, and extends, the book’s old-fashioned didactic tone. The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Hugo want to teach children a lesson. Reading books is good for you, appreciating old films is good for you, investigating the past is exciting – and good for you. Old people are interesting. Learning is fun.

The tone is that of children’s books of another age, where children are told things that will make them better people, and they are compliant in this. Hugo and Isabelle love being surrounded by old books, then are enthralled to see Méliès’ antediluvian magic films. They behave like no child I know ever behaves, and just as Selznick’s book was the kind of children’s book that adults like to purchase but children seldom read, so Scorsese’s film is a children’s film that offers scant enertainment for its supposed audience, but instead preaches to them – or else to the adults with them.

Of course, the recreation of Méliès’ studio is a marvel, and personally I would have been happy has Scorsese kept himself to a 20-minute evocation of how Méliès’ films were made. Much effort went into making these scenes as authentic as possible, for which all praise to his advisers. For the specialist this is the treat of treats, cinema as time machine taking us back to one of the key points in time and place in film history, so we can believe that, yes, it was like this, because we were there. But did no one think to explain to the young audience why on earth M. Méliès made such odd films with undersea creatures, angels and monsters, and what was so enthralling about them?

The purpose of Hugo is to instruct. Old films are good for us, their history is important to us, and that’s all there is to it. It never says why. I don’t think it is able to say why.

Jean Dujardin (George Valentin) in The Artist

The Artist does not seek to teach; it seeks only to amuse. An entertaining wisp of a film, it tells of a silent film actor, George Valentin (a mixture of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert rather than the Valentino his name might suggest), whose career goes on the slide when the talkies come in. At the same time, an actress, Peppy Miller, whose career began by accident as an extra in one of his films, rises to become a great star of early sound. So it’s Singin’ in the Rain meets A Star is Born.

The film has the boldness of conception that can come with a small budget, and it tells its tale in the manner of a silent film. It has the aspect ratio (1.33:1), late silent film speed (22fps), monochrome glistening like the peak Hollywood productions of the late 1920s in which it is set, and intertitles for the most part aptly employed. More than that, it provides a lesson – far more subtly than Scorsese’s film – in how silent films work on the imagination. The director Hazanavicius emulates many silent film conventions, but not as pastiche, rather as necessary devices for telling a story primarily visually. Pacing, framing, performance, and the use of music to drive the narrative are all noticeably different to that which we are accustomed as cinemagoers today. There are devices such as the close-ups of talking voices that haunt Valentin, and the bravura shot of a three-tier staircase viewed sideways on that belong to the era of silent film and serve as stimulus to the imagination rather than simply displaying a knowledge of silent film techniques. The film shows us things differently. The cleverness lies in how we discover this for ourselves.

The film makes its statement early on, where we see Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) in one of his films, with musical accompaniment, then the film cuts to the audience applauding. We expect to hear sound, but there is none. The film’s difference is established, and we proceed on a voyage of discovery (not of Hugo‘s blatant and mishandled kind), adjusting to how a film can be made differently. We see films as they might otherwise be, or as they once were.

Such an exercise in technique can only be sustained so far, and after an exceptionally bright and inventive forty-five minutes or so, The Artist picks up on its A Star in Born theme and rather loses its way. It’s not too clear why Valentin refuses to engage with the talkies, but it his stubborness that matters and the film takes up the theme of male pride without offering any depth of understanding. Is this a limitation of the silent technique? Does The Artist venture into areas where silent films would fail to register? William Boyd, in an interesting critique of the film, thinks so:

In a silent film you have, as an actor, a small repertoire of emotions you can employ in a given scene. For example, imagine trying to mime coquettish or yearning, or wrathful or sneering – not so difficult. Now imagine trying to mime mildly cynical, or suppressed embarrassment, or misanthropy, or partial incomprehension. It begins to get very hard. Shades of meaning are lost, complex mixtures of emotion are next to impossible, ambiguity is a no-go area.

Boyd, who has written for silent films (the 2009 TV series 10 Minute Tales) and a novel in which silent films play a major part (The New Confessions), should know the medium quite well, but anyone who has seen enough silents would argue that though they do frequently apply a broad brush, there are infinite gradiations of subtlety in the human face alone, and with judicious titles where necessary, they can do shade and ambiguity handsomely. With The Artist it seems more a failure of plotting – a twist or two wouldn’t have gone amiss. Ultimately films must be about people and the challenges they face, and there is no moral in the story of how silent films were supplanted by sound. The Artist has to be ‘about’ something else, and here it doesn’t really try hard enough.

But the reviews have not concentrated on the moralising but instead on the freshness, indeed optimism that the film exudes (has there ever been a film where those working in film have all seemed such nice people? No wonder the Academy is looking at it so favourably), and what it says about the world we now inhabit and the films we now see. For Mick LaSalle, the film is “really exploring, the death and extinction of a medium that brought the world together, that everyone could experience in the same way, never from the outside, never as a stranger. With delicacy and originality, it laments what went away.” John Farr speaks for many when he writes: “Along with Martin Scorsese’s just-released Hugo, the film taps into a growing wave of longing for the kind of pictures that made this relatively new medium so powerful and popular in the first place.”

And that’s what both movies have achieved, among a jaded audience – a longing for a cinema and a time that once was. One could argue that the silent cinema was not so fresh-faced and idealistic as either film portrays, being as calculating in its effects, as varied in its subject matter, and as driven by the box office as is the case now. There was no age of innocence, just an early age grown comforting through the distance of time. One can also argue that many find in the cinema of today what others imagine only existed in decades gone by (I say this after having seen a 9-year-old transported by the visual magic of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, a film I found incomprehensible). One might also argue that silent films have been here all along, and why don’t they go to a few more festivals or check out just what’s on DVD and Blu-Ray these days.

Some will now, of course. The best thing the films are likely to bring about is a rediscovery of silent films in new audiences. I think The Artist will achieve this more than will Hugo, whose appeal seems to be to a quite narrow stratum of cinéastes. It doesn’t illuminate these films – it just demands that we revere them. The Artist is a slight film really, and somewhat overpraised (as does happen when Weinstein is carefully managing the hype on the path to the Oscars). But it has strength enough to inspire.

It struck me that the film it might be most interesting to compare it to is the Gorgio Moroder-scored version of Metropolis produced in 1984 and recently released on Blu-Ray. As vulgar a travesty as Metropolis with ’80s pop songs was, it had a certain bold vigour about it. People heard about it, went to see it, and many remember it with affection. It has been noticeable just how many people cite it as the first silent film that they saw and how it inspired them to seek out others. Now another silent film has broken through to popular understanding, and it is going to make some people want to see more. The Artist genuinely speaks with the language of silent film (much as the elephantine Hugo does not), and years from now people will be saying how they went out to discover for themselves that language being expressed again and again.

Not everyone likes The Artist (Richard Schickel hates it), but that’s because they judge it as a film trying to be a silent film when it can’t be, because the silent era is over. But The Artist is not a silent film. It’s an invitation to consider silent films. Each of us may then judge to what degree it has succeeded, but it will have made us think. And that’s what good films do.