Films are dreams. It is one of the oldest comparisons: we sit, semi-recumbent and warm in the dark, while our fears and fantasies are projected before us, converted into stories that take us from our waking consciousness. The analogy seems especially apt for the silent film: here we step through the silver screen into a vanished world, a repository of our ideas of a golden, innocent age, where motion is elegant and the roughness of sound has been transformed into the patterns of music. This is the dreamworld that the new year's new hit, Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist gives us. It is a rhapsody to silent movies, and also to our idea of the early days of cinema. I found it a joyous, transcendent experience.
To recap the plot very briefly (spoiler alert: don't read this paragraph if you haven't seen it): George Valentin (Jean Jujardin) is a silent movie star, talented and vain and addicted to public adulation. He meets a young actress, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and there is an immediate chemistry between them. The talkies arrive. Valentin is dropped by his studio, and funds his own silent film, Tears of Love, which is a flop. Meanwhile Peppy becomes a huge star, and as she ascends in tinsel town Valentin descends into obscurity, poverty - the talkies coincide with the Great Crash of 1929 - and despair. No need to spoil things further by spelling out the resolution.
From this simple story the actors extract a rich cocktail of human feelings and foibles, from arrogance and ambition to remorse, fear, decency, and love. John Goodman is great as the hard-headed but soft-hearted studio director, and the dog is sensational. The film pays homage to the classics by alluding to them: Singin' in the Rain, Douglas Fairbanks, Citizen Kane, Expressionism (the first sequence) and no doubt many others I missed. But these were side-effects. The total effect is that everything is lovingly thought through, and there is a magical blend of meticulous prepration and flair. The film as a whole aims straight for the heart, and wins us over with its sweet assurances of the persistence of gentleness and the possibility of redemption.
What were they really like, though, those early days? Well, according to an expert I heard recently, silent films were anything but silent. There were musicians, the audience were probably not sitting in contemporary waiting room silence, and there would have been a commentator at the side, narrating the action, singing and drawing the audience in. There are records of perfomrances with actors behind the screen providing voiceovers. I was interested in the posh, evening dress audience at the start of The Artist, as I had the impression that silent film was from very early days pitched as mass entertainment. But perhaps there were gala openings for the big stars, like today. It doesn't really matter, as here the point was to show the height of success and pride from which the protagonist can only fall.
One thing the silent movie era certainly was not was innocent. Coincidentally, the same day I saw The Artist there was an obituary of perhaps the last witness to that era, former screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas, who has died at the splendid age of 111. Maas's Hollywood was a place of cruelty, humiliation, lying, sexism, chicanery and theft. The depraved behind-the-scenes frolics included orgies where "disgusting men" dallied with "desperate women". Those vivid phrases are taken from Maas's 1999 memoir, Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood, said to be an essential record of the period. The dreamworld of the silver screen was paid for by a great deal of misery and degradation.
Film and Music
Nonetheless, the work survives, and continues to give joy. Also in the paper yesterday was an interesting piece in the Telegraph by Thomas H Green on modern musicians providing soundtracks for silent film (can't find an online version of this piece). Below are some of those he mentions, to which I've added one of my favourite recent albums, British Sea Power's Man of Aran.
Modern musical soundtracks to old films include:
Air, Le Voyage dans la Lune; Pet Shop Boys, Battleship Potemkin
British Sea Power, Man of Aran
In the Nursery, seven soundtracks including The Passion of Joan of Arc and Hindle Wakes
Jeff Mills, Metropolis
Simon Fisher Turner, The Great White Silence