The Artist as background material for film history

I have not for a long time been thinking about film historiography in general, and definitely not concerning silent cinema in particular. A conversation with a journalist about The Artist last week and an upcoming radio show next week made me start thinking through some possible perspectives. Here is a first attempt.

In The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw enthusiastically praises this ‘movie about the black and white silent age of Hollywood, which is itself in black and white, and silent – or almost silent’.

Melissa Anderson in The Village Voice is more critical towards the kind of image of old Hollywood that the film gives us:

The Artist is movie love at its most anodyne; where Guy Maddin has used the conventions of silent film to express his loony psychosexual fantasias for more than a decade, Hazanavicius sweetly asks that we not be afraid of the past.

It is a very harmless image of the late 1920s and early 1930s Hollywood. Bradshaw’s presents one attitude which most likely is shared by many viewers. What we get is a peace of history used as setting for a funny, charming love story. The technical specificities (black&white, 22 fps, 1:1.33 etc) contributes to a similar kind of technical attraction as 3D, digital effects etc. Both Bradshaw and Anderson mention the technical specs but without making a big issue of it (but for the lack of colour and spoken dialogue). For Anderson both the technical issues and the funny, romantic love story seem to hide something. Dujardins smile and that he ‘seems incapable of not daring us to adore him’ make history too pretty. We get what happens when ‘a ham [is] playing a ham’.

The technical issues are most likely important for the box office. Novelties, and today a black and white silent film in old standard frame ratio is certainly a novelty, often work, at least once.

The film would not be a success, neither at the box office, nor among critics and the Academy, for technical reasons alone. It is a tribute to classical Hollywood cinema, to traditional storytelling, acting, cinematography, music (including its anachronisms), costume, props, cars, make-up, even dogs. But, as Anderson remarks, in a harmless way.

Of course it must be possible to make a film without dealing with social or political issues, but if we want to look at the film as a tribute to classical Hollywood filmmaking, to Hollywood at the time, without doing it, history not only becomes harmless it also become ahistorical.

The social misery of the early 1930s were often excluded from films at the time, but the audience could not erase the everyday experience when they entered the cinema. Escapism needs something to escape from.

When we explain The Artist as ‘fusty nostalgia’, if glittering and gleaming, as Ann Hornaday in Washington Post, it may be the only explanation for its success.

But what are the consequences of this nostalgia? It is not so much a question of a lack of historical accuracy, as a question of what this may do to our understanding of film history. Considering the discussion among film historians and archivists of what will happen when soon only archives will be able to project analogue films (see for example David Bordwell’s introduction to this discussion).

There have been some articles and conference papers on DVD extra materials and the ways in which such material shape our understanding of creative processes (including gossip) and authorship. Particularly DVD editions of silent films often include ambitious historical contextualizations as well as restoration success stories.

Perhaps film archives could use films like The Artist as extra material for a Blue-ray release of for example Borzage’ Seventh Heaven. Maybe today’s appropriation of late silent cinema aesthetics could contribute to an understanding of the lure of Borzage’s melodrama. If so, we would learn the difference between a ham and Charles Ferrell…

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