SILENCE IS NOW GOLDEN

by Jeff Schultz on January 30, 2012

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave French director Michel Hazanavicius’ film The Artist ten nominations in this year’s list of Oscar nominations.

Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last May, critics heralded The Artist for its attention to detail, formality, romanticism and its celebration of the cinematic arts. It won the Golden Globe award for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy and continues to sweep awards from groups like the Producers Guild of America.

The film – a brilliant replica of a 1920s silent movie so close to the look and feel of that era you’d swear it came straight from Hollywood’s attic – challenges whether silent film can prosper in the days of the Transformers series. Is it possible that the largest movegoing demographic made up of 15- to 30- year-olds would find interest in a movie plot that centers on the changingHollywood of the late 1920s?

The story follows fictional movie star George Valentine whose successful career in silent films slips with the arrival of “talking pictures,” a scenario for many real-life stars at that time.  Convinced he has the talent to prevail, Valentine teams with a talented young dancer to make his comeback.

While The Artist does not come with a THX soundtrack to shake theater seats, the film’s market potential is relevant to two trends– current television programs centering on performing arts (ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, Fox’s Glee, NBC’s America’s Got Talent) and current movies appealing to audiences’ nostalgia (The Help, Super 8, The Muppets).

But being a nostalgia film could hurt The Artist. Even though people grumble, “they don’t make them like they used to,” nostalgic or imitation films tradition draw very few filmgoers.

Grindhouse, the 2007 double-bill of exploitation films written and directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, was supposed to bring in sizable returns. But it finished in fourth place opening weekend – even behind Ice Cube’s sequel to Are We There Yet? Anyone remember Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow? Stars Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie couldn’t fly a film that took inspiration from pulp comics and 1939 World Fair exhibits. And who went to see Renée Zellweger’s Down with Love, based on the Rock Hudson-Doris Day films, or her 1930s-style screwball comedy Leatherheads?

With these films’ fumbling, why attempt a silent movie? Mel Brooks made Silent Movie about a Hollywood filmmaker doing just that in 1976. That film, containing only one word of dialogue, was not as successful as Brooks’ previous efforts, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

Hazanavicius seems up to the challenge, though. He proved twice he could profitably send up the 1960’s spy genre with OSSagent Jack Jefferson in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and its sequel OSS 117: Lost in Rio. The more ambitious The Artist already recouped its $15 million budget while playing in theU.S. under limited release before the Academy Award nominations.

Hazanavicius realizes a good story makes a good movie, which may have been missing from other nostalgic films where the filmmakers tended to focus on style over substance.

The Artist’s chance for winning the Best Picture prize at the Oscars is possible, just one nomination behind the film with the most nominations – Martin Scorcese’s Hugo. Its strongest competitor, however, may be Alexander Payne’s The Descendents, starring George Clooney, which took home the Best Picture award for Drama at the Golden Globes.

If The Artist wins, it will only be the second silent film to do so. The 1928 film Wings received the Academy’s first Best Picture trophy a year before “talkies” ran silent pictures into the ground.

It will be more interesting to see if The Artist will leave behind a legacy as Oscar-nominated films have revitalized genres, such as when 2001’s musical Moulin Rouge! gave way to 2002’s Best Picture winner Chicago and subsequent musicals Dreamgirls, Hairspray and The Phantom of the Opera.

Although chances for a silent film boom are slim, The Artist has Hollywood talking.

Jeff Schultz is a reporter for The Chesterton Tribune in Northwest Indiana and co-host of The Eclectic Blender on WVLP, 98.3 FM and wvlp.org.

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