Bright Lights Film Journal

Hollywood’s Recurring Dream: Myth and Fantasy in The Artist

“In the silent era, the film artifact always stands at greater or lesser remove from our sensory experience of the world, never in concordance. It is for this reason that Jean Epstein saw the coming of sound not as the fulfillment of the cinema but as its end point, drowning the fantastic world of the silent screen in what he called a ‘superabundant banality.'”

If there is a primal moment in The Artist (2011), it is this: George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the newly obsolete silent film star recovering from a self-started fire, discovering a room that contains in long-term storage all of his old possessions stashed deep inside the palatial home of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), the sound-era starlet who is taking care of him in his recuperation. All that George thought he had bequeathed to the world and offered to his fans and enthusiasts in a dignified auction had in fact been swept up in an elaborate ruse: a performance of appreciation secretly orchestrated by Peppy, designed to assuage rather than preserve. All that once defined him has not been collected by his admirers as he had thought; it has instead been removed from circulation, kept locked away and under sheets. George’s moment of horror is in many ways a personalization of a larger act of deception and amelioration that stands at the center of the relationship between silent-era and sound-era cinema, the selfsame nexus of artistry and history that Michel Hazanavicius’ film seeks to explore. As William Drew argues in The Last Silent Picture Show, the rise of the talkie is almost entirely correspondent with the invention of film history, an attempt to reinscribe a rapid and disruptive industry transformation as a fulfillment of a historical telos and make of it an epochal transition rather than a paradigm shift.1 In the pages of film history, the artistic artifacts of the silent era would supposedly be valued and conserved as the ancestral beginnings of the sound film, part of cinema’s legacy trust. In point of fact, those artistic practices would mostly be locked up and covered with sheets, never to be used again.

The discovery scene in The Artist is a rare moment of disruption in a film that is otherwise actively engaged in perpetuating a mythology of artistic fulfillment in the silent-to-sound transition, a mollifying fantasy designed to disguise the rupture that stands at modern cinema’s founding and, more importantly, to dampen the echoes of that rupture ringing in today’s reconfigured media landscape. This is, of course, not how the film presents itself: it purports to be acutely invested in depicting the pain and tragedy of a transitional moment now long accepted. It is Singin’ in the Rain (1952) told from the point of view of poor Lina (Jean Hagen), the silent screen diva laid low by terrible diction, an homage to all that was lost in the era gone by that stands in mirror image to its predecessor film’s song-and-dance, Technicolor celebration of all that was gained in the era newly arrived. Rarely in The Artist do we see anything of the new sound era beyond a few select clips stripped of the soundtrack that is supposed to make them distinctive to begin with; it is not until George is reincorporated into the studio system with the film’s concluding song-and-dance scene that sound is fully accepted into Hazanavicius’ filmic universe. What we see are mostly phantasmagorias of an era gone by: George’s films, both in their silent-era triumph and post-sound failures; the studio life of the silent-era star; the estates of silent Hollywood; the silent film in production. The Artist‘s greatest and most flamboyant conceit is that it tells the story of what was lost through the medium of that which was lost, offering its whole artistic body in a kind of supplication to a mode of filmmaking that has passed.

Yet The Artist is ultimately a testimony to the vanquished written in the language of the victor, a tribute to what has disappeared that reinforces its historical erasure. Witness the pervasive language of replacement that permeates the film’s treatment of the silence-to-sound transition. It is, in the formulation of Peppy herself during an interview, a simple matter of new for old. Peppy apologizes to George for her harsh words, uttered unknowingly in his earshot, but it is not ultimately far afield from how the film itself presents the matter. George is figured as the icon of an older generation: Peppy’s boyfriend tells him in a back-handed compliment that his father is a great fan of his work, though George had been an international star and box-office draw only a few months before. His self-financed silent film, opening against Peppy’s sound spectacular, draws only a sparse crowd and seems risible for its supposedly outmoded artistry. The language in which the film presents the sound revolution is the selfsame language of Peppy’s new-for-old construction, a replacement of the advanced for the old-fashioned built on an ideology of forward development and linear direction; George has simply not kept up with the times. It is significant, however, that we never in fact get to see Peppy’s triumphant sound film Beauty Spot, nor do we see any of her other sound films for more than a few frames. Were they anything like the actual talkies that displaced the silent film circa 1927-1932, when the action of The Artist takes place, they would perhaps be revealed to be strange specimens indeed: not advancements in artistry so much as fetish objects for sound itself. Boxed in by cumbersome muting devices that sequestered the camera from the action it was capturing, restricted to indoor filming, and anchored to microphones hidden in the mise-en-scéne, the earliest talkies were largely static and unbeautiful artifacts, strange successors to the mastery of films like F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) or King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928). The appeal of sound films can be thought of as ontological: talking pictures were appealing because they were talking pictures, not because they necessarily furthered the artistry that had come before. It was less a linear development than a perpendicular move, a matter not of generations — of old-fashioned and fresh-faced — but of outright replacement. Film became not something new; it became something different.

The idea of the transition to sound as an artistic fulfillment of the silent screen is explicitly a back-formation, one that paints as original intention that which was historically a later correction. As Donald Crafton observes in The Talkies, directors and cinematographers of the early sound years spoke frequently of a need to “return to silents,” restoring to sound-era cinematography the fluidity of the late silent era.2 Advances in camera and sound recording technology enabled the reinstitution of much of silent-era classical cinematographic technique within a few years; as David Bordwell writes, “By 1933, shooting a sound film came to mean shooting a silent film with sound.”3 But the fact that a statement so self-contradictory on its face (the idea of “shooting a silent film with sound” is something like the definition of self-negation) might be allowed to make any kind of sense is a testament to the staying power of the palliative fiction of artistic fulfillment, a mythos in which The Artist directly participates by virtue of its very construction. To the makers of The Artist (and to most of its popular critics), the absence of dialogue and the general abstinence from synchronized sound (along with a much-touted 1.33 aspect ratio) is alone enough to qualify the film as silent. Hence the brilliant, Felliniesque sequence where George finds himself in a nightmare of Foley spot effects, overwhelmed and driven mad by the new world of sonic diegesis — as though the noise of a cup being placed onto a vanity were the single source of the breakage between silent- and sound-era filmmaking. Even the fact that Hazanavicius’ most prominent visual and stylistic quotations in this scene and others throughout the film come from masters of the sound era — Welles and Fellini most conspicuously, but also Hitchcock, Lang, Ford, Lubitsch, and Wilder according to one statement — gives implicit testament to the supposed artistic continuity between the two ages of cinema, placing them on a continuum and necessarily reinscribing a primitivist perspective on silent filmmaking.4

The Artist, in other words, figures the silent film only as a medium of absence, utterly defined by the negative properties of what it lacks rather the positive properties enabled through the omission of sound. What it excludes, both from its construction and from its diegetic treatment of the silent-to-sound transition, are all of the properties that do not fit into this teleology, the unique capacities of the silent medium that were never recaptured in the sound era: the ability to easily and regularly vary frame speed as an intrinsic part of visual construction, made impossible by the encumbering need for comprehensible dialogue; the ready potential for and even encouragement of works of pure pictorialism built on the elimination or near-elimination of intertitles; the configuration of film as a grounding point for live performance rather than a pure instance of mechanical reproduction in the local musical accompaniment at each theatre — the original multimedia format; and, most importantly, the escape from the assumptive mimeticism that came to predominate in the era of sound, the binary idea that film is always composed either in a hyperrealist mode or in a conscious departure from such approaches. In the silent era, the film artifact always stands at greater or lesser remove from our sensory experience of the world, never in concordance. It is for this reason that Jean Epstein saw the coming of sound not as the fulfillment of the cinema but as its end point, drowning the fantastic world of the silent screen in what he called a “superabundant banality.”5 Gone was what Antonin Artaud defined as the unique property of silent film alone to create a reality apart, “the revelation of a complete, graphically communicated occult world.”6

All ameliorative fantasies have a target, and it is not the popular audience of The Artist that cares what was gained or lost in the rupture that came with the development of sound technology. Hollywood’s last great foray into retelling this myth, in Singin’ in the Rain, came at a moment of appropriate anxiety: the film industry was pressed by the advance of television most prominently; less readily remembered is the studios’ forced divestment from their theatre holdings with the 1948 consent decrees. It was in an environment of new competing media and restricted profit lines that the film industry last felt the need to reassure itself, to reinforce its self-constructed history. The historical moment is perhaps not so different today, as gaming and the internet assume a greater share of the public’s media bandwidth and Hollywood finds its profits under attack from digital piracy. If Hollywood was intent upon showering honors on The Artist this past awards season, it is arguably because its message is needed more than ever within the studio corridors. It offers an assurance that whatever changes may come to the industry, they will be advancements and fulfillments, not ruptures and departures; that there is a history to film’s development and that it moves only forward; that someday Peppy will not be the one to find herself suicidal and alone, wandering the mansion of her new media replacement and discovering everything that she thought was her greatest legacy kept closeted away and under sheets, never to be spoken of again.

  1. See William M. Drew, The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens in the 1930s (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010), x. []
  2. Donald Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 5. []
  3. David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 306. []
  4. See “‘The Artist’ Director Responds to Kim Novak Slam Over ‘Vertigo’ Music,” The Hollywood Reporter, January 9, 2012. []
  5. Jean Epstein, “Slow-Motion Sound,” trans. Robert Lamberton, in Film Sound: Theory and Practice, ed. Elisabeth Weis and John Belton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 143. []
  6. Antonin Artaud, “Motion Pictures and Witchcraft,” 1927, trans. Victor Corti, Tulane Drama Review 11.1 (Fall 1966): 180. []