Cinema finds its true voice through a return to silence


CULTURE SHOCK:IN AUGUST 2008, I wrote a column here that was given the headline “The silent movie makes a comeback”. It concluded that “maybe what we’re now seeing is the beginning of a return by cinema to its own distinctive essence – moving pictures. The era of the talkies is far from over, but cinema may just be re-examining the connection between showing and telling.”

The prediction was perhaps a little premature, but the success of Michel Hazanavicius’s delightful The Artist(three Golden Globes and 12 Bafta nominations this week) suggests that it was not entirely wrong.

My suggestion in 2008 was based not on a formal “silent movie” but on the long, wordless sequences in three contemporary films: the long first acts of Pixar’s Wall-Eand Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Bloodand the extended, entirely visual passage in which Josh Brolin’s character is introduced in the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. They led me to think that “at the leading edge of mainstream American cinema, dialogue is becoming dispensable”.

I suggested that there was a good reason for this shift: the rise of TV drama. We’ve reached a point where TV series such as The Sopranosor The Wireor Breaking Baddo character-based dialogue much better than almost all movies do. They have the time and the dramatic space to build patterns of speech and the complex relationships in which they can be deployed.

If Billy Wilder were working now, he’d almost certainly be working for HBO. And this, I argued, is doing to the movies what television previously did to theatre: driving it back to its own essentials. What’s essential for film is simply that there are pictures and that they move.

This isn’t at all the same as an abandonment of language. One of the great things about The Artistis that its best jokes are utterly verbal. One of them (which it would be criminal to give away) centres on the word Bang! It’s actually an extraordinarily complex joke, relying on an onomatopoeic word to create a visual pun.

The other great joke is the one in which we actually get a snatch of dialogue that suddenly explains the whole plot. The Artistcompletely depends on both written and spoken words. The thing it doesn’t need is dialogue.

It could be argued that The Artistis just a one-off, a clever gimmick that signifies nothing beyond itself. And indeed that case is bolstered if we recall Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie,which pulled off the same stunt in 1976. (Its one line of speech being spoken, deliciously, by the mime artist Marcel Marceau.) It was a funny film, but it didn’t have any wider cultural significance.

Yet The Artistis different. It’s a lot more sophisticated than Brooks’s knockabout comedy and much more serious, through its use of black-and-white cinematography and Ludovic Bource’s lovingly detailed music, in its attempt to return to a classic silent-movie aesthetic. The Artistis not a parody but an exploration of the relationship between words and images, visual storytelling and dramatic narrative. Behind the charm, there’s a meta-movie that’s asking some pretty basic questions about how cinema functions.

A cynic might point out, of course, that dialogue-free or dialogue-light movies are perfect creatures of free-market globalisation, verbal language being the biggest barrier to cultural trade. The Artistis itself very cleverly placed somewhere between France and the US, drawing heavily on the idea of Hollywood and using US-based actors while remaining utterly French.

But again there’s more to it than that. Part of what’s going on with the success of the film is 21st-century culture releasing itself from 20th-century ideas of silence. To indulge in a sweeping generalisation, 20th-century culture had two very different notions of silence.

One, encapsulated in the classic silent movies, was of silence as a zone for free invention and the comic imagination, Chaplin and Keaton being the brilliant kids in this silent playground.

This force, of course, largely died early in the century, with the advent of the talkies. Its last great flowering, arguably, was in John Cage’s 1952 “silent” composition, 4’33”, which played with the idea that, when the performer plays nothing, everything else can be heard differently.

But there was another, much more sombre notion of silence – silence as a defence against horror, the idea summed up in the Irish motto “whatever you say, say nothing”. This is the silence of James Joyce’s weapons of “silence, exile and cunning”. It is the silence of Theodor Adorno’s suggestion that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, of Beckett’s long passages of speechlessness, of Harold Pinter’s infamous pauses. The transition from the first of these notions of silence to the second is summed up in Beckett’s Film, which uses Buster Keaton in a silent movie, but as a tormented, haunted figure rather than a comic, elusive one.

If in some ways these two kinds of silence sum up western culture in the 20th century, the new interest in silence now may signal the beginning of a new cultural century. The 21st century cannot return to the relative innocence of early silent cinema, an innocence that depended in part on the simple novelty of a medium that had no history and was therefore in the process of inventing itself from scratch. But neither is the 21st century haunted by the political and philosophical concerns with silence that shaped, in particular, the reaction to the 20th century’s great mass slaughters.

The really interesting thing about The Artistis that it has elements of both of the previously incompatible notions of how silence works. It reconnects with the pure comic inventiveness of the silent movies. But it also, more subtly, connects with concerns about language, communication and memory that are not a million miles away from Beckett or Pinter. In a garrulous world, where it is almost impossible not to be trapped in a perpetual speech bubble, it suggests that cinema can reach for an eloquence that is not all talk.