By MAUREEN DOWD
December 6, 2011
Hello chatter, my old friend.
The sounds of silence are a dim recollection now, like mystery, privacy and paying attention to one thing — or one person — at a time.
As far back as half-a-century ago, the Swiss philosopher Max Picard warned: “Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence,” once as natural as the sky and air.
As fiendish little gadgets conspire to track our movements and record our activities wherever we go, producing a barrage of pictures of everything we’re doing and saying, our lives will unroll as one long instant replay.
There will be fewer and fewer of what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being,” intense sensations that stand apart from the “cotton wool of daily life.”
“In the future, not getting any imagery or story line or content is going to be the equivalent of silence because people are so filled up now with streaming video,” said Ed Schlossberg, the artist, author and designer who runs ESI Design. “Paying attention to anything will be the missing commodity in future life. You think you’ll miss nothing, but you’ll probably miss everything.”
Schlossberg said that, for a long time, art provided the boundary for silence, “but now art, in some cases, is so distracting and intense and faceted, it’s hard to step into a moment. Especially when you’re always carrying a microcamera and a screen all the time, both recording and playing back constantly rather than allowing moments of composition and stillness when your brain can go into a reverie.”
In an inspiring throwback, art once more offers a chance to step into a mute and vivid moment of being in “The Artist,” the new silent movie that hit the Cannes Film Festival like a thunderclap.
First, an American writer and director, Woody Allen, created a gorgeous homage to vintage Paris in “Midnight in Paris.” Now, a French writer and director, Michel Hazanavicius, has created a gorgeous homage to vintage Hollywood.
Not being a silent movie buff, I was trepidatious about “The Artist.” And a 23-year-old at the Motion Picture Association of America screening here puzzled over why it needed to be silent. But I loved the clever evocation of a primal fear featured in the many iterations of “A Star Is Born,” as well as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and “All About Eve”: Will you get to the top, only to be devoured by the hot new thing?
“More and more people have that fear because of the financial crisis and how fast the world is changing,” Hazanavicius told me. “You’re at the top one day and very quickly you can fall. In the generation of my parents and grandparents, people worked in the same factory all their lives. Now people work there two months and they put it in China. Now you’re born into one world and you die in a very different world.”
It turns out that all the skeptics were wrong, and it was clever to do a silent movie in 2011, as an antidote to our modern plague of pointless chatter. It’s a weird paradox that the essential feature of technology is talkativeness, but usually without the sound of human voices attached.
In the case of “The Artist,” silence is not only golden, it’s a reminder of how much you can articulate without words. If you take away the language, green screens and 3-D glasses, the feelings — pride, vanity, envy, fear, love — can be more primary and fascinating.
Hollywood rarely makes great movies anymore. They make comics, phrases (“Friends With Benefits,” “He’s Just Not That Into You”) or holidays (“New Year’s Eve,” “Valentine’s Day”) and attach scripts that are often dreadful.
Hazanavicius has made a witty, moving and joyous romance about a dashing silent movie star, George Valentin — akin to John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks — who can’t accept talkies and a jazz-baby starlet who rises as he falls, and loves him as he crashes and literally burns.
The theme of silence is used ingeniously throughout, in Valentin’s relationship with his loyal Jack Russell terrier, in his “Citizen Kane” silent breakfast table tableau with his farbissina wife, and in the climactic Fred-and-Ginger tap dance that substitutes, as it did for Fred and Ginger, for a sex scene.
A moment where the starlet, Peppy Miller, luminously played by Bérénice Bejo, the real-life partner of Hazanavicius and the mother of his two children, sneaks into Valentin’s dressing room and role plays with his jacket is more romantic than anything Hollywood dreams up.
Hazanavicius recalled that at a French screening of the movie, a group of teenagers approached him. “They thanked me for letting them hear the silence,” he said. “It was touching to discover that these young people, always with their iPods, could like real silence.
“I compare it to the zero in mathematics. People think it’s nothing, but actually it’s not. It can be very powerful.”