The Rapture of the Silents

The Artist

a film directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Blu-Ray $35.99; DVD $30.99


a film directed by Martin Scorsese
Paramount, Blu-Ray $44.99; DVD $29.99

The Phantom Carriage

a film directed by Victor Sjöström
Criterion Collection, Blu-Ray $39.95; DVD $29.95
Weinstein Company
Jean Dujardin as a silent film star in Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist

By last year it became fully apparent that the long-heralded death of film as we have known it was definitively at hand. The age of celluloid was rapidly giving way—had essentially already given way—to an unpredictable digital future. Projectors and thirty-five-millimeter film prints were being replaced in American theaters by hard drives known as DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages). The manufacturing of movie cameras and movie film was slowing to a halt. (Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy in January.) Movie studios showed increasing reluctance to strike new prints of old films.

These were clearly only minor portents of much larger changes to come, but it was foreseeable that the whole heritage of films made up until now would soon need to pass through a further technological conversion to be accessible at all, a conversion both very expensive and with little long-term reliability. Economics and past history suggested that a great deal would eventually be lost in the process. You had only to look at the fate of the majority of silent films, lost for many reasons but above all because there was no commercial incentive to preserve them.1

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist

As if to acknowledge this most significant sea change in filmmaking, exhibition, and preservation since the end of the silent era—to mark the closure of one era with a toast to the closure of another—the ghost of silent film was summoned up in two of the year’s most widely noted films. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist pulled off the stunt of making an almost entirely silent black-and-white film that took the Oscar for best picture. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo—Scorsese’s first 3-D feature—embedded a retrospective of images created near the dawn of cinema by one of its first great formal inventors.

I approached the Hazanavicius film with a certain dread, half-expecting a confection that would wrap silent movies in an aura of adorable quaintness. But if The Artist was pure pastiche, and undeniably cute right down to an audience-charming Jack Russell terrier (who even got to vigorously reenact the ancient Rescued by Rover trick of saving his master from imminent disaster), it was made with a care so loving as to be almost didactic in spirit. It might have been conceived as a primer in the appreciation of silent movies—not singular classics like Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) or Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) but the run-of-the-mill movie palace fodder of the mid- to late 1920s. Hazanavicius was determined to make the old devices work again, and he succeeded. Audience reaction to The Artist tended to mirror a phenomenon I have observed many times at revivals of silent movies: the initial uncertainty, punctuated by nervous laughter, giving way to emotional engagement and finally to…

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