More than just plain ironic, it seemed fitting that the 2011 film, The Artist, would bring home the Best Picture honor from that outdated beast known as the Academy Awards. Who would have thought that a black and white film, bereft of dialogue, could garner such attention in the 21st century, the century of cynicism and hopelessness and a loss of faith in quality and timelessness?
While films are mired in the technology needed to create them in the modern cinematic era—whether it is IMAX 3-D, or Real 3-D, or 4-D, with its volley of objects thrown at the viewer, or furniture that creates mini-aftershocks, or THX sound, with its blitzkrieg of yakking medieval noises, or the ultimate 5-D experience where the viewer gets physically involved in a film, and shapes the outcome in a new and infinitely-plotted film for all time—the non-James Cameron crowd, wearing its proverbial anti-tech badges, wonders what else there is to view and hear and feel and experience and allow to invade the hearts and minds and souls of a gone generation.
Which is exactly the sort of thing that rubs me the wrong way. If anything, my little Hidden Flicks over the last few years have been a celebration of story over structure, and I sometimes got lost in those metaphysical columns without really understanding what drives a film—it is the visual motifs wedded with audio brilliance coupled with timeless characterizations, which make a piece of celluloid stand the test of time, not so much how it was made, or in what format. Technology drives these images, and it is technology, controlled and manipulated, that, ultimately, drives us, too, whether we want to continue riding this flat line to oblivion, or not.
Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, made nearly a century before The Artist, 90 years to be exact, in 1921, was the Great Master’s first full-length film. The silent artist was taking a big risk on several fronts—his films had worked because they were funny, fast and brief. They had also worked because they had relied so heavily on his Tramp persona, without too much filler, or sidebar characters to muddy the comedic waters.
With The Kid, Chaplin cast the young Jackie Coogan to play an orphan, who is found by Chaplin’s Tramp character, and, subsequently, is raised to the age of 5 by the poverty-stricken gent, until obstacles are put in their collective path, conflict ensues and the film takes on an almost mythical tone with one of the most heartwarming series of scenes in cinema history.
The duo had remarkable chemistry, and their bond was tangible. What is most incredible about the film is that their love is so immediate, although not a single word is spoken. Sure, they speak; but in a silent film, all the dialogue is mere imagery, and not narrative fuel. They breathe together in an artistic way, and that was the first time Chaplin had allowed such a thing to dominate his canvas, let alone for a silent film that stretched out for an hour.
And, so, to see The Artist rewarded for its own silent romantic milestones is, indeed, quite a feat in 2011, and makes one feel that the art form still has a place for those that enjoy silent little hidden gems, whether they are hiding in plain sight, like the recent Best Picture, or hidden on a dusty shelf, waiting to be re-discovered again, like Chaplin’s immortal classic, The Kid.