Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” Gives a Glimpse of Silent Genius

I couldn’t resist.

I was asked to go see Michel Hazanavicius‘ “The Artist” yesterday and I couldn’t say no.  I’d wanted to see it, but after a full day of work…well….

It was almost surreal–there in the quiet theater watching a silent movie.  I sneaked a peek at my iPhone…yup…still 2012.  Still the age of “talkies.”  But there, on the screen, Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman weren’t making a sound.

Or were they?

We have come so far in this technological age, but have gone so far backward.  What is so striking about “The Artist” is its reminder that so much can be said with the eyes.  The body.  The careless, melodramatic flit of a casual hand.  A faint.  A smile.  We can come to love what we cannot hear.  We can actually come to hear silent desperation.

Now, my older readers among you will no doubt say, “Yes Mr. Nobody…but in 19-some-aught that’s all we had!  Well, that and speakeasies.”  I know that.  I’m wasn’t born yesterday (or even 20 or 30 years of yesterdays ago).  I’m just saying that in the times I know, when movies always make a sound, it was enchanting to watch a picture wrapped in the silence of older music and even older human gesture.

“The Artist” is set in the late 1920s.  We take the journey through those tumultuous years with Dujardin (an actor who plays one of my favorite spies: Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, the French spy of OSS 117 fame.  If you haven’t seen these OSS movies, see them!) playing suave screen star George Valentin.  He experiences the highest of highs and the lowest of lows with his entertaining doggie sidekick.  What we see on the silent screens of his movies is so much in opposition to his life in the silent world.  But the one woman who can break his silence, Peppy Miller (played by the striking Bejo), is the one person from whom he seems so distant.

I’ll leave it to you to see how it all plays out–and trust me, you will fall in love with the sequence that brings the first active sounds to you ears.  But for now, let’s talk about silence.  Let’s talk about expression.  Let’s talk about a genius that is in all of us that needs no words to express it.

Think about that last line there.  You don’t need sound to express your genius.  The essence of sculpture, pottery, a math sum, or a great novel is not contained in the sounds they make.  Even the greatest orator–a trader in words–has to have a knack for warmth and expression, or else his audience will head for the exits.  Our very attractive essence and our great capabilities are qualities within that we cannot express verbally.  It’s a  je ne sais quoi so to speak…that makes us who we are.

Don’t believe me? Go on a date and sit like stone the whole night with no expression or caring…see how long it lasts.  Teach a class in monotone and watch the heads bob.  Call up a friend and talk and talk and see how much they actually take in.  Or, better yet, go see “The Artist.”  See how quickly you fall in love with the characters and their expressions, such that their voice might threaten the connection.

You see, the beauty of silence is that it leaves a space that is always open for possibility, creativity, marvel, and madness.  Like the empty bowl or valley of the Tao or the clear mind of the Buddha, that which is quiet is beautifully receptive and always at the ready.  Think that’s too grand for a movie review?  Well, consider where all your best ideas come from.  In a quiet moment, in the shower, just before you doze off…there it is!  Just when you least expected it.  Out of the silence.  Out of the state of non-expectation.  Out of nothing came genius.

Hazanavicius’ gives us more than a brilliant movie.  He gives us a chance to take in a picture in its entirety.  To take in people in three dimensions.  To receive the gift of 100 minutes to hear ourselves laugh in our heads without it being drowned out by the script.

Remember that date we talked about just above?  Try this instead: listen with expression.  Just sit and take in whatever the person says with interest.  Pepper the conversation with your own well-placed phrase, but make sure it doesn’t detract from the other persons’ words.  Show your sincerity with gesture, eye sparkle, and a lean-in.  See how much more wonderful it can be when silence takes center stage.

Heck, if it goes well, go and see “The Artist.”  I’m sure your date will love it.  If not, rent OSS 117.

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