A Dangerous Idea: Standstill*

Watching this year’s most-hyped movie, the stylised black-and-white silent film the Artist, is a nice treat: Other than spending the evening silent in your room alone, it is probably the best way to enjoy yourself without having to listen to anyone speaking.

And that’s refreshing. So refreshing, that upon leaving the cinema you find yourself a little upset at the following realisation: When your friend opens her mouth to point out the clever references to Hollywood classics such as Citizen Kane and Vertigo, real sounds come out.

There is a similar scene in the Artist itself: In a distressing episode for the lead, silent movie star George Valentin, director Hazanavicius makes him dream in sounds. Mockingly, we are reminded that while we are watching a movie that, with a handful of compelling technical tricks, appears to have come straight from the 1920s, we have in fact arrived in a post-modern age, where such self-referential irony is expected. The movie consequently explores the demise of George Valentin, as “talkies” emerge. With the help of an exceedingly cute dog and the possibly best use ever of a title card (near the end, no spoilers given), Hazanavicius does this rather well.

So well, apparently, that the Artist has become the most awarded French film in history. It even won the Academy Award for this year’s Best Picture.

Undeservedly, in my opinion: It is no bad movie, but neither is it a psychologically subtle movie that addresses current poignant issues (and no lack thereof exists) in any manner that might evoke thought, emotion or fascination. There was a reason why people, after all, switched to “talkies” when they could. And, though mildly less convenient, those cinema-goers who thirst for a silent movie and want a change from endless “movies with spoken word” would perhaps gain more by watching a movie actually produced at the age, such as the new digital re-mastering of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, available on iTunes. Perhaps they could enjoy a movie with a less banally predictable plot, too.

There is a danger of lauding a film as the best on the basis of one simple gimmick. Especially when that gimmick is recycling an old idea. There are still ideas and issues – the Arab Spring, gay marriage, the rise of the Internet and the financial crisis (to name but a few) – out there that merit being confronted artistically. It is dangerous that we enjoy remakes with sparkling technology (think Titanic 3D), sequels (think The Hangover Part II) and old designs (think the New Mini and the Fiat 500) more than anything developed in our age. It is even worse, if an academy that sees itself at the avant-garde of the arts, encourages us to do this.

There is no need to wallow in nostalgia; perhaps I have just become to spoiled with multi-sensorial stimulations to get excited about something that blocks out an entire one (hearing spoken words). But this is no bad thing, no sign of lacking cultivation. I live in age where I don’t need to settle for compromises. Technology has gotten rid of the constraints that caused these. I demand that art embrace the new fanciful tools it has available, not to re-create old stories in new eye candy, but to tell stories and share ideas in unprecedented ways that will mesmerise and inspire me.

Friedrich Conrad, the Queen’s College

This article was simultaneously published on tedxoxford.co.uk and in Kino magazine. Get hold of the first issue of Kino magazine, a new magazine by Oxford students on cinema. Embrace the new.

*Inspiration for Blog question taken from www.edge.org “what is your dangerous idea?”


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