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The Artistry of Yore

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By Gordon Meyer
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A year ago at this time, I was living in my friend’s guest house, located in a gated community near Hancock Park.  Several times a year, this 80 year old house, which looks a lot like a French chateau, is used as a location for movies, TV shows and commercials because of its unique look.  In fact, just a few months ago, it was featured in a Citibank commercial, doubling as the location of a Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp.

I bring this up because during the summer of 2010, a location scout came to check out the house for this really bizarre sounding feature, a silent French film about silent movies.  How the hell were they going to pull that off as something more than an art house curiosity? 

As you’ve probably guessed by now, my friend’s house was one of many period locations used for the now critically acclaimed movie, “The Artist.” And what do you know?  They really did pull it off.  Although “The Artist” has its lulls, I have to say that I admire the chutzpah* that French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius showed in making a silent film in the 21st Century.  

Like “The Muppets,” it’s also a throwback to a simpler, more innocent form of cinematic storytelling, which is definitely part of its charm.  And yet, as old-fashioned a film as it is, “The Artist” nonetheless connects with contemporary audiences because of the very human pathos and hubris of its central character, George Valentin.

By making a film with virtually no spoken dialog and very few dialog cards, Hazanavicius reminds us that, at its purest, film is still primarily a visual medium. Even more importantly, you don’t necessarily need all sorts of cinematic pyrotechnics to tell an engaging story as long as you have a strong script, great actors and a director who knows how to let the images speak for themselves.

Back in the day when I was in film school at USCinema, before production majors were even allowed to make films using synch sound and dialog, we made a “310” film, which was black and white and could use synchronized music and sound effects, but no spoken dialog in order to teach us the importance of telling our cinematic stories as visually as possible.  

I don’t know if USC or any other major film school still requires this kind of project, but if they don’t they should.  And “The Artist” is a joyous reminder of how powerful and effective old school cinematic storytelling can still be – even when using techniques and visual styles developed over 80 years ago.

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