I’ve been working like mad on SEASON FOR SURRENDER, but yesterday I treated myself to a movie in an Actual Theater. I saw THE ARTIST–which, if you haven’t been keeping an eye on movie awards season, is a silent film about what happens to a silent star after sound hits Hollywood. It’s been rolling out across the US over the past few months, and this past weekend, it finally came to my city.
Well. I love silent films. So how could I resist a new one? I couldn’t. And I’m so glad I didn’t, because the story is beautifully acted and beautifully filmed.
I’m not going to write a review of THE ARTIST—that’s already been done by numerous professional critics. Instead, I’ll tell you three things I really admired about the way the story was told. I think these lessons can also apply to writers.
1. History serves the story and moves the plot.
Our hero, George Valentin, is a movie star at the end of the silent era (about 1927-29). This sets the movie firmly in time alongside, for example, the events of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.
George loves his work, and he loves his fame. He does not love the idea of filming in sound. So when the studio doesn’t pick up his option, he bankrolls his next film himself and produces it as a silent. In other words, George is looking out for George, and he’s doing just fine, thanks.
Except. His self-funded movie releases on October 25, 1929, the day after the great stock market crash. The crash—not his refusal to adapt to sound, and not his decision to finance his own movie—is what wipes him out financially.
I liked this storytelling choice very much. First, it allows us to continue to respect the hero’s decision-making ability (for a while longer, at least). Second, it adds to the powerful sense of place and time.
Lesson for writers: If familiar events and motivations can be integrated into the plot or the characters’ decisions, that will make the story-world seem all the more real.
2. The method of storytelling enhances the story.
I wondered, before seeing THE ARTIST, if its silence was just a gimmick to draw attention to the film. After seeing it, I can heartily confirm that’s not the case; in fact, the silence is essential to the film’s success. That’s because this “silence” comes in several degrees, including:
- Complete silence. No music. Nothing. This is such a startling technique that it holds a great deal of power and is reserved for emotional crises.
- No dialogue; music track. This is a standard way of presenting a silent film, so it’s the “default” and does not draw attention to itself.
- No dialogue; music and sound effects. This is used to great effect to represent the breakdown of George’s world, as well as his isolation from it.
Each of these levels of silence/sound has its own implications and resonance. The blend of sound and image was carefully calculated for maximum impact.
Lesson for writers: Plot and character are only part of a story. The way the story is told—information given or withheld, language made sweeping or spare—can contribute greatly to its richness.
3. Just when you thought you understood the whole story…surprise!
One final plot point slips by in a hurry, but it’s crucial. In fact, it changed the way I thought about the whole movie.
George has just one line of dialogue in the movie. Very near the end, he says “With pleasure” in a thick-as-crème-anglaise French accent.
Whoa. George is French. That’s important.
For most of the movie, the viewer could assume George was American. He was a king in silent Hollywood, and so we assumed, when his studio dropped him, that it was because he was reluctant to make a sound film. But when I thought back, the scene showing his firing seemed very different. George wasn’t even offered the chance to make a sound film. His studio simply abandoned him as unsuitable.
This happened all the time, folks. Hollywood in the silent era was a veritable UN for talent, because there were no language barriers in silent film. But when US studios started making sound films, they had a stable of talented foreign-born actors with thick accents. Actors with accents simply didn’t make the transition, because the sound quality of early microphones was too poor to tolerate vocal diversity.*
When we learn George is French, then, we learn that his profession has changed even more than we thought. Simply put, there might not be a place for him in this new cinematic world—at least, not in the US. And his future, even with a promising new romance to buoy him, is more uncertain than we realized.
Lesson for writers: To engage readers’ minds, lay the groundwork—and then twist the story in an unexpected way.
Addendum: After I wrote this post, I found an article in which star Jean Dujardin addresses this very issue, saying the implications of George’s accent weren’t intentional on the part of the filmmakers. So maybe there’s another lesson here: every storytelling experience includes two minds–the mind of the creator, and the mind of the consumer. In a rich story, everyone will pick out different bits to savor.
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To sum up my summary, then—THE ARTIST is, at its heart, a very well-told story; an excellent marriage of story and technique. I think this is why it’s winning so many awards worldwide. Good storytelling is just as universal as silent film itself.
Have you seen THE ARTIST? Are you interested in watching a silent film? I’d be happy** to throw a recommendation your way if you tell me the type of story you like.
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*The single notable exception is Greta Garbo. Yet Garbo took three years to prepare for her 1930 sound debut, which made her the last major silent star to take the sound-film plunge.