(non)Silent films & ‘The Artist’ 1

So, I want to talk about The Artist by way of a conference paper I gave (they’ll seem unrelated at first, but play along).

This year, The Artist cleaned house at the Oscars. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, see here and here. The interesting thing is that the Oscars celebrated the film as a re-birth of the silent film drama (not touching the re-birth of ‘French’ as a default signifier of high-culture, but w/e).

Time for a leap: yesterday I gave a paper at the What is TV conference on a cultural history of the aesthetic experience of pixilated Netflix videos from the perspective of someone who grew up in lower income neighborhoods (I’ll post the talk on here once the videos are up). I argued that behind the pixilated film lied two significant aesthetic moments. The first being Napster, where our ability to get free pleasure from music tracks trumps our ‘need’ for perfect audio quality. Numerous people share this moment, across income gaps — we learned to tolerate bad audiovisual quality because we first learned to tolerate bad audio quality. The second experience, for myself, however, is that of stealing cable and the hidden economies of swapping VHS tapes. The gist of my argument is that, for people in the 1990’s, most online video pixilation is tolerated through regimenting the aesthetic experience through the aesthetic lens crafted by Napster — only free has moved from economic capital ($$) to social capital (time). But for those of us from low-income neighborhoods, the experience is regimented through that of stealing cable (and brings up memories of how it’s hard to steal media programming anymore).

Similarly, thinking back to The Artist, we should be thinking critically about how this film is a (re)birth of silent cinema, because it is always already regimented through an in-color, sounded cinematic experience. It is not a silent film, because the silence is constructed through an aesthetic experience that expects sound (and gets it in the end- spoiler alert?). We listen for the silence because we regiment the film through our experience; we do not experience it in the way early film goers experienced silent film.


Baudrillard (surprisingly) is relevant here:

“One talks of remaking silent films, those will also doubtlessly be better than those of the period. A whole generation of films is emerging that will be to those one knew what the android is to man: marvelous artifacts, without weakness, pleasing simulacra that lack only the imaginary, and the hallucination inherent to cinema… Cinema plagiarizes itself, recopies itself, remakes its classics, retroactivates its original myths, remakes the silent film more perfectly, etc.: all of this is logical, the cinema is fascinated by itself as a lost object as much as it (and we) are fascinated by the real as a lost referent.

 The silent film is only made ‘more perfectly’ in quality of image and quality

of silence — in the example of the silent film, it seems as if ‘more perfectly’ refers to ‘more technologically advanced’. If anything, however, the technology makes the aural experience less perfect and the film more perfect. The aural experience is lost to us, but ‘The Artist’fills our needs, because we are “fascinated by the real as a lost referent.”

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One thought on “(non)Silent films & ‘The Artist’

  • David Baker

    Great stuff, Bryce! I love your acknowledgement of the hidden economies of media consumption (stealing cable, swapping VHS tapes); they can serve as metaphors (or maybe more like waypoints) pointing toward an understanding of cinema as deeply uncomfortable with the political economy of its production / display / consumption. Or maybe cinema is comfortable with it, and I’m uncomfortable with its comfort…. =D

    Regardless, the celebration of the illusion that a form is reproducible after being divorced from the labor of its production / distribution and the context of its consumption is simply fascinating. There are a few levels at work here, but It seems to boil down to an interest in obliterating experience under the guise of recovering it.

    Would love to read the paper you gave!