As a first year film student, all I have been watching lately are silent films. Our professors and tutors have been throwing around famous names, which we knew to be monumental and essential to the evolution of cinema, though I must admit that I didn’t know of their individual contributions and overall significance. We learned about a very greedy Thomas Edison; D. W. Griffiths in all his racist glory; Keaton and Chaplin; the Lumières brothers; the warring Russians, Eisenstein and Vertov; Fritz Lang; and of course, Georges Méliès. When you watch Méliès’ 1902 film Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), it’s incredible to think that some of the movies we see today somehow evolved from that level of creativity and imagination. In an age when blockbuster action sequences and cheesy rom-coms rule the screen, one might think that learning about these inventors and artists is something that only a cinephile would want, and have the patience, to do.
While this may be a pessimistic view, there has recently been a resurgence of the silent film, including Martin Scorsese’s Hugo based in 1930’s Paris, and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, set in 1920’s Hollywood. Both were up for major awards at the Academy Awards this year, including the best picture category, which The Artist ate up along with several other prestigious awards, including best actor and best director. The Artist employs several characteristics of early Hollywood cinema: it is (for the most part) silent, has been converted to black and white, and stars the handsome, Clark Gable-esque Jean Dujardin and an elegant, feminine Bérénice Bejo. Hugo doesn’t so much employ aspects of silent cinema, but is more or less a love poem to Georges Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley in the film, and echoing his love for tricks played on the eyes and visual complexity.
So why are directors suddenly going back to film’s roots? It has been done before, and it will be done again – take Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, a classic which only two decades after the consolidation of sound-on-film technology, returns to the golden days of the silent film and satirizes the widespread switch to the production of talkies. It is a way of paying homage to the incredible artists who were there for the birth of the art form and helped raise it. It is a way to explore cinema’s beginning, and perhaps relive some of the fascination that the likes of the Lumières brothers and Edison had with the technology. We do take film for granted as an art form, when only a century ago it shocked and stunned the world.