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On The Artist, The Lure of Nostalgia, and Ten Silent Movies Worth Talking Up

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Just when you start believing there's no hope for anything daring and original coming out of Movieland, something gets released that surprises you.

The Artist is one such movie -- and what's new about it is that it's old.

Or rather -- it's a silent film -- not just a spoof à la Mel Brooks's Silent Movie (1976), but a true homage to a lost art form.

And The Artist really works, recapturing all the charm of a bygone era when movies were really on a roll.

Along with Martin Scorsese's just-released Hugo, the film taps into a growing wave of longing for the kind of pictures that made this relatively new medium so powerful and popular in the first place.

A.O. Scott's recent piece in the New York Times ("Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?") examines this phenomenon, and presumably since his living mostly involves celebrating and promoting the new stuff, he largely debunks it.

Scott's basic argument follows: 1) people have argued movies are going downhill or extinct before, yet they always survive; 2) change is inevitable, and the natural order of things; and 3) in future decades, older viewers will be grousing about how they don't make comedies like they did back in, say, 2011. (Now that's a scary thought!)

Even if all this is true, it misses the essential point.

Many viewers are indeed disillusioned with most of the mainstream domestic movies today, and there are tangible reasons for it -- reasons which go beyond the technical considerations Scott cites in his article (eg, the transition from film to video-based, digital formats).

It's the content up there on the screen that's the real issue.

With too infrequent exceptions, for years now Hollywood has relied way too much on features where quick cutting, computer effects, and sheer noise (!) all work overtime to compensate for bland, predictable scripts populated with types, not characters.

Worse yet, there's a slick, superficial, cynical tone pervading many of these entries. These are not movies that make you feel good about movies, particularly if you're over thirty. (Many of these releases target our attention-challenged kids, which is hardly a comfort.)

Granted, there appears to be a fairly broad populace out there, perhaps conditioned by tabloid reality shows, who seem perfectly content with entertainment that demands nothing from them, and delivers very little that's memorable or meaningful in return.

And so Hollywood continues cranking it out.

Yet for other viewers (and their numbers are swelling), this content neither entertains nor exhilarates, it simply numbs. These are the folks who have virtually stopped going to theatres, the ones who dare to ask A.O. Scott why there are so few good movies anymore.

For these people, when a film like The Artist comes out to significant acclaim, it is a kind of revelation. Because it proves they're not alone -- that considerable nostalgia does exist for movies of the old school -- movies that entertain while engaging both head and heart.

(Never mind that The Artist emanated from Europe, not Hollywood.Then there's the frustrating issue of distribution: while it's easy to find a plethora of substandard entries at your nearby cineplex, currently The Artist is playing at a grand total of four theatres nationwide. Though this will expand, for many Americans, it may never play "at a theatre near you." )

Assuming these promising entries make some money and provide Oscar fodder, could it be the lost art of silent movies will stage a comeback? Or will the studios suddenly start investing in recreating the frothy, sophisticated screwball comedies of the '30s?

Of course not -- and that's not really the point.

The opportunity is to make more films for today that at least take a page from what made the best older movies -- whether talkie or silent -- distinctive and enduring. (Hint: intelligent stories and scripts count; and a recent release like the smart, taut Margin Call is a good example of what we'd like to see more of.)

If this doesn't happen, more discerning viewers will continue avoiding their local movie theatre and instead look back in time, or abroad, to find what they really want to watch.

On the subject of looking back, before seeing The Artist, even I would have been wary to do a piece about the best silent films for home viewing.

But now, having watched it, I feel emboldened, because the movie reminded me just what made this form of filmmaking unique -- the use of expression, gesture and movement -- rather than voice and sound -- to convey emotion and advance the story. When done well, a silent film can be every bit as riveting as a talking one.

Here then are ten silent classics, domestic and foreign, familiar and forgotten, which I think every true movie fan should see at least once:

The Wildcat (1921)- Banished to a remote military post for his unrepentant womanizing, Bavarian lieutenant Alexis (Paul Heidemann) leaves behind a bevy of weeping women and hits the road to a fairy-tale hamlet called Piffkaneiro. In the mountains, his military convoy is attacked by bandits led by free-spirited tomboy Rischka (Pola Negri), who, finding her captive rather attractive, spares his life, leaving the handsome lieutenant to hoof it to the nearby fort in his skivvies, utterly smitten. Unfortunately, the jowly German commandant has arranged for Alexis to wed his dull daughter. Set in a snow-covered fantasy land, Ernst Lubitsch's brilliant and subversively funny satire of marriage and military mores dazzles not only for its frenetic pace and tart performances (Negri's bandit girl is especially saucy), but for its sumptuous sets, adventurous technique, and ever-shifting, almost expressionistic visual style. Even the dialogue is rhymed, like an operetta, all of which might explain why Lubitsch called it a "grotesque in four acts." The director makes hay of military pride and turns all manner of social convention inside out, yet still manages to surprise with an ending (in matrimonial handcuffs!) that reflects his superb comic flair, even in these early years. As one of the most inventive and uproarious of silent comedies, "The Wildcat" deserves a wider audience.

La Roue (1923)- Railroad engineer Sisif (Séverin-Mars) rescues an English baby orphaned in a train wreck and decides to adopt her as a companion for his slightly older son Elie (Gabriel de Gravone). Years later, both father and son have fallen in love with Norma (Close), though she has been promised to another man. When Elie dies in a fight with the other suitor, Sisif is inconsolable, blaming Norma for the loss of his only son. But as time passes, their relationship takes an unexpectedly intimate turn. A mournful melodrama about conflicted love and the pain of loss, Abel Gance's "La Roue" emerged out of two momentous events in the fabled French director's life: the sudden loss of his wife, and a fateful meeting with D.W. Griffith, who taught Gance the principles of montage editing. Shot on location in Nice and in the Alps, "La Roue" is infused with melancholic human feeling as it tracks Norma and Sisif's cathartic life journey. But the dynamic technical innovation on display here is the source of this film's timeless, breath-stealing magic. (Note: at just over four hours, you may want to watch this in two installments, but do watch it- it's well worth the time investment.)

Battleship Potemkin
(1925)- Oppressed by their commanding officers, the enlisted crewmen of the Battleship Potemkin stage a mutinous revolt in 1905 Russia, led by charismatic young sailor Vokulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov). When he is killed during the violent skirmish that results, the citizens of port town Odessa join the struggle against the Czarist regime. Master cinematic innovator Sergei Eisenstein's exhilarating, world-renowned masterpiece re-creates the ill-starred 1905 Russian Revolution that presaged the Bolshevik uprising twelve years later. Celebrated for its brilliant rapid-cut montage techniques, "Potemkin" is a rousing film of great emotional and symbolic richness whose visual sweep and driving energy were unparalleled at the time. The famous Odessa Steps sequence, in which a baby carriage goes careening down stairs as the Cossacks massacre rebellious townsfolk, has been imitated many times, most recently in "The Untouchables." For 69 minutes of pure, visceral cinema, board Battleship Potemkin. (Note: we recommend the Image Entertainment edition.)

Sunrise
(1927)- Seduced by an alluring, mysterious coquette from the city (Margaret Livingston), a country farmer (George O'Brien) plots to get rid of his dutiful, neglected wife (Janet Gaynor). During a lakeside picnic, she senses his motive and flees, finding safe harbor in the city. Guilt-wracked and remorseful, her husband eventually gives chase, suddenly mindful of what he stands to lose if he fails to win her back. For his first American production, the great German Expressionist director F.W. Murnau tells a lyrical story about the classic country-city divide (monotony versus bright lights and jazzy excitement) centered on the crisis of faith and commitment that visits a comfortable married couple. A connoisseur of light and shadow, Murnau heightens the romanticism enveloping this love triangle, using lighting, superimposed imagery, and a gliding camera to convey the allure and alienating dangers of city life in his justly celebrated film. See this "Sunrise" for yourself!

Metropolis (1927)- A visionary depiction of 21st-century society, this film depicts a world in which the fabulously wealthy live in opulence above ground while an oppressed underclass toils far below in a heavily routinized, mechanistic dystopia. Appalled by the workers' underground lives, and in love with subterranean beauty Maria (Brigitte Helm), idealistic Freder (Gustav Froehlich) flouts the powers that be-including his industrialist father Fredersen (Alfred Abel)-and begins campaigning for reforms.One of the most influential films ever made, Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" was inspired by the director's awestruck glimpse of the 1920s Manhattan skyline. Visually astonishing and darkly surreal, "Metropolis" is a flawless example of German Expressionism on film, with its heavily stylized, futuristic production design, odd camera angles, and bleak, shadowy evocation of the not-so-harmonious techno-industrial future. Rudolf Klein-Rogge is especially captivating playing sadistic capitalist Rotwang, who engineers a slave revolt against the reformers. A hypnotic, enthralling silent masterwork by the legendary director of "M" and "The Big Heat."

Chang (1927)- Building his home on the edge of a dense, forbidding jungle in Siam, tribal farmer Kru and his family struggle to eke out an existence and protect their livestock - one of their few resources - from the fearsome wild animals that stalk the rain forest. For their impressive follow-up to their pioneering ethno-documentary "Grass," adventurous filmmakers Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper ventured to Siam, where they captured-and experienced first-hand-the perils of jungle life. Part docudrama, part ethnographic field study, "Chang" is a mesmerizing glimpse of ancient culture and the primal laws of the tropics. Could this be where the idea for their subsequent opus, "King Kong", was born? It's hard to resist wondering, given the filmmakers' attention to a mischievous monkey named Bimbo. But there's much more to watch here, too: Kru's ingenious bagging of a leopard, a thunderous elephant stampede, and a river fording you won't forget. All these years later, "Chang" remains one wild trip.

The General
(1927)- Confederate railroad engineer Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton) has two great loves: sweet Southern gal Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and his locomotive, The General. When the Yanks steal both at the outbreak of the Civil War, Gray goes on a hilariously crazed quest to rescue them, resulting in a rollicking blend of adventure, romance, and high-energy comedy. Widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, Keaton's "The General" finds the stone-faced physical comedian at the very height of his creative powers. Wrestling with a cannon or attempting to mount a moving train, Keaton's comic timing and expressive body language rival Chaplin's, and he puts to shame the funnymen of today. Mack is terrific in her own right, playing off Keaton's impassive, foolhardy bravado with sprightly charm. The wildly inventive stunts and chase sequences are as amazing as they are hilarious. "The General" is one train you'll definitely want to catch.

Pandora's Box (1929)- Sultry, tantalizing dancer Lulu (Louise Brooks) captivates all the men she meets, including her much older lover and financial crutch, Dr. Schon (Fritz Kortner). Though Schon is engaged to marry a woman from respectable society, he can't free himself from Lulu's spell. Even his son Alwa is enamored with Lulu, and mounts a variety show with her as the star attraction. But after a violent backstage scuffle leads to Schon's death and a criminal case, Lulu and Alwa are forced to flee, hiding penniless in one of London's seedier quarters. Tawdry, decadent, and unflinching in its portrait of the moral depravity of the Weimar republic, G.W. Pabst's bewitching "Box" might not be so well remembered today if it weren't for the dark charm of Brooks, one of the silent era's most erotic and stunningly sensual sirens. Playing a flirty cabaret dancer who eventually turns to prostitution to survive in dreary London, Brooks is nothing short of thrilling, with her flapper-girl bob and come-hither expressiveness. Pabst surrounds his sympathetic victim-heroine with a leering old codger, a conflicted society man, and even a lesbian admirer, whom she uses to her advantage. But Lulu's light is dimmed by a fateful encounter with Jack the Ripper. Open up this "Box" for a haunting risqué take on Jazz Age libertinism.

Man With A Movie Camera
(1929)- The people of late '20s Soviet Russia are the subjects of this marvelously dynamic, day-in-the-life portrait by Vertov, who intercuts images of industrial machinery and railway cars with intimate shots of sporting events, street scenes, and all manner of modern urban activity. This groundbreaking film by the experimental documentarian Dziga Vertov is no dry exercise in recording human behavior: Edited at a pace that startled and mystified audiences at its 1929 premiere, and utilizing optical tricks like split screen, stop-motion, and superimposed images that one can merely gape at in amazement today, "Camera" is an early testament to the wit, versatility, and extraordinary power of film, symbolized by the film's bustling, on-the-go newsreel photographer. Shot on location in Kiev, Odessa, and Moscow, and scored by the Alloy Orchestra according to Vertov's own notes, this is a monument to modernity you'll never tire of seeing.

City Lights (1931)- The plot of this enduring silent comedy is beautifully simple: a destitute tramp (Charlie Chaplin) makes the acquaintance of a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and tries to raise enough money to pay for an eye operation that will restore her sight. Along the way, he has a fateful encounter with a drunken, suicidal millionaire (Harry Myers) who may be in a position to help. A silent released when the talkie sensation was in full bloom, Chaplin's "City Lights" still swept the box office by storm. Produced, directed, edited, and scored by Chaplin himself, "City Lights" melds the sweet, harmlessly buffoonish antics of Chaplin's Little Tramp persona with a larger theme of humanistic social concern. As always, the comic sequences are exquisitely orchestrated, particularly a hilarious boxing match with Hank Mann, as a muscled pugilist. But the real highlight is that eye-opening final scene with Cherrill, where Chaplin betrays a touch of something close to angelic poignancy. "City Lights" remains a shining testament to one of cinema's authentic geniuses.

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