On Saturday night, in a cinema in Dalston, the audience clapped. They may or may not have clapped after the event that took place next, which was a "happening," involving live, human beings, and which sounded to me as weird as the outfits of the trilby-headed hipsters I had to squeeze past. But what they clapped when I was there wasn't human, and it wasn't alive. What they clapped was a film that had just finished called The Artist.
They clapped for the same reason I wanted to clap, which was that they had, for the previous hour and a half, been lifted out of their seats, and out of the noise, and grime, and stresses of a capital city on a Saturday night, and into another world.
It was there in the wiggle of a hip and the tapping of a toe. It was there in the eyes, and the smiles. It was there even in a coat. (A man's coat that a woman cuddled.) It was there from the moment the film started until the credits rolled. And what it was, this thing that kept a large room of people entranced, and not just any old people, but people who splice and dice their entertainment into bite-sized chunks, which they carry in their pockets, so they don't get bored, was a kind of magic.
It's the magic you feel when you see a smile, and that smile can mean charm, and then pride, and then disappointment, and then sadness, and then more sadness, and then relief. It's the magic you sense when you see two people dancing, and then smiling, and then laughing, and you suddenly realize that what you're seeing, which is what they're suddenly feeling, is love. It's the magic you see when you have to look at their eyes, and their smiles, and the droop of their shoulders, and the tilt of their heads, because you can't hear them say any words.
You can hear music. In silent films, you could always hear music, which reminded you that what you were seeing wasn't life, but art. And so, you know, is this. You know it's art, not just because the title says it's about art, or someone who makes art, or a kind of art, but because there's something about the figures on the screen, which are black and white, and something about the light. There's something about the music, and something about the silence that makes you realize that this isn't just a silent film that's trying to be like a silent film, but a silent film that's trying to be about film, and trying to be about art.
It's a film that's telling a story, because all good films should tell a story, and it's a story about film, and how silence gave way to sound. But it's also a film that's about how, when something is found, something is also lost. It is, for example, about how when there's a silence, other things can speak instead of words. And about how, when you can't hear, you see more. And about how less can be more.
It is, for example, about how just black and white (and light and dark) can add up to more than the full colors of a palette. It's about how an arm in a coat that's pretending to be someone else's arm, and a sudden smile between two people dancing, can be more erotic than a kiss. It's about a special kind of actor called a movie star, and about the special quality they used to have that made movies feel like a kind of magic, and which we used to call "mystique."
This film, about a film, that's also about film, hasn't just made audiences clap. It has also won awards. On January 15, it won three Golden Globes. Kate Winslet won one, too. But Kate Winslet didn't seem to think she had won an award. She seemed to think that her "beautiful children" had won it for her. She was, she said, "so proud to be their mum." She was, she said, going to "share" it with them. Even though they hadn't been in the film, and even though the award didn't look like something you could chop up.
It was like the other time she won a Golden Globe, and thanked a very, very long list of people, and also her children for "going on this adventure with Mummy." It was like the time she won a Grammy, and said it "had nothing to do with me." Said, in fact, that "you never stop needing your mum," and that she would never stop needing hers.
Kate Winslet sounds very nice. What she doesn't sound like is a movie star. She sounds like lots of other actors who talk, at awards ceremonies, and in newspapers and magazines, and in a special kind of magazine called a "celebrity magazine," and also on Facebook, and also on Twitter, about the things she likes, and the things she doesn't like, and about how much she loves her children. She sounds, in fact, like everyone else.
The Artist reminds us of a time when there were some people who didn't sound like everyone else. They didn't sound like anything, because you never heard them speak. It reminds us of a time when a glimpse of flesh through lace made you feel more desire than the sight of a naked body in a thong. It reminds us that there's something more powerful than the things you actually see and hear, and that thing is the imagination.
The Artist reminds us, in a world where everyone is screaming to be heard, but not to hear, that silence is what you sometimes need to let your heart sing.