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Cinema in Focus: Silent Film ‘The Artist’ Expresses More Than Words Can Say

Creative presentation a reminder that our success is rooted in how we adapt to change

3 Stars — Thought-Provoking

More than eight decades have passed since sound movies became an overnight sensation and silent movies became history. It is a remarkable achievement, therefore, to release a “silent movie” in 2011 and have audiences find it so fascinating. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist takes us back to the 1920s in this captivating look at life as if it were all a film without sound.

For anyone who has ever seen Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain, some of this story will seem familiar.

One day a silent star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the toast of Hollywood and is linked romantically on screen with beautiful starlets. The next day, “talking pictures” render him a has-been. His on-screen romantic interest, who is ravishing in silent fantasy, sounds like Betty Boop when audiences hear her real voice. Suddenly she is the laughing stock of Hollywood, and George is confused and hoping that the “talkies” are just a passing fad.

Parallel to George Valentin’s fall from prominence is the rise of Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). As a fan of Valentin, Peppy is given a chance to become an extra in one of his movies and ultimately becomes a new “talking star” with as much popularity as George once possessed. While George descends into despair and poverty, Peppy rises to new heights, but she never forgets that George gave her the opportunity to enter the film industry and ultimately rise to the top. Without giving away the story, the plot ripens around the interplay between George and Peppy.

What gives The Artist its unique expression is twofold: First, the fact that the entire story is told as a silent movie, and second, the exaggerated acting that silent film stars need to portray in order to express themselves. In the end there is about two minutes of sound added that is a reminder that the world is changing and our success is rooted in how we adapt to change.

While it may be true that “the only constant is change,” the fact is that most of us rarely see this rapid of a change. The film industry went from silent films to exclusively sound movies in a matter of months in 1929. Only a few silent movie stars were able to make the transition, and hardly any of them saw it coming.

How many business people would have predicted the impact of the smartphone or any other similar technological advancement a decade ago? How many people’s lives are changed by tragedy, sickness, divorce or loss of income and can say with confidence that they were ready for the experience they faced? Most people respond with the same kind of disbelief that Valentin experienced.

The lessons that he had to learn are no different than the ones we have to learn. It is certainly true that planning ahead, not living beyond your means and listening to good advisers is prudent, but Valentin also had to learn humility and the value of interdependence with friends and family. Change is not going to slow down, but our ability to deepen our sense of community and develop friends we can count on is a fundamental inoculation from the fear and despair that often become all too prevalent in times of uncertainty.

Discussion:

» During your own lifetime, what change has impacted your life the most? How did you adapt to that change?

» When has a movie impacted your life?

» The inability to be humble in the face of change is a problem for many of us. How do you stay open and humble when change is upon you?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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