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As I watched the new film The Artist at the Michigan Theater on January 5, 2012, I wondered what I was watching. Was this a tribute to the silent film era, a satire or parody, or an attempt to work within the conventions of that era?

I finally concluded that it was a labor of love by a group of filmmakers who are obviously fans of old movies. They had the same high regard for silent films as the hundreds of fans who were gathered at the Michigan on that winter evening, but they had the resources and talent to take that admiration even further.

The Artist was part of the 84th anniversary celebration of the Michigan, which opened on January 5, 1928 with the silent movie A Hero for a Night. Also part of the birthday party was free champagne in the Grand Foyer and the screening of the 1920 Buster Keaton silent comedy One Week.

Seeing these two movies together helped the audience to better appreciate each film. You could marvel at the inventiveness of the different gags of Buster Keaton, all executed within the constraints of the silent film. And you could admire the skillful ways that the makers of The Artist emulated the silent film style, from the ancient-looking cinematography to the slightly hammy acting to the old frame width.

And both films touched on the poignant ironies of the transition from silent movies to Talkies. Sound movies affected the careers of the two main characters in The Artist in very different ways.

And only the flickering images of the silent film preserve the best work of Buster Keaton and his many leading ladies, who often had a wholesomely cute, spunky, and loyal personality. In One Week, the role of The Girl (a term used by Walter Kerr in his valuable history The Silent Clowns) was played by Sybil Seely, whose last movie was in 1922. Keaton’s own career faded after Talkies began.

Old and New Silent Movies

For years, I’ve enjoyed silent film presentations at the Detroit Film Theatre, Michigan Theater, and Redford Theatre. I’ve always wondered why a modern filmmaker didn’t tap into this interest with a brand new movie that had intertitles and only music on the soundtrack.

The Artist is a step in the right direction. Its compelling story about a silent film star whose career declined with the advent of sound helped justify the use of silent film techniques. Form united with function, most successfully towards the beginning of the movie, when the main male character watched himself on the screen of a movie house that was as grand as the Michigan Theater.

Maybe next we will see a filmmaker make a silent movie with a story that doesn’t reference the filmmaking process. Something that makes full use of the visual communication possibilities of film, with an emphasis on camera angles, lighting, and editing, and minimal special effects.

It could explore the infinite varieties of facial expressions. It might also make creative use of intertitles, with different typefaces for different kinds of scenes, along with intertitle images that enhance the message.

And of course, any silent film would need to take full advantage of one of its strongest assets—the musical accompaniment.

It was a memorable 84th birthday party for the Michigan, a night on which you felt the theater connecting deeply with its origins.

Many appreciative rounds of applause echoed through the auditorium, including several for organist Steven Ball. He played before the movie (including many Christmas tunes) and in accompaniment to the Buster Keaton movie. He also came back to play over the final credits of The Artist, as a happy crowd exited, one of whom I heard exclaim, “That was amazing, was it not?”

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Copyright © 2012 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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