Oscars 2012: Battle of the "Silents"
Hugo and The Artist, two movies dealing with the silent movie era, are up for best picture.
Who’d have thought that the race for the best picture Oscar a dozen years into the 21st century would come down to a pair of films, both of which offer tribute to the silent age of cinema?
One of them, The Artist (10 nominations), a French film by writer/director Michel Hazanavicius and shot in black and white, actually is a silent movie, and pays homage to old Hollywood as it made the transition from silent pictures to the talkies.
The other, Hugo (11 nominations), directed by American master filmmaker Martin Scorsese and based on the children’s book by Brian Selznick, reaches back even further to the very beginnings of the movie industry itself through the early works of magician and film pioneer, Georges Melies.
"Valentines" to cinema
The fact that one is a French film about American movies and the other an American film about French cinema has not been lost on critics or the public, both of whom have embraced these films as heartfelt valentines to the history and preservation of movies as an art form.
More importantly, these whimsical yet reverent reminders of a bygone era allow us to see not only the nascent beginnings of a new art form (the art form of the 20th century), but to cherish it and remember how those flickering shadows came to be an integral part of our contemporary cultural zeitgeist.
That culture, which began so humbly at the turn of the last century, first as innocuous thirty second filmstrips of everyday life, then as imaginative ten-minute fictitious shorts seen in carnival nickelodeons, then on into full-blown, feature-length movies shown in extravagant Art Deco dream palaces, went on to dominate all levels of society.
Movie going was once "special"
Once established, the industry took off, first with the glamorous heyday of Hollywood in the 1930s and ‘40s, followed by the French new wave and European neo-realism of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
With globalization and the home video market of the ‘70s and ‘80s, along with the beginnings of media saturation on radio, television and the embryonic Internet, our culture’s assimilation to the moving image was completed.
It may be hard for those raised today in our world of twenty-screen multiplexes, on-demand video, Netflix, high-tech home theaters and low-price DVDs to comprehend a time when movies weren’t so pervasive in our daily lives, but constituted something “special.”
The creative talents behind both The Artist and Hugo have given us all the chance to pause and appreciate what going to the movies once meant and, with a little effort, can mean again.
Whether it’s something as esoteric as The Tree of Life, or as down to earth as The Descendants, (both films, incidentally, with families at their center) the magic can still be found in motion pictures. We just have to be willing to take the time to see it.