The movies of 2011 are a thing of the past—no, not last year’s past, but of a treasured past, with fond remembrances of how things once were and a desire to keep that history preserved. The favor these films have found with audiences is evident in the nomination lineup for this year’s Academy Awards. From the time-jumping antics in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris to Martin Scorsese’s plea for film preservation in Hugo (also set in Paris), the common motif is in paying homage to all that came before.
Heading up this list is The Artist, a genuine modern rarity for not only being in black and white but silent as well. Of course, it is not truly silent—silent films never were, but always had accompaniment by piano, organ, or orchestra, and even sound effects—and it’s score by Ludovic Bource (with some help from Duke Ellington, Red Nichols, and Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo) is one of the ten nominations The Artist is up for. It’s nomination sweep is a continuation of the nominations and awards it has already claimed with the Golden Globes, Directors Guild of America, and the BAFTAs, as well as being at the top of practically every critic’s best-of list.
It seems appropriate that The Artist should be showing at the River Oaks Theatre, it being the oldest operational theatre in Houston. True, it is still not the perfect match of having the film (which takes place at the dawning of sound, circa 1928-1930) shown in a theatre of that same period. The River Oaks was built in 1939, thereby missing the mark by a decade. It is neither a grand picture palace, nor one of the older, smaller silent houses that came before, but is indicative of the neighborhood design that epitomized the period. Regardless, The Artist fits the River Oaks better than any other venue the city has to offer. Both are reflections of their time, and are appreciated all the more for it.
What truly ties the River Oaks Theatre and The Artist (and Hugo, for that matter) together is the idea of survival and evolution in the midst of changing times. The River Oaks opened in Hollywood’s golden year of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, well before the advent of multiple screens, 3-D, digital, and all the other advances that the last seven decades have brought. It alone has survived, while all the grand downtown Houston theaters and most all of the other older neighborhood houses have fallen to waste. Much of it’s survival has to do with the public passion for film, its art, and its past. So too is this evident in Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s valentine to the magic and wonder created by French filmmaker George Melies, who was virtually forgotten by the end of his life.
George Valentin, the protagonist of The Artist, is likewise forgotten. Like many who worked in silent films, he could not see the writing on the wall as sound movies came into being. His opinion echoed the classic quote by Harry Warner, who said, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” He was wrong, as audiences embraced sound, and later would embrace color, widescreen, and all the other innovations of the medium. For all that, the classics of older cinema are still loved for all their limitations as well as their strengths. That is why they are considered to be classics.
And so it is with The Artist, clearly showing that nearly a century after the death of silent cinema, a new black and white silent film can be made and capture the imagination—and love—of the modern audience.
Be sure to see it at the River Oaks to get the full effect.