A Workshop on Making Deviled Eggs

Old Cinema is Maya Trapped in Cold Storage

theartist

The Artist (2011)

A nitrate film burns at 17,000 feet per second. It produces its own oxygen and can't be put out with water. You can strongroom it to keep it safe, but, what is the point of keeping films locked up?

I think of cinema as a mandala, a visual scripture of time, that is evanescent and finite. The old melts away, often literally, like ninety percent of old films that are now lost forever. The few left too will buckle with age, or will never see an audience because they are being preserved in a temperature-controlled bubble.

Even if films are everlasting, our minds move on. Beautiful art forms within the medium are ritualistically destroyed every decade to give way to new forms. Vaudeville gave way to silent film, silent film to talkies; black and white to color, films to digital, and 2D to 3D. This transitory nature of cinematic mediums symbolizes the fleeting nature of art and life itself;

Luckily, there is no end to man's imagination. It knows no age or era! One may stop transforming cardboard boxes into forts, spaceships and playthings, but one never ceases to transport himself to different worlds. As he grows older, and acquires new abilities, he realizes those worlds in other ways. For a filmmaker, the camera is his cardboard box, a portal to any world that he only has to imagine to bring into existence!

In the early 1900s, cinema was a game with no rules. There was no one to say what was possible or not possible to do. Filmmakers seemed always to want to make the impossible possible. The silent era was not the era when sound synchronization was not possible, or when cinema did not mean itself to ever be sound-synchronized (several silent filmmakers were happy to upgrade or readapt their silent films to sound eventually). It was the era when filmmakers chose to entertain even without synchronized sound, and oftentimes with a live symphonic orchestra accompanying the visuals. “The mighty wurlitzers” could produce every imaginable sound effect, and musicians were as much film celebrities as the filmmakers and actors; And anyone who makes silent films today will tell you that the genre is far from primitive, and requires tremendous imagination to conjure up new and exciting ways to tell stories that are captivating. Silence was a new language, with a vast visual and expressive vocabulary that was evolving as filmmakers began to explore it through their works! Moreover, silent films offer a wide range of storytelling possibilities that can be deep and meaningful, or silly and ridiculous. And when the audiences took that leap of imagination with the filmmakers and accepted the filmic world, cinema became an obsessive new art form!

There was a lot that was being tried in the early 1900s. In fact, 3D films were pioneered and patented by William Friese-Greene in the late1890s, where in two films were projected at the same time to create a 3D illusion when watched through a stereoscope. Harry Fairall made the first commercially successful 3D film in the 1920s; The Lumière brothers used 3D processes to shoot several scenes in their films, including one as early as 1903. Georges Méliès created a camera so that he could shoot on both European and American film reels at the same time, and when used together, both films created a 3D effect. Of course, production costs meant bigger experiments in 3D cinema would have to wait till the 1950s, when it made impressive headway, and several 3D films entertained a sizeable audience!

Even in the early 1900s, filmmakers began to dream of color cinema. In the 1910s, D.W. Griffith used a number of colors to tint each scene in his movies to complement the moods in his scenes, and he later invented a lighting system in which colored lights flashed on different areas of the screen to achieve the desired effect.

And almost simultaneously as the beginnings of cinema, came the use of visual effects and animation. In the 1890s just as cinema was born, Georges Méliès used stop tricks, made time-lapse videos, used dissolves and creative transitions, multiple exposures, and handpainted color. Several others used moving painted backgrounds and miniatures to depict worlds that didn’t exist! In the 1920s, Dziga Vertov was already making visual poetries full of animation and special effects, by manipulating film and transforming reality.

Even as cinema was being born, no one thought it would remain forever silent! So when I see The Artist, I see a charming film that I absolutely love and will watch over and over again. But, while it pays homage to the silent era, like the "simplicity" of good old cinema, and the charming romantic stories, the tragedy that befell silent artists, it does not fully represent the rich realities of that era from a historic point of view; There was nothing simple and innocent, or silent about 1920s cinema!

In fact, when one looks at the way The Artist is shot, one sees that it candidly pays homage to films made over four decades; which is what I enjoyed about it! You see it inspired by Hollywood as a whole, and by everything wonderful that each era has to offer. For instance, it uses the old square-screen format; is shot at 22-frames-per-second to quicken action (which is somewhat accurate of the 1920s, although typically they used a quicker frame rate, until the advent of sound); it has gorgeous art deco sets (which came to Hollywood only in the 1930s and 40s); and the acting, title cards, and music capture the spirit of the 20s era (even though the music used in the film was composed in the late 1930s).

And, if you have seen the old 1920s films, you can tell that this one is not dredged up from that era. The quality of the visuals is implausibly pristine, since it is not shot using black-and-white film but high quality color film from our era; the camera angles, editing and lighting styles are evidently inspired from films in the 30s through 60s. And yet, it all comes together and makes a movie that ultimately pays homage to the late 1920s silent films in a way that both neophytes and buffs can fall in love with! And in not being accurate, it (albeit unintentionally) captures the experimental spirit of the 1920s; which was an era forgiving of deception! When you think of it as a 21st century filmmaker's love letter to the silent era, The Artist is by far the most beautiful love letter a man of the future has written to the past!
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