Many years ago, a film called Cinema Paradiso employed a very simple device to help the viewer burrow deep into the psyche of both film, and into our personal experience of this world-changing method for storytelling. By the simple virtue of a misguided priest attempting to defend the very foundations of virtue, in his spiritually misguided desire to protect people from the truth of their own passions, we were allowed to see how one passion bears witness to and helps inform and educate on all passions. By removing the kisses, the films shown in this small Italian village always left the viewers wondering what had really happened, while also feeling they'd had a meal that simply failed to nourish. The films were like foreplay that led nowhere.
And now we are given two exemplary films about film, once again. But this time, something else is missing, nearly entirely in one, and from the subject within the story in the other. Hugo, and The Artist, both explore the beginning and ending of the era of silent films, and both with signal success amplify the value of expression and artistry to convey story when the ear is kept out of the room. The face meant everything, whether augmented with makeup and mask, or via more exaggerated expressive means - widened eyes, more pronounced mouth movement, too-obvious double-takes, or any other means to fill in the blank sonic spaces punctuated by the title frames. These title frames usually offered the bare-bones of the explanatory content. The viewer needed to more directly participate in the wider effort of the story's unfolding than is the case since the release of the Jazz Singer in 1929. Since then, the viewer is more of a receiver than a co-equal creator.
Where Hugo excels is in the conveyance of the imagination and magic of filmic story, by letting us experience film through a child's eyes and heart. That the child in question, Hugo, is both deeply suspicious and desperately trusting, he offers us the vicarious catbird seat, riding along at the surface of both his eyes and his dreams, to watch the beginnings of film and how those beginnings began the sure and steady alteration of human experience. Shadow and light, the wonder of an on-rushing train, the uncovering of secrets within secrets - these are the devices that transform us and our own recent ancestors. The world was made anew in each film, whether truthful or fanciful. We, and this includes our parents, grandparents, and great grand parents, differ significantly from the generations before the advent of film, and Hugo delights in revealing the roots of that change.
The Artist, on the other hand, shows film having reached a far more sophisticated, yet remarkably similar state, as when movies first appeared. The story's are just as varied - adventures both old and newer, ideas to keep pace with modernity, and better technology, while retaining the two most essential elements - still needfully inclusive of the viewer, and still pulling rabbits out of the metaphorical hat of wonder. But here, we are at the end of this particular era - the talkies are about to take over the studios. And where some within the industry have the capacity and flexibility to make the transition, others fail to adapt. The star of The Artist being the example here who fails to step over that threshold, and with that reluctance causes the audience to hold it's breath.
But the film does not let us, the viewer have the luxury of making that same transition with the rest of the world, it holds us back along with Messrs. Valentin, the name of the film-within-the-film's star, as it remains mostly silent until the last few minutes. This is it's parallel to Cinema Paradiso - there it was the epiphany of the kisses; here it is the sudden onrushing release of breath and sounds. But the impact is the same. Valentin is desperate to hear, he cannot fathom how in a world where others embrace this strange new concept, he is left in silence, and thereby forgotten by the now-advancing times erupting around him. As the train rushes at the audience in Hugo, sound rushes at us with as startling an effect at those who are the audiences of the first talkies.
Here, then, are two films about the magic and power of film, both as a visual medium for storytelling, and as the engine of imagination and wonder, two elements in poor supply these days, where so-called reality TV, abusive political landscapes, and the lives of children dominated by the chips in their hands, and not too far off, in their heads, have replaced imagination with the belief we have a right to be entertained, passive yet insatiable. Film was once where the mind met the world halfway, where dreams were made manifest where they could be shared with others, in the dark as in sleep, but by the light of a new day, and like dreams, we supplied the sound of meaning, while the filmmakers and actors supply the other dimension: illumination, motion, fantasy, passion, expression. Movies left people full, delighted, and open to the next amazing release of light onto that bright screen in the darkened rooms.
Together, we made wonder.