by William Boyd

A couple of years ago I was approached by the producer Hilary Bevan Jones and asked to write a short, silent film.  It was only to be ‘silent’ in the sense that dialogue was banned – music, sound effects and so forth were all permitted.  The challenge was irresistible and I wrote a short film – a 10-minute war movie called The Three Kings — about three special-forces soldiers behind enemy lines who are trying to rescue a downed helicopter pilot. Because of the highly dangerous proximity of the enemy – also searching for the pilot — the men communicate largely by sign language.  It was filmed in 2009, directed by Richard Eyre, and was screened on Sky as a part of a season of short, silent films called Ten Minute Tales.

    What was extraordinary for me, as a writer, in writing a silent film was how natural it seemed.  The removal of dialogue from a motion picture, even a short one, proved no handicap at all.  Something about film, it appeared, thrived when it was suddenly wordless; as if the medium was returning effortlessly to a purer form of narrative.  All screenwriters understand this process, in fact. One of the key injunctions you set yourself when you write a film is to ‘show not tell’.  If a scene can work without dialogue then so much the better – and this rule applies to the most intimate moments as well as the most action-packed.

This experience I had of writing a silent film came back to me as I watched The Artist, earlier this week, a full-length, black and white, silent movie shot in the old boxy aspect-ratio that looks set to participate triumphantly in all the upcoming celebrations as the awards’ season gets underway. The Artist is a refreshing and sophisticated anomaly in the contemporary cinematic landscape – all comic-book franchises and computer generated special effects; films that are either made for children or aspire to recreate childish – or should that be ‘boyish’? — thrills. The Artist does use sound for its music sound track – it’s lavishly scored – but otherwise remains almost entirely faithful to the period in which it’s set – the Hollywood of the late 1920s and early ‘30s.  Namely, that moment when cinema transformed itself and the silents gave way to the ‘talkies’.

    In this regard, The Artist recalls Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 film, City Lights – a silent film audaciously made in the face of the sound revolution that was tearing through, and tearing apart, the film industry.  Chaplin didn’t object to sound as such – City Lights, like The Artist, has a music sound-track — but he did hate dialogue.  In 1929, Chaplin told an interviewer that he ‘loathed’ talkies, adding, ‘They are spoiling the oldest art in the world – the art of pantomime.  They are ruining the great beauty of silence.  They are defeating the meaning of the screen… The screen is pictorial. Pictures! Lovely looking girls, handsome young men… What if the girls can’t act?  Of course they can’t.  Who has cared?…‘  Two years later in 1931 he was still venting his spleen: ‘I give the talkies six months more.  At the most a year.  Then they’re done.‘  No marks for prescience, then.

    But Chaplin had his own agenda, of course — the Little Tramp, Charlie, was the most famous movie character in the world, from Tokyo to Cairo, from Buenos Aires to Vladivostok, and to suddenly give him a voice, an accent and a language would rob him of that universality.  But in another way the background to Chaplin’s animus against dialogue is more revealing – and watching The Artist makes this very plain.  Chaplin is correct – to invert his argument – in that without dialogue all you have is pantomime, however cultivated and nuanced that ‘miming’ may be.  Facial expressions and gestures have to convey a full freight of meaning (with the occasional use of captions, of course – but captioning is also inhibiting, you can only use a very few words).  In The Artist you see precisely how clever and elaborate pantomime functions. Music also becomes very important to set the mood – frivolous or romantic, suspenseful or exciting – but even with excellent and subtle acting, even with the ambience determined by the score, the end result is a curious blend of the simple and the strong. 
In a silent film you have, as an actor, a small repertoire of emotions you can employ in a given scene. For example, imagine trying to mime coquettish or yearning, or wrathful or sneering – not so difficult.  Now imagine trying to mime mildly cynical, or suppressed embarrassment, or misanthropy, or partial incomprehension.  It begins to get very hard – shades of meaning are lost, complex mixtures of emotion are next to impossible, ambiguity is a no-go area.  The brute fact is that — without words as well — everything you are trying to convey and depict becomes cruder and more direct.  On the plus side, the benefit of this pantomiming is that the emotional heft of a scene is more impactful because it is necessarily writ large by the medium of silent film – of miming, of ‘Pictures!’ as Chaplin would have it.  And I suspect this fact explains a large part of The Artist’s undeniable appeal.

    However, analysed dispassionately, taking away its unique anachronism, the story of The Artist is fundamentally that of a frothy rom-com. A hugely successful silent movie star, George Valentin (part Douglas Fairbanks, part Rudolph Valentino), unhappily married, falls for a pretty bit-part actress – called Peppy Miller — in one of his films.  Then the talkies arrive and George’s career goes on the slide – he won’t talk on screen, he abhors words, he’s an ‘artist’.  By contrast, Peppy’s charm and beauty set her star rising with alacrity.  Soon George is on the skids, pawning his tuxedo.  Peppy looks on, lovelorn and anxious, trapped in the gilded cage of her mounting celebrity, and decides secretly to help him.  When George auctions his possessions Peppy plants bidders in the room.  George nearly immolates himself when in a frustrated rage he tries to set his stock of his old films on fire. He’s rescued by Peppy, convalesces in her mansion, and their love for each other is finally requited.  Peppy uses her star-power to reboot George’s career – but not as an actor.  Peppy and George become a dancing team – à la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – dialogue arriving in the film at this terminal juncture and – I won’t spoil the final wonderful joke – we understand, let’s say, why Chaplin was so terrified about letting the Little Tramp speak.

    The film is completely charming, funny and diverting.  Jean Dujardin as George and Bérenice Bejo as Peppy are true stars – charismatic and wildly attractive. Michel Hazanavicius does a brilliant directorial job replicating the screwball antics of the period – George’s constant sidekick is his smart little terrier – knowingly replicating all the devices and tricks of the trade of the mature silent movie.  And yet, as you’re watching and laughing and surrendering yourself to this frivolous nonsense, there’s a part of your mind wondering why you’ve so happily left your brain at the door.
    The answer, I think, is an oblique tribute to the power of the silent movie. Charlie Chaplin would have loved The Artist, without any doubt.  The necessary simplicity of dialogue-free pantomiming, its openness of effect, is something we rarely experience these days, particularly over a period of time that the length of a movie offers.  You are touched more easily and efficiently; your intellectual objection to melodrama disappears; questions of plausibility and naturalism become totally redundant because the realm of the black and white silent film is so mannered and artificial.  The world is monochrome; we see people speaking but we can’t hear their words; crude dialogue captions appear that we have to read to explain the plot.  As you watch this film you discover that, quite unconsciously, a different set of mental gears has been engaged in your head — you consume the film in a wholly different way and the experience is exhilarating.

    On the other hand, a little further thought shows what the silent film lacks and what dialogue provides.  There’s a scene near the end of The Artist where Peppy pulls her stellar weight and tells her director, in no uncertain terms, that he should employ George again, the washed-up silent movie star.  It takes a fair-bit of pantomiming, cross-cutting and at least three captions, the last one being the director’s outraged, ‘You’re blackmailing me!’  If this drawn-out moment were recreated in a talkie, however, it could have been achieved in a second with one particular glance and a marginally changed tone of voice.  Everybody would have understood the subtext instantly.  Chaplin wouldn’t have agreed. He once said, ‘Dialogue, to my way of thinking, always slows action, because action must wait upon words.‘  But, as in this example, this is manifestly not the case.  Dialogue can speed action.  In the silent film, when there is any kind of mildly convoluted exposition, it can only be achieved with a certain laboriousness that usually involves hamming-up the acting style and using captions, which are always resolutely, ploddingly on-the-nail. 

And this, essentially, is what the dialogue-free silent film doesn’t really give you – subtext. Or implication, or ambiguity, or nuance, or subtle variation, or irony, or, paradoxically, what is unspoken when we speak.  And so, for all its emotional directness and clarity, its so-called trans-national, universal appeal and its swift route to the individual’s heart, the silent film doesn’t and cannot finally do justice to the world we inhabit and try to understand.

All art is artifice and cinema exemplifies that fact just as well as the other six key art-forms.  But the great films that have been made since The Jazz Singer introduced sound and dialogue to the world in 1929, and thereby immutably changed the medium, have held up not so much a mirror to nature and the human predicament — but a lens. To quote Chaplin again – film is ‘pictorial’ or, more precisely, photography and that objective, unfeeling lens-eye depicts us, ourselves, our lives, in the most acute, detailed and textured way. But we need words, as well, the pictorial world alone is not enough.  Perhaps the unique and telling achievement of The Artist is that it clearly shows us — now that we’ve crept into the beginnings of the second century of the art-form of film — both what we’ve lost and what we’ve gained.

William Boyd co-wrote the screenplay of Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin.  Ten-Minute Tales is available on DVD.