Silence is a Virtue- The Artist

Ahead of Inverness Film Fans (InFiFa) Modern Monochrome Season screening at Eden Court Cinema in February/ March 2015 I revisited Michel Hazanavicius’ multi award winning film The Artist.

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The first time I saw The Artist it instantly became one of my favourite films. I’ve watched it many times since both in the cinema and on DVD and it never fails to lift my spirits. I have always believed that when an artist of any discipline is fully invested in their work, the audience will feel that energy and connect with it. In the Visual Arts this communication is predominantly silent and although mainstream cinema makes us forget, telling the audience the story through dialogue, Film is at its heart a visual medium. Its power lies in the audience’s felt sense of the unspoken narrative within the frame. All great Artists/ Directors regardless of the age understand this as an intuitive part of their creative vision. Perhaps what struck audiences and critics between the eyes with The Artist on its release was a language or visual literacy we intuitively know as human beings, but that mainstream TV, Advertising, Gaming and Studio Film product largely fail to awaken within us. There is a division in Cinema, mostly in the heads of film financiers, producers and studios, between Mainstream Film and Art House; a belief that you either have to make something “entertaining” for the masses, appealing to the lowest common denominator in order to generate as much profit as possible, or something “intellectual” and aesthetically driven that relatively few people will see and even fewer will appreciate. The Artist explodes this myth in its making and its global reception by both audiences and critics.

The success of The Artist doesn’t just lie in over 150 international film awards it has won including those at Cannes, the Golden Globes, BAFTAS and Academy Awards, or in its box office takings. Almost single handed it has been responsible for a resurgence of public interest in Silent Film. Following its award season success in 2012 LOVEFiLM, Europe’s largest subscription service, streaming films over the internet and sending DVDs by post, showed that “viewing of the 66 films in its Silent Film Collection significantly increased with as much as a 300 percent increase on some individual titles. Of the ten movies in LOVEFiLM’s collection that enjoyed the highest growth, four starred Buston Keaton- one of the greatest silent movie actor-directors of all time.”[1] From Roaring Twenties chic Fashion Design to DVD rentals and the growth of Silent Film screenings with live accompaniment, The Artist has raised awareness about a tradition of seeing the rise of digital technology had almost made us forget. It isn’t about nostalgia for an era of cinema long past, but a living Art, tapping into a wellspring of pure visual storytelling.

The late great American Film Critic Roger Ebert wrote;

“Is it possible to forget that ‘The Artist’ is a silent film in black and white, and simply focus on it as a movie? No? That’s what people seem to zero in on. They cannot imagine themselves seeing such a thing. I’ve seen ‘The Artist’ three times, and each time it was applauded, perhaps because the audience was surprised at itself for liking it so much…” [It speaks] “to all ages in a universal language. Silent films can weave a unique enchantment. During a good one, I fall into a reverie, an encompassing absorption that drops me out of time. I also love black and white, which some people assume they don’t like. For me, it’s more stylized and less realistic than color, more dreamlike, more concerned with essences than details.”[2]

That sense of “reverie” and “enchantment”, the feeling of “dropping out of time” that Ebert describes is the essence of visual storytelling. We imaginatively project ourselves into the flickering illumination between each frame and The Artist consciously invokes that experience being shot at 22 frames per second. Before The Artist many considered Silent Film an obsolete Art Form; however the ability of filmmakers to silently communicate narrative is the foundation of cinema, originating in ancient shadow play on cave walls. Our need to make sense of ourselves and the world around us in visual terms is timelessly necessary and why we need Art in the first place. I first discovered the world of Silent Film in my childhood pouring over stills in my Father’s movie books. What immediately struck me, even aged 10, was the heightened clarity of black and white, the faces of actors and actresses alive with human expression, every tantalising image with a story to tell. That sense of wonder and immersion has never left me; it’s what I hope for every time I go to the cinema and what I found in The Artist the first time I saw it.

It’s true that it’s a charming and highly entertaining film, a winning combination of Comedy, Drama, Romance and a performing dog, but more significant (for me at least) is the Artist/ Director’s intention. Above all else it is a film crafted with love- a film it was thought nobody would want to watch. By the Director’s own admission, The Artist is a love letter to his wife and leading lady Bérénice Bejo and to a Golden Age of Hollywood founded on European artistry. For me it is a film resoundingly about the Art of filmmaking and what it is to be an Artist. There is love invested in every frame, in the meticulous crafting and sensuous attention to detail of Director Michel Hazanavcius’ entire creative team. It is seen and felt in the rich textures and tonal qualities of Mark Bridges’ costume design, the emotional layers of Ludovic Bource’s original musical score, in the extraordinary cinematography of Guillaume Schiffman and  the beautifully nuanced performances of actors; Jean Dujardin, as suave, charismatic antihero George Valentin, Bérénice Bejo as the young, effervescent rising star Peppy Miller, James Cromwell  as Valentin’s loyal chauffeur Clifton and Penelope Ann Miller as Doris, Valentin’s long suffering wife.

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Modelled on Douglas Fairbanks Dujardin’s George Valentin is both masked, swashbuckling super star and fallible human being, marked by his own pride. Dujardin is an intensely physical actor who conveys all of George’s confidence, bravado and vulnerabilities, like Keaton and Chaplin before him. One of the most beautiful and immersive sequences in the film is a series of five takes where we see Valentin fall in love with studio extra Miller set to Bource’s theme music “Peppy’s Waltz”. We see the character evolve from playing his dashing on screen persona with intensely focused Silent eyebrow acting to the immense subtlety of expression which mirrors his awakening love for Miller. In cinematic and emotional terms it is a seamless fusion of historic and contemporary sensibilities.

In Dujardin’s acting and Bource’s music there is growing consciousness, bewilderment, intoxication and desire, evaporating quizzically in the moment. It’s an emotionally complex scene, a far cry from a clichéd swooning embrace or consummate screen kiss, which in The Artist we never see. Its Romanticism lies in creative possibility, expressed rapturously in the final dance sequence as the real beginning of the relationship between Valentin and Miller. Although this scene signifies the end of Silent Film it remains optimistic in tone, recalling the joy and glamour of big 1930’s Hollywood production dance numbers. The visual storytelling allows us to imagine a bright future as our two stars reinvent themselves; Valentin grounded in his craft from his days in Vaudeville and Miller the “It” girl of the moment with boundless energy, enthusiasm and good natured ambition. Miller’s rise as America’s Sweetheart, Valentin’s fall and their reinvention are a wry comment on the nature of fame in a media dominated age; “Out with the old, in with the new-make way for the young- that’s life!” declares a Miller in an interview with two eager newshounds.

The Artist isn’t just a homage or clever imitation of Silent Era moviemaking but a film very much of Now in its reinvention of the genre. I love the way it visually tips its hat to all the artists of European origin who created Hollywood’s Golden Age. Hazanavcius’ vision is informed by his understanding of the visual grammar of Silent Directors like Lang, Murnau, Vidor and Chaplin, but he is also very much his own man. The Artist was conceived visually and storyboarded in intricate detail by its Director, who went to Art School before working in advertising and then progressing to feature film. When long-time collaborator Ludovic Bource came to compose the music, although he listened extensively to the work of film composers of the era; Steiner, Hermann, Korngold and Waxman, what he achieves isn’t an imitation of those film composers, but a new voice grounded in their source material from Strauss to Stravinsky. The subtlety of the five take sequence is achieved because, as Hazanavcius has described in interview; “The script is the right hand and the music is the left.” Interestingly there have been screenings all over the world of The Artist since its initial release accompanied by a full orchestra, an aspect of live performance that was common during the Silent Era. Wonderfully this is becoming more commonplace at contemporary screenings and festivals worldwide as audiences rediscover the excitement of pure visual storytelling with the immediacy of live music.

At the end of The Artist George Valentin reveals his French accent and it is a telling moment on multiple levels. The advent of the Talkies extinguished the careers of many actors from abroad and behind the scenes advancement was often hindered by being an immigrant. As a Hollywood outsider, Hazanavicius takes the visual language of Tinseltown’s Golden Age and entirely makes it his own. It is ironic that Hollywood has accepted the film with open arms, most notably at the Oscars, perhaps not realising that its own visual inheritance is actually European in origin and that Hazanavcius is in fact reclaiming his cultural roots. In The Artist he takes us back to the early years of Hollywood with its origins in European cinema as a baseline of authenticity. Hazanavicius isn’t saluting the American Dream Factory in empty admiration but taking back language. He’s a visually literate Director and the fact that the film’s most dramatic moment is entirely silent speaks volumes.

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The Artist is a film made with love, respect and recognition of the Silent Era and the artists who defined it. Rapid technological change is upon the industry as a whole and the digitalisation of cinema puts us in danger of forgetting the history and crafting of moving images to our collective detriment. The Artist asserts the importance of acknowledging that (in the words of the late Scottish composer Martyn Bennett) “to be pioneers we first have to acknowledge that we are heirs”. The visual grammar referenced by The Artist is also a rallying point for film conservation and restoration. Of the films that we know of produced during the Silent Era it is estimated that 80% have already been lost. The Artist is the story of the rise of young starlet Peppy Miller, the “fresh meat” of a new age of moviemaking and the fall of aging Silent star George Valentin, who cannot accept the technological change sweeping the industry he helped to create. It isn’t hard to draw a parallel between this and the transition from film to digital in contemporary Cinema.

It is perhaps for this reason that for me the most moving image in the film is the moment when Valentin is standing in the ruins of his apartment; the windows are smashed and the room has been ravaged by fire, the only movement is a slight breeze coming through the window, the light muted but illuminating- it feels very much like a fragment of very early film. He is literally and metaphorically standing in the celluloid ashes of his career. Everything seems hopeless and the grain of the image suggests that like nitrate, the film could burst into flames any second and be extinguished- much like the life of the central character. In that moment the personal becomes the universal, the mark of a true Artist/ Director and in a single frame it says everything about the vulnerability of film as a medium. The texture of the image reminded me very much of the work of photographers like Steichen and Stieglitz who in the early days of photography were a bridge between painting and the new technology. At the time photography was thought to herald the death of painting. Similarly many have proclaimed the death of film in recent years. The Artist is a film about film making in a time of great change and upheaval- that is what elevates it above and beyond mere entertainment. It speaks powerfully and resoundingly of Now and of the choices made by both Artists and audiences. In years to come it will become source material of our age.

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What I love about this film is the breath taking eloquence of its visual communication; the fanciful mime of the empty suit, the Surrealist cloud screen and dancing legs, the studio staircase sequence where Schiffman balances tone, movement and architecture in a composition that feels like pure music, the shadows of rain that fall down George’s face as he’s inwardly crying, George’s heightened dream sequence infiltrated by sound, his confrontation with his own shadow self and his world reduced to a pile of burning celluloid. I love The Artist it for its intelligence, humour and unashamed Romance, for the exquisite camerawork and its impeccable performances. I love that it has a brain and a heart- it makes me think, laugh and cry. But above all it makes me value those Artists who are told their film is one that nobody will want to watch, but toil to make it anyway  and change the way we see as a result. It’s the reason I feel renewed and invigorated every time I watch it.

Inverness Film Fans (InFiFa) Modern Monochrome Season

The Artist Wednesday 25th February 7.15pm

Ed Wood – Tuesday 10th March at 7.15pm

The Man Who Wasn’t ThereTuesday 24th March at 7.15pm

All films will be followed by a post-screening discussion, all welcome.

www.invernessfilmfans.org

www.eden-court.co.uk

[1]  6th March 2012, www.Film-News.co.uk

[2] Roger Ebert, The Artist, December 21, 2011.  www.rogerebert.com

Kilmorack Winter Exhibition

29 November 2014 – March 2015

Kilmorack Gallery, By Beauly

Summit-Fever

James Newton Adams,Summit Fever

Kilmorack’s Winter Exhibition features some exciting work by established artists and those new to the gallery including; James Newton Adams, Paul Bloomer, Patricia Cain,Sam Cartman, Kirstie Cohen, Peter Davis, Helen Denerley, Henry Fraser, Leonie Gibbs, Gail Harvey, Liz Knox, Allan MacDonald, Charles MacQueen, Illona Morrice, Robert Powell and Peter White.

It’s always a pleasure to see work by Shetland based artist Paul Bloomer, particularly his larger scale paintings and woodcuts. View From My Reawick Studio (Woodcut, 65 x 77cm, 1 of 20) with its heightened Expressionistic perspective leads the eye into the composition along a curve of wire to a progression of electricity poles and a tiny cottage in the distance. A squall of marks in which sky, sea and wind are bound together in an undeniable upsurge of energy inform human scale in the image. The angular bisection of the composition creates a psychological edge in stark black and white, with the human dwelling perched precariously on a downward slope of ground. Two curlews drift above the turbulence in ascension, while another sits stationary on the pole in the foreground; at home in their environment, pitched against the gouged physicality of sky.

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Paul Bloomer,View From My Reawick Studio

Bloomer’s large scale woodcuts are the perfect combination of immediacy and deliberation; the spontaneity and intensity of the drawn mark in brilliant counterpoint with highly skilled formal design. Drawing and painting out of doors in all weathers, at the mercy of nature in the UK’s most Northerly Isles gives Bloomer’s work a unique dynamism and perspective on humanity. Charcoal drawing onto board provides the foundation for his consummate skill as a printmaker. Woodcuts demand an assured hand and mindful, hewn precision in their making, qualities which have always been present in this artist’s work; from the powerful social critiques of his Black Country figurative works to his current focus on the natural world.

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Paul Bloomer Gannets at Noss

His depictions of birds, particularly those in flight such as Gannets at Noss (Woodcut, 95 x 64cm, 1 of 20) or resting Yellow Warblers (Woodcut, 1 of 20, 50 x 64cm) are invested with life and light. In the former we see the aerodynamic velocity of gannets plummeting into the ocean, their design in perfect harmony with their natural drive to feed. The spiral like composition of Yellow Warblers exudes luminosity and natural order, the cyclical nature of life and vulnerability in bold silhouette. These are medium sized works compared to the expansive scope of Bloomer’s Art in Oils, Watercolour, Mixed Media and Printmaking; however their distinctive style and execution make them among the most striking works in the exhibition.

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Peter Davis Watch House Loch

Another Shetland based artist Peter Davis demonstrates his adeptness with watercolour, creating contemplative images with enviable economy. In Watch House Loch (Watercolour, 47 x 68cm) a basin like field of washes bled into progressive depths of ultramarine create a sense of emotional depth. The stillness of sky, water and reflective cloud in Davis’s lyrical image Smalla Waters at Dusk (Watercolour, 47 x 68cm) is a highlight in a suite of paintings by the artist which extend into abstraction. The most convincing of these are bridges between representation and abstraction, where the artist’s command of the medium is finely balanced in calculated fluidity. The suspension of pigment gives these works delicacy, revealing distinct qualities of light found only in the far Northern landscape.

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Allan MacDonald,   A Dense Accumulation

Allan MacDonald has contributed some truly celebratory works to the exhibition. A Dense Accumulation (Oil on Board, 50 x 60cm) is a work of beauty with life in every mark. It’s a joyful celebration of nature in full bloom reaching towards an affirmation of blue sky. This quality is also present in Storm Cloud, Wheatfield, Oil on Board 25 x 30cm) where a thick impasto field is aglow and the threat of storm clouds are subtly contrasted with the brightness of blue above. The paint handling is fully invested in the subject, reinterpreting the landscape and our place within it. Sound of Many Waters (Oil on Board, 17 x 61cm) is another beautifully realised marriage of colour, texture and gestural mark; the rough edges of the board complementing the yellow of unfurling waves, deep oceanic greens and steadfast purple headland. Calm water, tide and ocean swell meet in a single evasive moment captured by MacDonald’s intuitive response to his environment and masterly paint handling.

Charles MacQueen’s work celebrates intense associations of colour, form and place. Pool Essaouira ( Mixed Media, 71 x 73cm) is a symphony of blue where overlapping fields of colour create depth in a supremely balanced composition of form and feeling. Heat Marrakech (Mixed Media, 102 x 76cm) is a furnace of orange and red, while Heat (Mixed Media, 70 x 60cm) contrasts the cool interior arch of the doorway with the glow of incandescent cadmium red. We rest in a space between shadow and light in MacQueen’s evocation of place and memory.

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Liz Knox, Object Troves

A new addition to the gallery’s established artists is Liz Knox, whose best oil paintings are an intuitive rather than literal interpretation of the Northern Scottish coastline. Although the high octane palette sits on a formulaic edge, her nuanced paint handling is extremely sensitive and demonstrates great promise. Object Troves (Oil on Canvas, 71 x 102cm) is a good example, with the under painting emerging from shifting sands and receding tide. Within this fluid environment we see reliquaries of memory; gathered shells, a shoe and a bucket and spade presented in precious alcoves of sand and remembrance.

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Liz Knox, Near Rispond, Sutherland

Near Rispond, Sutherland (Oil on Canvas, 71 x 102cm.) with its expanse of beach, depth of colour and emergent light on the horizon also presents an interpretative space rather than a pictorial scene. The rocks in the foreground feel like a mountainous microcosm of Sutherland, heightened by wedged accents of brilliant red. The curvature of a tide like stain in the lower right hand corner reveals the ebb and flow of the artist’s own rhythm and way of seeing; a distinctive voice which becomes somewhat lost in a work like Helmsdale Masts where the handling and palette are too uniform. What separates and elevates exponents of landscape painting in the UK is the artist’s ability to mindfully inhabit the landscape rather than simply look at it. Whatever the style may be if the artist is invested in such a way then inevitably the audience will feel it.

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James Newton Adams, The Milk Round

In Summit Fever James Newton Adams’ Summit Fever (Acrylic on Board, 76 x 76cm) the frozen ground is flattened into a promontory that extends into the icy blue sea beyond. With an economy of mark the artist portrays the human state of activity in each tiny figure, a quality which extends to a rare interior scene Highland Wedding (Acrylic on Card, 76 x 101cm). There is humour and pathos as we enter the austere expanse of a hall populated with tiny figures at a wedding reception, each one expressive of their own inner state. The naïve style is immediate and the perspective emotive. The Milk Round (Acrylic on Card, 76 x 76cm) is another fine example where the winding street of a seaside village dwarfs the lone figure bent double like the warning of an “aged” street sign, carrying home a dead weight of loneliness in a bag of shopping. The isolation of the human being is present in all of these works, but there is also life and humour in the artist’s keen observation. Although reminiscent of Lowry, these latest works are very much branded by Adams’ unique vision of humanity and the psychological territory of Northern Scotland. Until the daffodils begin to appear Kilmorack is a great place to fill the winter months with colour, light and insight.

All images by kind permission of Kilmorack Gallery.

www.kilmorackgallery.co.uk