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ideological technicalities: ‘the big four’ vs. the artist

One may accuse the noughties of many things, or perhaps of nothing at all. Being still too similar to the current decade, a lack of distance renders our target as highly ambiguous. Despite this, there are particular omnipotent forces whose influence was just so great that we are able, at this juncture, to comment upon their place and influence. The internet is an obvious example, but so too is recycling, of a variety utterly without environmental merit. Almost everything in the 2000s was recycled; culture, ideological warfare, cardboard and all to an unprecedented extent. With regards to film, the resuscitation of ideas courant to eras long abandoned took more frequently to the familiar paths of adaptation, remake, sequel and even now, as we remain tentatively tethered to our previous temporal overlord, this practice still continues. The Artist (2011), a film characterised by the uniqueness of its recycling, is a case in point.

Being a very grand Oscar hopeful, one would definitely have to be living under a pile of large boulders to never have heard of this forthcoming feature. Like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) before it, it casts a fond look back upon the unsettling influence the transition to sound had upon the film industry. Unlike Singin’ in the Rain, whose forays into the muted realm played second fiddle to its speaking component, The Artist is aesthetically and technically silent. Silent cinema has been posthumously adored for long periods aided by silent film festivals, live screenings and private viewings but The Artist is a mainstream first. Great lengths have been gone to in attempt to realistically foster the film style of yesteryear and aesthetically and technically this has been achieved. What of the ideological setting? The most intrinsic characteristic of the silent era was its treatment of contemporary social fear and for The Artist to be successful as a reproduction this is something that must be taken into consideration.

The moniker, ‘The Big Four’, is the creative title made in reference to four of the big stars and filmmakers of the silent cinema. This troupe included the famous likes of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and George Langdon who all starred in a similar type of popular feature. The extent to which their films resembled one another renders individual description a little futile, but this is in no way condemnatory. Created in difficult conditions it is unsurprising that many of their films resemble one other technically, in premise and plot progression. Generally an anonymous male who misunderstands the way of the world, technology, women (or all three) trips up, causes mayhem and attracts the aggression of hostile, capitalist characters. Inevitably a chase ensues wherein the star has ample opportunity to display his physical prowess, eventually out-smarting the ‘baddie’. This is, in a nutshell, the cinema of ‘The Big Four’ but irrespective, rest assured that every one of these films is effortlessly charming in its own particular way. The likes of films such as Cops (1922), Modern Times (1936) and Safety Last! (1923) have earned their place in the filmic canon for very many good reasons and are raucously entertaining.

This similarity of trope and character is indicative of a deep-set ideological preoccupation: modernity. Forever chased, hampered and injured by technology and the new world, the various protagonists live the very particular fear that the sharp newness of mechanisation brought to bear. In the process of negotiating a new reality, they represent humanity’s fear, aversion and sometimes biting disapproval. This oft repeated encounter is however no longer relevant to our contemporary existence and, as a modern film, The Artist may have been created under the influence of present day preoccupation. Crucially, its historical authenticity hinges on whether it can faithfully reproduce the particular ideological milieu of modernism, whether it transposes our collective sentiment onto a reproduction of the past or achieves a combination of the two. A completely successful reproduction necessitates a simultaneous re-creation of the past, not its twenty-first century version thereof. In many respects, this is nigh impossible to achieve.

The universe and space-time continuum itself are sick to death of the countless sequels, prequels and unequals rolled out by the film industry to cover up the miserable fact that the creative Zeitgeist finds itself severely lacking. Guilty as its contemporaries of a lack of pure originality, The Artist nonetheless promises a gulp of fresh air as it attempts to embrace the past. How successfully this embrace is remains to be seen. Through a depiction of a reality threatened by the incursion of new technology, it has at least successfully reproduced one facet of archaic social fear. More cause for concern lies in whether the fears of our contemporary society are allowed to impinge upon this new, old film. Realistically, it is incapable of faithfully replicating every arbitrary detail of a vacuous bygone era, but the nostalgic sentiment is sure to conjure promises to be refreshing and interesting nonetheless, particularly if it inspires us to watch the films that inspired it.

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