Next Up: The Artist
February 19, 2013
Alli Jessing, Joint Programs Coordinator for the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, fills us in on our next cinematic screening, The Artist, Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 7:00 p.m. in museum's Kogod Courtyard. Admission is free.
Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton became household names and Hollywood darlings without ever saying a word. They were the stars of long-lost golden age of Hollywood: the Silent Era. On February 20th, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery will screen a love letter to this bygone age: The Artist.
Cinema, in all of its past and present iterations, is part of the core of the American experience, something that both the American Art and the Portrait Gallery seek to showcase in both programs and exhibitions. The Artist complements this, not only as a work of cinematic art, but also as a nod to a pivotal time in American (and cinematic) history. We hope that you will be able to join us for this special evening screening in our Kogod Courtyard. (Don't worry about the weather—the space is covered for your climate-controlled enjoyment!)
The Artist looks at the personal struggles a silent film actor forced to face his own obsolescence while his young protégé thrives in the new era. Set in the late 1920s, the story centers on George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a famous silent film star with a dazzling smile who is at the peak of his career, adored by critics and audiences. He befriends a young background actress, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) but the spark of their relationship is dimmed as their careers take different paths: he falls into obscurity as silent films become passé, and her star rises higher and higher as talkies gain popularity.
In the early part of the 20th century, going to the cinema was an entirely different experience than what we have at our local megaplex. Films were presented without synchronized dialogue: expository information was not communicated through words, but through intertitles, pantomime, exaggerated body language and extreme (and sometimes awkward) close-ups of facial expressions or props. An organist or pianist would usually be stationed at the front of the theater and would play along to the action, or pre-recorded music would be played. Music was essential to the cinema experience: it highlighted the drama, provided emotional cues, and prompted to audience to respond to the action when there was no spoken dialogue.
Thomas Edison experimented with creating sync-sound motion pictures as early as 1896, but it was not until the early 1920s that the technology was successfully developed. While there were some short films that featured a line or two of dialogue, the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue was The Jazz Singer, released in 1927. The next decade saw a revolution in how films were produced. By 1937, the production of silent films had ground to a halt, almost completely replaced by talkies.
The novelty of "talking" motion pictures endeared audiences, but the new technology was not so kind to some in Hollywood. Squeaky voices, thick accents, or a fundamental inability to deliver a line convincingly on camera pushed more than one star into early retirement. The campy, flamboyant, over-the-top physical performances common in silent films looked out of place in talkies, which allowed for a more naturalistic style of acting. Still, it's something of a myth that the coming of talkies ruined the careers of most silent film stars. There were some who could not make the transition and struggled in the new era, including such notable silver screen stars as Buster Keaton and Clara Bow. However, some famous faces successfully transitioned to sound film and enjoyed a career renaissance with the new technology, including Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson.
By replacing dialogue with intertitles and a musical soundtrack, and with stark black and white cinematography, The Artist is both a technical and poetic nod to the pioneering age of Hollywood. But it is not a eulogy to an extinct style of filmmaking: it is a loving homage to the silent era, and a reminder that revisiting the past helps us contextualize our place in the present.
The Artist (2011, 100 minutes; PG-13) will be screened on Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 7:00pm in the Kogod Courtyard. National Portrait Gallery Historian Amy Henderson will introduce the screening. Admission is free. Wine, beer, and snacks are available for purchase in the Courtyard Café.
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