Dick Meister: The artistry of silence in film

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Dick Meister is a long-time San Francisco writer. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.

I didn't get much sleep last night. I was kept awake thinking of a film – "The Artist" – I had just seen. It stands out, even in the harsh light of day, as one of the very best of the many movies, silent and sound movies alike, that I've watched over the past 60 years. (Read the Guardian's take on the film here.)

Although the widely-acclaimed movie was made this year, "The Artist" is a silent film, except for an excellent music soundtrack that sounds like the live orchestral music that accompanied major silent films. That practice ended, of course, with the coming of talkies.

That's the movie's major theme, the end of the silents – a theme it handles even better than other excellent films covering the topic, such as "Singin' in the Rain." I won't go beyond noting the theme, for fear of disclosing the plot, but, believe me, it's a very well-plotted and well-acted theme.

It was filmed in the United States, and two of its co-stars, Penelope Ann Miller and John Goodman, are American, but it's really a French film. The director, Michael Hazanavicius, is French, as are the two lead characters, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. They play it straight with none of the mugging and exaggerated gestures that were common in the silents of yesterday.

But, boy, do Dujardin and Bejo look like the silent stars of yesterday, he classically handsome with pencil-thin mustache playing a silent film idol in the late 1920s, she with the pert, almost always-smiling look of a twenties flapper seeking film stardom. Their acting is indeed special, as is that of an incredibly talented fox terrier named Uggie, Dujardin's romping, steadfastly loyal canine sidekick.

All that, and dancing, too – especially the stars' dynamic hoofing to jazz melodies that could have come straight out of the twenties. They will surely turn you to toe-tapping and maybe the urge to leap up and do a little body swaying yourself.

The San Francisco Chronicle's exceptional film critic, Mick LaSalle, describes Dujardin's performance as "extraordinary and lovely, the first truly great silent film performance in about 80 years." Amen to that, and to LaSalle's assessment of "The Artist" as "a profound achievement . . . a product of serious study, honest appreciation and love" of silents.

Maybe it could even lead to a resurgence of the silent film, a medium that has not been of much interest to contemporary audiences. For the average person's exposure to silents – if any – has been primarily through the speeded-up, bleached-out, "sound-enhanced" silents shown occasionally on television, that greatest of all the enemies of thoughtful, imaginative silence.

Watching silents presented as intended is an experience unlike any other, one that brings the actors and their audiences particularly close, far closer than most sound films. It requires special skills of actors, film directors and editors, who cannot rely on the crutch of words and sounds to reach the audience.

It requires great involvement and concentration by the audience as well. Silent film viewers are free to exercise their right to interpret cinematic actions as they wish, to imagine for themselves the retort of the gun, the scream of the heroine, the lonesome whistle of the train.

They are free to imagine all that's being said, be it in French, or any other language. Silent films are truly universal and truly a distinctive art form apart from sound films.

Relatively few people have been privileged to see silents as they were meant to be seen. "The Artist" gives them that rare opportunity.

Dick Meister is a long-time San Francisco writer. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.