The Artist (Aren’t we all?)

Viewing and reviewing is not my reason for going to the movies. (Yes, I still call them the movies).

I wonder if anyone much younger than me ever thinks of them as movies. The term movies originated just for the reason one might think; before there were movies, what you had to look at were a stack of still pictures (photographs) stacked together, and fitted into a mechanical device, which would be activated by placing a penny or two in a slot at the side of a viewing machine; the penny then somehow miraculously freed up the hand crank at its right side. What you did was view and simultaneously cranked the lever; the faster you cranked, the faster the photo cards flipped. Some kids enjoyed whistling as the pictures fluttered by. Adventurous kids would venture out to an amusement park where some of the machines, rumor has it were stocked with a variety of rather risqué visuals. These machines remained prominent for many years after the advent of talkies. As an aside, I can’t recall what this form of smut was labeled, not that I, da harv would ever have asked for it by name.

At first the stacks of cards contained a series of beautiful nature scenes, replete with animals that appeared to be moving across the small screens your face and eyes were pressed up against. The stereo optic gadgets of the late eighteen hundreds were the for runner for what many of the Eastern European immigrants referred to as “fency shmensy” (translation in the 1920’s; “The Cat’s Meow”). During the same time period, the late eighteen hundreds, “The Movieola” was invented as well. And if you’re interested, its still in business today; from hand crank, to electric, to digital.

What the still photographs, the stereo optics, the silent movies, and the talkies all experienced from one degree to another, was the introduction of off color content. Today we refer to it as porn. Amazing how something’s never change. Supply and demand rules.

The artist in all of us, everyone, almost without exception is singing the praises of the very new and inventive movie “The Artist”. Late the other evening, Sunday, February 26, 2012 at the celebration of the eighty-fourth Oscar presentation, the movie “The Artist”, was awarded the Academy’s choice for Best Picture 2011. I agree with all out there who share a similar expression of appreciation. Personally, I found the film a work of charm. But I would have been surprised and deeply disappointed if my evaluation was anything other than that. I wanted to like the movie even before seeing it. Perhaps my reasons won’t surprise you.

Many years ago, it was pointed out to me, along with an assemblage of other desperately naïve young “wannabes”, that with in each of us, our own continual silent film runs as our personal reflection of yesterday, and as a new film of each moment we’re in. We looked at each other, and stared at each other, and began to whisper, first to ourselves, and then almost as a chorus; what in the world is this man attempting to convey? Even us high school kids aren’t that likely to be duped. After all, the guy is a high school teacher, not a star, or a household name. Of course there were a couple of students who broke out laughing, assuming our teacher was actually attempting to bring some humor into our adolescent environs. Then the unexpected; the room grew still. Our teacher stood to the side of his desk, in front of us. And then the silence became difficult for us to handle. Our teacher remained positioned, stoically remaining in exactly the same spot. All of our tenth grade eyes had become his to do with what his inner strength, without the use of words, commanded from us.

“Silent films are really not that silent”, he said.

And so our high school introduction to acting had begun.

“Each of you formed an opinion of what was going on in the moment. Regardless of whether or not confusion took hold, I never the less had conveyed a message. What do you think I was thinking, or had going through my mind as I stood there before you?”

A couple of students noticeably shrugged their shoulders; no sound, just shoulders being shrugged.

“There you go…you’re doing what I did. No sound; emotions conveyed without a word.”

And much later on in the year:

“ So the real question is, how silent are silent movies?… not very. If there’s a ringing in your ears, you can hear it. The guy next to you is at a complete loss. You move to answer the phone, and he thinks you’ve lost your mind. He might even laugh at you. He’s heard to say, ‘That kid’s taken too many hits to the head’. What in the world is going on here? Oh nothing much. This is called acting. Well actually it’s a parcel of my life’s work.”

Still for some of us; but there are no words. What are you talking about?

“This is a portion of my class that will introduce you to the art of showing emotion”.

Life inside an acting class where no words are spoken, or even allowed is a sight to behold. What are you thinking about is always the major question of the day. Our teacher was a man with a rubber face. His ability to show us his emotions without uttering a word was difficult for any in the class to believe, at first. It was a pretty large group of students, some thirty of us in what was known as “Beginners Acting”. We were in the tenth grade. Most of us were age fifteen. If I remember accurately, the class was two thirds female. I signed on as a lark, in order to get out of anything, which might require real thinking, I thought.

Note: From that point on I took every class that remotely had anything to do with the theater. The dye had been cast. From that fateful day forward, and as I sit here now, communications, and emotion, have been the driving force in my life. During the very first week we all recognized a simple fact. This class was the real thing. Our teacher had come from a family of thespians, as he put it. What he taught was in his blood. This wasn’t the same as when I was in the fourth grade as a ten year old. I’m sure many of you did what I did. We were precocious kids, to say the least. But this wasn’t the fourth grade, and this wasn’t an amateur night teacher. This was a live, living, breathing, classically trained actor, who was a dedicated man with a goal. I doubt if Ben Strife was his real name. Like many before him, he had come to Hollywood in search of an acting career. Like many before him, it wasn’t to be the way he had envisioned it. The silent movies that my Dad and his brothers were so enamored with, it turns out, were not as silent as they may have thought. At a time when gadgetry has taken a stronghold on our lives, and the cell phone has reached epidemic, and more addictive proportions than any device known to man, we find ourselves returning to the simplicity of wonderment shared by the honest telling of a story. Bravo to the producers of “The Artist”; the question remains in my mind: How silent was it?

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