‘The Artist’ and the tragedy of sound

When “The Artist” first came out, I thought about a story I had read many years before, “A Sky Full of Bright, Twinkling Stars,” by Pai Hsien Yung. Both the movie and the short story are about handsome male silent movie stars whose careers were destroyed by the advent of sound. Seeing “The Artist” recently, made me want to go back and read the short story.

The short story was published in Taiwan as “Taipei Jen” (Taipei People) and was later translated and included in a collection called “Wandering in the garden, waking from a dream” in 1982.

Sound in movies had a peculiar impact on the Chinese movie industry. If you watch Chinese language films, you might notice that they always have subtitles, even in Chinese. That’s because it is the written language that unifies China and not the spoken language. That was more true before mainland China decided to adopt jiantizi (simplified form) while the island nation of Taiwan uses the traditional form (fantizi). Fantizi is an older form of the Chinese characters generally than what is used in Japan. I mention this also because my Japanese in stronger and because Taiwan was under the influence of Imperial Japan and then became the haven for Chinese fleeing the Communist government of Chairman Mao. In this collection of Pai’s stories, these Taipei people are refugees from the mainland who cannot go home because of this political situation.

While I’ve read one of Pai’s stories in the original Chinese, that was long ago and I’m basing this essay on the English translation. In “A Sky Full of Bright, Twinkling Stars,” the main character is nicknamed the “Guru.” He’s old now, but he was once young. In the 1930s, he starred in the silent movies for a big studio in Shanghai under the screen name of “Crimson Flame.” Yet he was a Southerner–this likely means he was from Guangzhou and spoke Cantonese. Even Mao’s putonghua (language of the common people) was based on Mandarin and Crimson Flame could not speak Mandarin.

Imagine. To have once known glory, even if it lasted only three years, and then to be buried alive by sound. How does one live without the applause and the adulation? Pai’s short story is a tragedy; after all, not only is the Guru not in the South, he’s in Taiwan trying to survive in a country that isn’t internationally  recognized. Like himself, Taiwan inhabits that gray zone between being and not being.

“The Artist” is a feel-good comedy about elegance and is more a loving Hollywood fable that gives us the style of not only the Golden Years of the silent films, but also of black and white cinematography. Beginning in 1927, “The Artist” follows George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who is a fabulously popular silent movie actor and he’s at the opening of his latest film, “A Russian Affair.” He’s more gracious to his dog than to his co-star. While posing for photos outside the movie theater, he has a meet-cute with a young fan, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and she just happens not only to be a hopeful actress, but she gets hired as an extra for Valentin’s new film the very next day.

The two again meet and eventually do a little dancing. As Pepper rises, Valentin maintains his status until two years later when their studio changes over to the talkies. He goes bankrupt, selling all his possessions. His wife leaves him and he ends up living in a small Hollywood bungalow with his dog and butler.

There is, of course, a happy ending in this romcom. Yet the movie serves as a reminder of how many hopefuls come to Los Angeles and end their days struggling to keep sight of even the dimmest light at the end of a very long tunnel. New stars, new hopefuls, old stars and worn out never-been-but-wanna-bes are everywhere in Hollywood.

If the talkies made the movies less accessible for those who didn’t talk the talk, it also made the movies more aware of nationality and region. That still didn’t stop that horrible tragedy that was the 1944 “Dragon Seed,” an adaptation of the Pearl S. Buck book by the same name. The movie featured Katharine Hepburn, Walter Huston, Aline MacMahon, Turhan Bey and Hurd Hatfield who were supposed to be in the same family despite the clear accent differences.Yet perhaps this was because Hollywood didn’t care how foreigners were portrayed. Blackface, yellowface, nationality, stereotypes would become part of the Hollywood movie.

What “The Artist” expresses is the joy of films and the beauty of the faces we wanted to watch and a sense of innocence, a pre-World War II innocence that exists in a nostalgic look back. In today’s world, can we look back and consider how important sound can be without the boom, boom, boom of explosions? What about the flash and crash of cars or human bodies. Think of the new versions of Sherlock Holmes that needs explosions where once character studies and suspense would do. The same thing happened to Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax.”

Can we remember a time before the ugliness of prejudice toward accents (high prestige versus low prestige), before words were wastefully and carelessly tossed out, before we forgot how to have conversations with a glance or body attitude. Before sound, we still had stories that were magical. With less chaotic violence, you can still have good stories such as “The Secret World of Arriety.”

The tragedy of sound is not only what is heard, but what or who isn’t heard. The concept of “The Artist” didn’t come from Hollywood although it’s about Hollywood. While others  are looking into minimal dialogue for a different effect such as the gloomy “The Turin Horse“, “The Artist” is also what the world needs today–a comedy that reminds us we are all human no matter if language separates us. Likewise, short story “A Sky Full of Bright, Twinkling Stars” reminds us how fragile and fleeting fame is and how humans can take the beauty of sound and turn it into a tragedy of prejudice.

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