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Saturday 18 February 2012

The Artist: a preacher's notes from a great movie.

The Artist simply looks great. Glitz, glamour, artistry, and spectacle are all there, yet the blockbuster techniques of zappy special effects and sounds aren't.  Or perhaps it's more accurate to say those things are there but hidden under the guise of 1929/30 equivalents.  Here is a fairly commonplace man and woman story that although told with pace and panache remains a simple tale.  And yet the movie holds your attention and provides an ending with a satisfying, even surprising, sense of completion. And there's certainly a lot to think about in terms of the speaker's art. That's a strange thing to say of a silent movie, but true nevertheless. Here, as a beginning, are four things that struck me:  

1. What we say or plan to say always has to work with audience expectations even before we open our mouths. The ticket seller warned everyone who asked for a ticket that the film was in black and white without speech. She told us, 'People don't understand what a silent film is, and we've had so many complaints, that I thought it best to be clear with people before they buy.' Likewise the narrative of the film has a direction to it which every viewer will instantly recognize. It's a love story that you know will end in love's triumph. Expectations are fulfilled, yet there is still surprise, satisfaction, and entertainment in the experience.

2.  What we say has to have a logic about it that the audience understands and can complete for itself. In The Artist questions asked in dialogues between characters are often displayed as texts for the audience to read. But just like the silent movies of old, the answering dialogue is usually not completed in text. The audience must 'read' the answer from what the actor does, supplying the words for themselves. Very soon you come to realise that this keeps the pace of the story going and you become unaware that the 'dialogue' is going on only in your own head and imagination. So often sermons and other speeches are rendered tediously slow and boring by the speaker completing everything and allowing no space for the hearer's imagination.

3.  What we say may be a story that is essentially simple but that doesn't stop it being riveting if it is well told. In this The Artist excels. From the beginning it's clear that the principal character is in for a fall. Likewise the young actress is clearly going to be fundamental to the outcome. A touching sequence early on, where the first filmed scene in which they act together has to be repeatedly re-filmed because he becomes distracted by dancing with her and can't concentrate on his necessary action, gives a clue to the whole story. And that clue gives shape to the evolving plot. In a sense the audience knows the outcome from that sequence onwards. The telling of the story becomes in itself the thing that engages. The shape of the story told shines through its telling - it doesn't matter that we know, or think we know the outcome. The preacher must have the same commitment to a telling that shapes and satisfies of itself. 

4.  What we say doesn't always have to follow the rules of what is assumed to be 'best practice' Peculiarly this silent film, which tells a story with nothing more than pictures and music, gives weight to the importance of words alone. The Artist reminds us forcefully that pictures can by themselves tell a tale. Pictures have about them a power of disclosure and engagement that goes way beyond illustration. That's a warning to any speaker. It's all too easy to fall into the trap of assuming that in 'a visual age' all words must be attached to seen images. The Artist warns us that doing so may tell a story quite different from the one being said in accompanying words. The pictures can easily obliterate the words. Casual 'illustration' of speech may in fact silence it; whatever words are said. If this is a televisual age in which images are all powerful in what they say, those who say things need to be much more savvy about what their hearers see, if those hearers are to hear anything.

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