The brain fills in the gaps—exquisite “The Artist” sound moments going from silent to talkie

When I was reading last week’s rebus post, I noticed something different about my reading experience. I found my brain working harder because in addition to simply reading the words in front of me, I was also analyzing and piecing together visual and sound cues to solve the puzzles. The fact that I had to put in more effort to do something I am familiar with, got me thinking about “The Artist.”

The 2011 film by French director Michel Hazanavicius is a movie about Hollywood in a period of momentous transformation, from black and white silent films to sound films, or talkies. The story revolves around George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a dashing, handsome, very successful silent movie star, and Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a young woman aspiring to be an actress. The pair briefly crossed path in the beginning when Peppy is still unknown. Later, when the studio decides to transition from silent to sound, George refuses to embrace the new technology while Peppy does.

The Meta Experience

Meta is an adjective used to describe a creative work that references itself. The movie takes place in the silent film era and is itself a silent film. It delivers a beautiful, exquisitely treated meta experience where the audience also goes from silent to talkie. You might think it is impossible to enjoy a film with nearly zero spoken dialogue, but it is quite the opposite. You pay more attention to what is happening onscreen and discover you are capable of filling in the gaps for missing conversation and sounds.

The Artist” is 99% a silent film. In fact, the first sound—George setting down a glass of water, clank—enters in at about 30 minutes, or about a third into the film. George, the silent film star whose cinematic reality is silent except for the orchestra scores, now hears sound for the very first time. You, on the other hand, live in a full-on talkie everything reality and have just watched more than 30 minutes of no sound. Yet, you, feeling very much like George, stare at the glass in puzzlement. The sound of a glass knocking against a table sounds crisp, novel and different.

The sound sequence lasts no more than 2 minutes. George also hears the sound of backup dancer girls talking, laughing and giggling as well as a falling leaf that thuds to the ground. He wakes up from a supposed dream sequence and the film, once again, returns to no sound. These two minutes are magnificent (gives me goosebumps)!

P.S. An Example of Filling in the Gaps

The film starts with a title card that reads: 1927. George Valentin appears to be in extreme pain as electricity enters his body from two antenna devices attached on his ears. He screams and writhes, and appears to be in agony (this is a guesstimate because there is no sound except dramatic orchestra music). He mouthes something like “please” (again, another guesstimate, he may not be speaking English for all I know***) before he is shocked again. The electricity stops a second time, and this time he says something that is more like a full sentence.

Then, enters a title card that reads:

Camera moves to two scientists or technicians. They increase electric voltage and continue to torture George. “Speak,” “Speak”—two title cards flash one after the other. George refuses to succumb and eventually faints.

Here, you realize you are watching a silent film about another silent film that is playing onscreen as the camera widens to show a theatre full of audience watching George’s new hit movie. Back to the film onscreen, two guards drag George to a cell. You see the door is locked. Camera moves to George, alone and unconscious on the floor. A shadow appears, you think to yourself, “Hey, what is that? Looks like a dog.”

The dog-like shadow moves around a bit (seems to be sniffing), and quickly disappears between the bars. You fill in the blank. You think the bars are probably a jail cell window and the dog is able to slip through the bars. A few seconds passes and your guess is affirmed. A dog appears in the cell and starts licking George. You see George starts to smile a little, and then he opens his eyes.

Here is where things get interesting. Instead of showing what’s playing onscreen, the camera pans to the audience sitting in the theatre. The music goes from soft, melancholy to dramatic. The audience’s mouths drop as if to utter a gasp. Is it out of surprise? Fear?

Before you can fully comprehend what’s happening, the audience’s faces ease into relief. They laugh in delight and some of them even clap their hands as if they are seeing something extremely funny. The orchestra music climaxes and the camera returns to the film that is onscreen: George has successfully escaped and is standing outside his cell with his dog. You don’t know how exactly George escapes, but you accept the logic of it. Onscreen, George puts on his domino mask, top hat, flashes a dazzling smile (all pearly white teeth and oh so charming) and dashes off with his dog. He saves a lady (you don’t know her name or why she is also locked up, but that’s okay, you understand she is the damsel in distress). The audience clap enthusiastically as the film ends with the trio successfully escaping in an airplane, with George flying it of course.

Ready for a silent film? Get the popcorns ready.

*** Major Spoiler Alert: Did you perhaps cabin George as a native English speaker? Be sure to watch to the end and you’ll find out George is actually _ _ _ _ _ _!

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