The Artist: Another Way to Tell a Story

Reader Logo by Jonathan Pinnock

A couple of weeks ago I was giving a talk to a writers’ group, and I got into conversation with one of the members there. She was complaining that she’d just found out that her big idea for a book had already been done by someone else. As I tend to do on these occasions, I replied that the existence of Jill Murphy’s bestselling “Worst Witch” books didn’t seem to have done J K Rowling any harm. Unfortunately her response was to harrumph that she didn’t care for J K Rowling anyway, which I felt was missing the point somewhat.

I would probably have been better off pointing her in the direction of Raymond Quesneau’s “Exercises in Style” (or indeed Matt Madden’s graphic novel version of the same concept, “99 Ways to Tell a Story” . Both of these books take a simple story and tell it in 99 different ways, demonstrating that the subject matter of a story is more often than not of secondary importance. What matters is how you tell it.

Then again, I could have simply suggested to her that she should go and see “The Artist”. As I’m sure everyone knows, “The Artist” is a film set in 1927 on the cusp between the silent era and the talkies. Its gimmick is to tell that story using much of the grammar of the silent era, including black and white stock, a narrow screen, exaggerated mugging to the camera and intertitles for dialogue. In fact, Michel Hazavanicius, the director of the film, has artificially extended that grammar to make it all his own by adding a perfectly synchronised musical soundtrack, even down to the taps on the dancing feet of the two principals. Directing it in the 21st century, rather than in the early 20th, he has had the option to decide what restrictions to impose on himself.

The first effect of the restricted grammar is that much greater emphasis is placed on the visuals. There is an utterly sublime sequence towards the end where the hero, down on his luck, catches sight of his reflection in a shop window, with his face superimposed on a display dummy wearing a tailcoat. It’s as if the ghost of his former career has come back to haunt him.

The other unexpected effect is that it creates an opportunity for gags that simply would not otherwise be possible. At a critical point, an ambiguous intertitle simply containing the word “BANG!” appears. If we could actually hear the sound, it would be completely unambiguous and the subsequent surprise would be lost.

Finally, at a couple of crucial points, the restrictions are unexpectedly put to one side for dramatic effect: first, during a nightmare sequence, where the sudden appearance of sound is terrifying to the hero, and secondly, very close to the end, when we finally realise why the hero is so threatened by the arrival of the talkies. Again, none of this would make any sense in a conventional movie.

“The Artist” works because it is technically perfect, with two engaging leads (to say nothing of Uggie the Jack Russell), but mainly because it has somehow found a fresh, new way to tell an old, old story. That, in the end, is what writing is all about.

Picture credit: kyz

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