Last night I went to see The Artist, by Michel Hazanavicius at The Showroom Cinema. As a motion picture, paying homage to the golden silence of the pre-talkie era, The Artist was bewitching. It captivated and beguiled, using exaggerated narrative to sweep the audience through the eccentric world of the silent star.
However, I was catapulted back into the world of noise half way through, when a lady at the front of the cinema was taken ill and the projectionist had to pause the film until an ambulance arrived. In this moment, when hushed whispers changed to audible concern, we were ushered into the bar to wait and I found myself thinking about the potency of life without words.
A few days go I visited the Site gallery to see an exhibition by Zoe Beloff: The Infernal dream of Mutt & Jeff. In the gallery were a 16mm film projection and a cartoon playing in the corner. The projection, made up of old industrial training films which Beloff had rescued from scrap, was set into motion with a narrative that explored the productivity of movement, objects and the factory. The cartoon was an old clip of a Mutt & Jeff sequence, in which the comic pair found themselves trapped in hell by a devil (whom they ended up tossing into a frying pan in a bid to stay alive).
In The Artist, there were moments that slipped from silence to sound so seamlessly it was as though the world had momentarily put on a pair of glasses and seen life through a slightly sharper, more three-dimensional lens, before blinking and sinking back into the comfort of a familiar image. A glass clinked, a chair scraped, a feather fell with the deafening thud of a meteorite – and the world swam underwater once more.
Similarly, Zoe Beloff highlighted the significance of cinematic apparatus as a sensory tool, moving the viewer between reality and a dream-like state in which objects took on a life of their own. Objects and tools forged a dialogue between motion and its co-conspirator – line.
Through line, animation can cause the total destruction of law. Characters can die and then spring back into life, tunnels can be dug through the sky and chickens can fall from the sea into the sun. Anything can happen. Motion becomes excessive, and reality is transformed into potentiality.
Beloff is, it seems, very much concerned with the crashing world of materiality. Her films demonstrate a need to re-construct language out of something cast-off, and re-imbue it with a sense of life and philosophical integrity. The cartoon becomes a meta-narrative for the motion-driven world in which we find ourselves plummeting. Motivational factory footage is given a new voice in a new institution – the gallery.
In The Artist, the idea of a new voice speaking is a site of trauma for the protagonist, George Valentin. His dreams are nightmares in which the whole world can speak but him. Just as Beloff gives life to the discarded object, Hazanavicius gives sound to the sets and props surrounding Valentin. His world is temporarily animated and in it he thrashes around, a mute entity.
When the film screening was interrupted by last night’s incident, I thought about the lady who lay still on the floor, mute while the world busied itself around her. I thought about how the reality of sound, or movement, can seem like a foreign land. Valentin feared the acceptance of his own voice, as much as the presence of it. Beloff’s work feared the lack of a human voice, exposing it through the movement of an object or line.
We are never really able to hear our own voice, and in this way we are reliant on the echoes and reverberations cast around us to navigate our way. A moving image and an audible sound both tell us something of the silence in which we really exist.