The Artist, Hollywood and Change

There are two themes I’ve been returning to in my research these days: Disney and myth-in-transition. The Disney research is paying off; my chair has given his seal of approval on the completed draft. The myth-in-transition question arose as I was writing the dissertation. 2012 is a year full of potential change, and after researching the Cold War for my dissertation, it makes sense that we’ve been in a period of transition that is hopefully reaching its climax. So when a movie comes a long that speaks to this transition, I recommend sitting up and noticing.

The Artist is a film for film buffs, but I’m not going to spend this post describing the film. It’s beautiful, and deserving of all the awards it has won and is sure to win as the cinema award season comes to an end. The two themes that stand out are: finding your voice when it has been taken away from you and coping with transition.

The film is set in the shift from silent film to sound. The main character, George Valentin, found his voice silenced. He was a prominent actor, resembling Douglas Fairbanks, and found himself shut out of the studio because he didn’t want to easily convert to sound. This makes sense. He’s a silent film actor who has made his entire career speaking through his body language. We learn in the last lines of the film that he has a French accent, which is likely part of the reason he is unwilling to convert to sound. His story is not unique to Hollywood’s history. Several actors found themselves unemployed after the switch to sound because they had unpleasant voices for the film technology of the time. Singin’ in the Rain brings this issue to life, with the blonde silent beauty facing public humiliation because her voice is nasal with a thick New York accent. But, when you love something so much, how do you just walk away? George falls into ruin and depression. The two things keeping him going are his loyal dog and his unrequited love for the film’s heroine, Peppy, which he isn’t even willing to admit to himself for most of the film. Peppy helps him find a new voice through dance. The underlying message is that a lost voice can be refound, and likely it’s resting right under your nose requiring a change in perspective of what your voice looks/sounds like.

For all the study I’ve put into early Hollywood history, I failed to link the switch to sound as coinciding with the stock market crash that launched the Great Depression (but I did catch the themes of cinema during the Great Depression). The switch to sound was a major turning point in Hollywood because it involved embracing new technology and changed the face of cinema permanently. The stock market crash and the Great Depression were both major turning points in American history. Rather than change the face of the culture permanently, as we saw with sound technology, what we see with the Great Depression is an indicator of how slowly a paradigm shift can occur (and how much faster this shift has been compared to those of 2000 years ago!). The 15 years of the Depression brought the optimism of the Roaring Twenties to an end. The events of the Depression helped create government policies to prevent such a major depression from happening again. Americans are understandably frightened of economic depressions, though we tend to forget that depressions are part of the natural cycle of economics. The Depression made the events of the World War II possible—not in the sense of causality, certainly, but that the Depression primed the cultural psyche for the American involvement in the war to happen, and was punctuated with a blast of technology that changed the American temperament and relationship to war permanently. War is a cultural cathartic release. Von Franz notes that war is the confrontation with culture’s shadow, but war is also an expression of the culture’s shadow. Notice the last 10 years, the acceleration of America’s mythic transition, war has been a cultural release, as opposed to a full-on confrontation with the shadow. We’ve been fighting an ideology, not an easily identifiable enemy.

Where am I going with this? It’s not about the end of the world or any kind of apocalypse, but it’s about change. Change is inevitable. Films and other myths such as The Artist remind us that we can pull through, individually and culturally.

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