I will start off this post with a confession: I have not seen The Artist yet. I know. It's horrible, but I just haven't had any time to go and see it.
With all that out in the open I think it absolutely awesome that The Artist won an Oscar and I am enjoying the writings and analyzing that is happening due to the popularity of the film. One of the best articles about silent cinema and its importance that I have read recently is from the New Yorker.
David Denby does an amazing job talking about nuances of silent film and how one appreciates it today in his article "The Artists: Notes on a lost style of acting." I feel silly not knowing that most silent films are not shown in the right speed when you see them on TV or through dvd. I always try to watch silents in the theater to save myself the pain of crappy music that weren't meant to be with the images before my eyes. The speeding up of the film makes the nuanced movements of the actors campy and quick, argues Denby, and loses the delicacy of the silent movie's magic.
Another aspect of the article that really got to me is the impact of the larger than life actor/actress:
Seen properly, the best early movies were a revelation, particularly the sight of actors in closeup—filling a screen fifty feet or more across the diagonal, they presented a new landscape of flesh that astonished viewers. Faces that large might have appeared on billboards, but they didn’t move—they didn’t tremble like a field of grain or surge like the sea. - Denby, page 2
I've experience this awe-effect first hand when I saw Beyond the Rocks (1922) in a theater. I never saw the big deal about Valentino until this movie. As I sat and watched him act I realized why he was important, but I didn't get why he was a sex symbol, until his close-up. I think I actually gasped out loud when his entire face was projected on the screen. His pooled eyes, quivering lips...it was all emotion and it was all directed at me. It was amazing and is something I've never experienced in modern movies. Read Denby's article and get ready to reignite your love for silents.
It is because of Denby's article I was reminded how much I enjoy the theatrical quality that silent movies retain and I have made a date to go see Wings (1927) this Saturday at the Music Box Theatre. If you are in Chicago, I highly suggest you go too. There will be live organ accompaniment and it will be magical.