Colourless and silent gems

Saibal Chatterjee finds that Michel Hazaniviciusí black-and-white silent film The Artist, which got much critical acclaim recently, isnít the only one of its kind currently doing the rounds

Based on a novel by Juhani Aho, Aki Kaurismakiís Juha is about a farmerís wife, who is seduced by a city slicker
Based on a novel by Juhani Aho, Aki Kaurismakiís Juha is about a farmerís wife, who is seduced by a city slicker

The stunning Oscar sweep by French film, The Artist, has taken movie fans the world over by surprise. Who could have imagined that a $12-million fiction film sans sound and conventional dialogue would end up garnering unstinted critical accolades in addition to making pots of money at the boxoffice?

Will the success of The Artist, Michel Hazaniviciusí lively tribute to Hollywoodís eventful silent era, trigger a wave of similar films? No. However, the much-applauded film isnít the only one of its kind currently doing the rounds.

Top flight Hollywood director Tim Burton is making the black-and-white Frankenweenie, scheduled for worldwide release in October this year. Like The Artist, it harks back to Hollywoodís glory days and pays homage to the 1931 film, Frankenstein.

Produced by Disney, Frankenweenie is a 3D stop-motion animated feature that builds upon Burtonís 1984 short film of the same name. A boyís much-loved dog Sparky dies. He uses the power of science to bring the pet back to life. Much as the boy tries to keep Sparky on leash, the canine runs loose and causes havoc in town.

Indie filmmaker Vlad Kozlov is giving finishing touches to Silent Life. The debutant director plays Rudolph Valentino, moviedomís first major sex symbol. Set in 1926, the film blends elements of the past and present and uses both colour and black-and-white raw stock to piece together the story of the final year of the silent era Hollywood iconís life.

Besides Kozlov, the cast of Silent Life, which is an expanded version of the directorís silent, black-and-white short film Daydreams of Rudolph Valentino, features Isabella Rossellini and Galina Jovovich, Milla Jovovichís mother.

The Artist revels in comedy; Silent Life is tinged with tragedy. Valentino is on a tour to promote his last film, Son of the Sheik, when he suddenly collapses and is hospitalised. He undergoes surgery but loses his grip on reality. The comatose heartthrob of millions sees the many emotional reverses of his life flash before him.

In 2010, American musician and philanthropist Dan Pritzker made Louis, a fictionalised account of the early life of jazz great Louis Armstrong. Set in New Orleans of 1907, the film employs the ingredients of classic silent era drama ó a boy with a pocketful of dreams, a damsel in distress and a menacing villain.

Shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Louis is a 70-minute with live music composed and arranged by Wynton Marsalis and performed by him and other musicians, pretty much way it used to be in the 1920s.

A strong streak of creative experimentation is a constant in all such cinematic endeavours. It is no surprise, therefore, that almost all major black-and-white films made in the past two decades have been helmed by directors, who work outside the mainstream.

In 1999, Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki made the critically acclaimed Juha, based on a 1911 novel authored by Juhani Aho. While the original story about a farmerís wife who is seduced by a city slicker is set in the 18th century, Kaurismaki located his film in the 1970s.

In 1994, Tim Burton himself made Ed Wood, a largely true story about Edward D. Wood, who is widely regarded as the worst filmmaker the world has ever known. Johnny Depp played the protagonist with Martin Landau essaying the role of Bela Lugosi, cinemaís first Count Dracula.

Hungarian master Bela Tarr makes only black-and-white films. In 1994, he directed Satantango, a seven-and-a-half-hour seminal masterpiece, and followed that up with Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), The Man from London (2007) and The Turin Horse (2011).

The Turin Horse
The White Ribbon is about a Protestant village
Eight-hour-long Melancholia is a meditative exploration of the persistence of sorrow
Frankenweenie builds upon Burtonís short film

Dutch-born Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer made Dr Plonk in 2007 pretty much in the style of a Buster Keaton silent comedy. It tells the story of a scientist who, in 1907, warns that the world would come to an end unless something is done to prevent the catastrophe.

Celebrated Austrian director Michael Haneke won the Palme díOr at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival for the masterly black-and-white The White Ribbon. The film homes in on a tiny Protestant village in northern Germany just before the outbreak of World War I.

In 2008, Filipino maverick Lav Diaz crafted the eight-hour-long magnum opus Melancholia, a meditative exploration of the persistence of sorrow. The film won a prize at the Venice Film Festival and confirmed Diazís position as one of the worldís most unconventional filmmakers.

Clearly, The Artist isnít alone out there. For many, silence is golden and black-and-white has a sparkle of its own.