Fr. Jake Martin, SJ, looks at the Academy Award nominees and this year’s best films and performances through a spiritual lens — and makes a prediction or two along the way.
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Big Oscar Winners Point to What’s Lacking
These are the only words spoken by the hero of The Artist — this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture — in approximately 100 minutes of screen time. These two little words reverberate far more than the wall of sound that fills our lives at any given moment.
What does it say that this year’s most honored film at the Academy Awards celebrates silence? The success of The Artist, Oscar’s other big winner, Hugo (which also picked up five awards), and fellow nominee The Help, speaks to a need in our culture that goes beyond entertainment. Their public and critical popularity is due in large part to nostalgia. I’m not talking about the kind of cloying, empty nostalgia found on a show like VH1′s I Love the 80s or similar fare; rather, a deliberate, pointed nostalgia that has very specific demands for the present moment. These films demonstrate via the medium of the past what we are lacking in our culture today.
Like all significant works of art, they raise questions that demand answers from both the world we live in and ourselves: Where is the desire and belief that a small group of people can make a difference? What ever happened to pride in a job well done? Why have we become so petrified of silence? The enthusiastic responses these films have received from audiences — and now the Academy — add weight to these questions.
Those that dismiss The Artist as a novelty, a cultural throwback in the vein of a Beatles tribute band or a retro resale store are missing the point. If The Artist had dialogue, it would become another, lesser, film entirely. It insists upon a different way of experiencing cinema and a different means of communicating — a means that is always available, but underutilized in the wake of our culture’s reliance on words and noise. When the The Artist‘s George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) transitions from silence to sound at the end of the film, he does so not by speaking dialogue, as you’d expect, but rather by tapping his feet. On a larger scale, the film itself conveys its message in a deliberately atypical, joyously refreshing, and remarkably effective way.
The absence of sound in The Artist exposes the numbing cacophony in our own lives. We live in a world so saturated with sound that the words lose all their meaning; communication disappears and we become a culture afraid of hearing, of truly listening. The Artist forces us to sit and observe without the crutch of noise, and what we discover is that there is something to be found beyond words and it is, indeed, something to be had… with pleasure.