2012 has already brought us a whiz-bang 3D lecture on early cinema in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist recreating a silent film for the tragedy of a star who refuses to embrace ‘the talkies’. Hollywood’s no stranger to self-mythologising – they built an enormous mountaintop sign of their own name! – but there’s also a long tradition of mourning how movies just aren’t what they used to be.
SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)
The original tagline to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard was “A Hollywood Story”, and what could be more Hollywood than faded star Norma Desmond saying her performances are still perfect, but “it’s the pictures that got small”. But the real heartbreak here is seeing Buster Keaton, one of the bona fide geniuses of cinema, in a cameo role as one of Norma’s once legendary, now forgotten friends.
If the movies got small, so did their monsters. Peter Bogdanovich had horror legend Boris Karloff (star of 1931’s Frankenstein) available for two day’s work. This resulted in Targets: a meditation on how our classic monsters just aren’t frightening when compared with someone like a quiet Vietnam vet who murders his family one morning before an afternoon killing spree.
BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)
The fact that audiences would rather half-watch movies from the couch rather than see them in all their big-screen glory has been portrayed as a tragedy by Hollywood – but there are other dangers in shifting from analogue to digital. When porn loses the romantic sheen of film for cheap-and-dirty video production in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, it means the end is near for Dirk Diggler and friends.
THE GOOD GERMAN (2006)
It’s easy enough to mimic the styles of old Hollywood. The Artist, for example, is shot at 22 frames per second instead of the usual 24, instantly making its actors appear ‘old-fashioned’. But Steven Soderbergh went further for his period drama The Good German and only used equipment available in 1945. No modern zooms, only incandescent lights, and primitive microphones forcing all the actors to en-un-ci-ate clear-ly.