Saturday, February 11, 2012

Of sound and touch

Sitting in the last row on the far left of the theater to watch The Artist, I could have - like many others before me - become obsessed with the notion of quiet.

It seems like that's what everyone comes away with when they watch this amazing silent film from the 21st century: how did they manage to pull off a virtually wordless film and successfully screen it for audiences without inducing boredom and sleep?

While I agree that The Artist had a terrific way of transporting audiences into a soundless world (minus music and a few scenes of tap dancing or occasional Foley sound), there was another part of the film that - even in its minimal usage - made me feel truly sucked into the story and removed from reality.

In a scene where Peppy and George are reunited in her home after his dangerous brush with potential death, the two have a moment of closeness that really spoke to me. Talkie actress Peppy Miller, a long-time fan and friend to the now washed-up silent film actor, George Valentin, lies next to him as he convalesces in her guest bedroom. As she lingers in his presence, she puts her hand on his face and gently strokes it with palpable affection.

Aside from providing a perspective on the ubiquity (and sometimes lack of necessity) of sound, The Artist has this very tactile nature that, as I watched the film, made me long for those feelings of physical and emotional closeness that Peppy and George have between them as she caresses his face.

When I was little, I used to sit on the sofa watching TV with my mom every night. I'd lie next to her and feel her breathing and her heart beating at their own separate tempos. I would try to match my own inhales and exhales with hers, feeling connected to her and comforted by her presence.

My mom and I always had a very close relationship. While I'm not sure of context, I still remember her holding my hand and running her thumb back and forth across the back of my hand. The feeling of her touch provided both comfort and protection for me. If my mom was holding my hand, nothing could go wrong.

In an earlier scene of The Artist, Peppy enters George's dressing room on a backlot and puts her own arm through his coat, proceeding to wrap herself in "his" arm and let the touch of "his" (her) hand fall on her waist. It made me consider what the equivalent to this sort of action is in my own life.

Sometimes when I'm sitting in class, in a theater or even just in my room, I will clasp my hands together and rub my thumbs across the backs of my hands the way my mom did for me when I was young. I long for that same feeling of comfort that she provided, letting myself pretend that even though the only person in the room is me, that she is there too in spirit.

But unlike the fictional Peppy, reality Rachel just can't feel the same way through her own touch that her mother's touch made her feel a decade ago.

It's kind of like the fact that no matter how well you tickle others and how ticklish you are yourself, if you try and tickle yourself it's a lot harder - if not impossible - to elicit a reaction. As comforting as holding hands with another person may be, holding hands with yourself really has no effect (except perhaps making you look weird as you walk down the street swinging your interlocked hands in front of your body).

Watching The Artist made me think a lot about the various senses and sensations of life. There's the sensation of sound that the film so very overtly reminds the entire audience of in the final scene with the first moments of spoken language. There's the sensation of sight as you watch the movie set in black & white and glimmering with nostalgic Hollywood charm. And there's the sensation of touch as you witness Peppy and George allowing themselves to grow close through innocent touches.

I couldn't help but be reminded of that feeling of protection. Sitting in an isolated back row in a stadium theater, I couldn't have felt more cut off from the sensation of touch, but the memories that the experience evoked were enough to make nostalgia seep from the pores of my small, interlocked hands.

I loved The Artist. If not for the artful direction, heartfelt acting and the hark back to classic cinema, then for the feelings that the film evoked in me. Through such simple moments as a hand caressing a face or a moment of personal fantasy about being held by one you love, I was touched by a feeling of longing. And as visceral as the longing is, it's just as well the warmest sensation I could ever feel.

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