TONIGHT: Cheer on The Artist at the Oscars, but head later to Cinefest for true silent gems

Is The Artist a shoo-in to win Best Picture at tonight’s 84th Annual Academy Awards? The ceremonies begin live tonight at 8:30 p.m. on ABC and CTV.
There’s a lot of buzz that the black and white French feature may become the first silent film since the inaugural winner, Wings, to capture the Best Picture prize. I’ve seen The Artist, and it is a fun time at the movies.
As someone who collects 16mm film and has a basement full of silent and sound gems from the 1920’s, ’30s and ’40s, I applaud anything that draws people into a theatre at today’s prices to watch a movie in the old, squarer ratio. The Artist lovingly captures many of the conventions of early cinema and the two leads, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo (both nominated tonight, although Bejo in the supporting category) evoke the spirit of the late ’20s in their playful pantomime. The sweet shot of Bejo with her arm in Dujardin’s jacket embracing herself by the coat rack is pure Harold Lloyd.
As much as I admired the film, in my opinion, there are 100 films made between 1920 and 1929 that are more Oscar-worthy. Early film pioneers made great art using primitive cameras and lighting, many hand cranking cameras. Buster Keaton all by himself was the equivalent of a one man digital effects system.
My window on a lot of early film comes once a year at Cinefest, the 16mm and 35mm film festival held annually in Syracuse, N.Y. Cinefest 32 runs from Mar. 15-18 this year. Special screenings include the East Coast premiere of the restored Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. film Mr. Fix-It (1918), Mamba (1930) starring Jean Hersholt and Eleanor Boardman (in colour and not seen in the U.S. in 81 years) and Matchmaking Mamma, a 1928 Carole Lombard feature.

Gary Cooper: they had faces (and cigarettes) then

The silent films are enhanced with live musical accompaniment from pianists Philip C. Carli, Andrew Simpson and Jeff Rapsis, who all work wonders in the dark. Saturday morning`s schedule all takes place at a suburban movie house, The Palace, and those are the 35mm offerings. Tickets to the five hour Saturday movie marathon are $25 each. More information is available at syracusecinefest.com.
I’ve lost count of the discoveries I`ve made at Cinefest over the years. To see Gary Cooper in his silent glory is  to understand why he just said “yup” so often later. The guy had so much presence he probably resented talking. I never understood the popularity of Will Rogers until seeing early silent and sound films by this great American humourist. The man had a natural warmth and such relaxed, candid charm. Early films by Gloria Swanson put her mannered, eccentric performance in Sunset Boulevard in focus. That film almost does her a disservice.
Seeing the very early work of Spencer Tracy, Conrad Veidt or Maurice Chevalier is also a revelation. These guys could always act.
That’s why I’d probably pick Hugo over The Artist as this year’s Best Picture. It snuck up on me as a homage to film pioneer Georges Melies. The last third of Hugo is like going to Cinefest–just pure early cinema, lovingly restored and presented in its original glory. Well worth sitting though the so-so 3D kids movie at the start.
I sometimes wish Cinefest would screen some more obvious choices–give me just one Laurel & Hardy short, or, dare I say it? Some Stooges–but this is a film festival where lost films are re-discovered whether they should have stayed lost or not. Sometimes there is even more fun in discovering they made bad films back then, too.
Still, many films are offered over the four days and you will see some gems. Some early silent and sound films are remarkable for their power as well as their sophisticated clarity. Performances can be remarkably nuanced and subtle.
The Artist has its moments, but rooting for it tonight is a bit like paying tribute to the guy who did a nice job forging the Mona Lisa. After Oscar, if you want to see some work by some true artists, head to Syracuse and check out a few of the originals.
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