Death of a movie trope: could newspapers be spinning their last?
Nostalgia is a funny thing. These days, we really can’t get away from it. Whether through vintage fashion or tinted Instagram photos, we seem to want to live continually in the past. Which is perhaps one reason why The Artist, which comes out on DVD today, was such a surprise hit last year. A love letter to silent cinema, it triumphed at the Oscars with its story of George Valentin, a silent movie actor who struggles with the arrival of the talkies.
Much has already been written about The Artist as an homage to films of the 1920s and 1930s. As much as a classic tale of misplaced pride, the film is a meta-textual romp through the movie conventions of the time, making gleeful use of an orchestra score, inter-titles and static shots. However, as I was watching The Artist again recently, I was struck by one convention in particular that is rarely seen these days: the newspaper montage.
Now, the newspaper montage isn’t extinct yet — but it is, as movie conventions go, an endangered species. You know the kind of montage I’m talking about: the classic effect where newspaper front pages spin into the foreground, or are layered on top of one another, or churned off a printing press. It’s a movie trope so familiar that it’s been endlessly parodied. Yet, as sales of printed news decline, it’s an effect that looks set to be lost in the near future. We are creatures of a digital age, consuming news online, scrolling across headlines on our tablets, picking up breaking news from Twitter.
Yet watching The Artist reminded me of a time when newspapers were ubiquitous, the bread and butter of all media. The Artist features news stories at several crucial moments of the film, with the headline text providing a handy way of driving the plot without sound. When George first meets Peppy, his rival and love interest, their picture ends up on the front page of Variety. Later, when George is fired from his studio, there’s a printing press montage of news stories contrasting his investment in silent films with Peppy’s growing success. Later still, George’s fate is sealed when his assistant shows him the front page of the LA Times, which reads “STOCKMARKET CRASH”.
Newspapers have always played in important part in films, but news montages in particular have to be one of the most enduring tropes in cinematic history, sticking around long after the arrival of sound cinema. Citizen Kane, made in 1941, features one of the most famous examples within minutes of the film’s opening. Charting the life of a newspaper mogul, Charles Foster Kane, the film features a montage of no less than ten different front pages – including one in Chinese. There’s also a memorable montage in that other film about the end of the silent movie era: the 1952 musical, Singin’ in the Rain.
Of course, there have been some great newspaper parodies too. Marty Feldman’s surreal 1977 comedy The Last Remake of Beau Geste satirises the effect by showing a spinning newspaper that never actually stops spinning, making it impossible to read the headline. In the 1980 spoof thriller Airplane!, meanwhile, we see a series of front pages with headlines about the plane’s impending doom. The final newspaper, however, has a totally different story – about a boy who gets trapped in the refrigerator and has to eat his own foot.
In The Artist, director Michel Hazanavicius’ tenderness towards the newspaper trope is part of a wider nostalgia – not just for silent films, but for media in general. After all, all media has a limited lifespan, fated to be taken over by new forms of technology. As Peppy Miller says: “It’s normal for the young to take over from the old. That’s life!” Soon, newspapers in films may seem as outdated as watching someone play a cassette tape, or (worse) seeing Sandra Bullock get her identity stolen via a floppy disk in The Net. Still, I salute the newspaper montage, and its important role in film history: may it spin on in the big movie effects house in the sky.Tagged in: Airplane!, Citizen Kane, film, George Valentin, journalism, newspaper trope, newspapers, oscars, Peppy Miller, silent film, Singin’ in the Rain, The Artist, The Last Remake of Beau Geste
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