Creative Destruction at the Academy Awards
Two notable films have dealt with the historic transition of the movie industry from silent films to talkies: Singin' in the Rain (1952) and The Artist, this year's winner of the Oscar® for Best Picture, not to mention four other awards including Best Director. The former has become a beloved classic, one of the first 25 films selected for preservation by the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant." The latter is a small movie, not entirely without charm, but one that would have attracted little attention if not for the gimmick of being a black-and-white silent movie.
The subject of these two movies -- the arrival of sound and the destruction of the silent film industry, when many stars of the silent era were put out of work -- is an example of what Karl Marx called in the Communist Manifesto "the enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces." Marx believed that this destructive element at the heart of capitalism would ultimately bring down the capitalist system, ushering in the golden age of socialism.
Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter later wrote about the phenomenon in a more positive light, calling it the "creative destruction of capitalism." Schumpeter writes in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942):
Capitalism ... is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary. The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers' goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that ... that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.
The destruction of the silent movie industry, potentially a negative, led to a creative rebirth of the industry, which continues to thrive and evolve today.
The two movies are similar in that they both focus on a silent movie star whose career is threatened by the introduction of sound, and both stars have the fatal flaw of pride. These two characters, however, are portrayed very differently; one film celebrates the creative destruction of capitalism, while the other laments it.
In Singin' in the Rain, silent film star Lina Lamont is a conniving blond bombshell, determined to continue her film career even though her voice is as soothing as fingernails on a chalkboard -- a fact she is stubbornly and hilariously ignorant of. Lina and Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) add sound to their silent movie already in production, but when they do a test screening, the audience pans it. Throughout the movie, the primary concern is selling tickets to paying customers. The box office is king. Ultimately, the film's message is that Lina is no longer a marketable product, and the audience cheers her destruction by the forces of capitalism.
Silent star George Valentin in The Artist, in contrast, is portrayed as a tragic figure. He is a victim of the larger forces that conspire to crush him. Valentin simply refuses to take part in the new technology and gives up without doing a single sound test. It's not that there's anything wrong with his voice, you see. It's just that he's too much of an "Artist," with a capital A, to participate in something as vulgar as talking pictures.
Valentin slides into bankruptcy, accompanied only by his faithful pooch, who should have been awarded Best Animal Performance of the Year. In a frightfully self-indulgent and self-destructive scene, Valentin tears the reels of silent film out of the metal boxes he has hoarded and drops a match on the highly flammable film stock, burning down his house. At this point he forfeits any sympathy I might have had for him, and I'm thinking Occupy Wall Street. Capitalism has stolen his livelihood, and now the spoiled brat is going to retaliate by smashing the windows of the nearest Starbucks. No wonder the left-leaning Academy voted this pretentious artsy-fartsy movie Best Picture.
The Artist does have a happy ending when Peppy Miller, the starlet whose career has taken off in the industry created by the destruction of silent movies, retrieves Valentin from his despondency and convinces him to star as her tap-dance partner in a new movie. Yes, it does celebrate creative destruction in a small way. But still, Valentin the great Artist never speaks. The scene where he embraces the new world of talking pictures is absent because dance offers a third way between silent movies and talkies. Tragic loss leads to compromise.
But the most obvious evidence that The Artist does not embrace the new talking pictures created by the destruction of silent movies is that the movie itself is a silent movie in black-and-white. One can imagine the members of the Academy thinking how cool, in the age of 3-D and special effects, to vote for a movie that rejects the technological advances of the past decades. How cool to vote for an "art" house movie called The Artist -- with French actors, no less -- and thumb one's nose at crass Hollywood commercialism. Personally, I love old movies, and I'm proud that my kids are familiar with the canon of classics, but the hipster attitude of moral superiority over sound, color, and special effects is tiresome.
It is no secret that Hollywood is reeling from a wave of the creative destruction underway in movie production and distribution, still committed to reaching eyeballs by herding customers into theatres and showing them content carried on chemical-based film. Meanwhile, their audience invests in home theatres connected to the internet. The film industry initially resisted every new distribution channel the electronics industry has offered, starting with Betamax video tapes. In choosing to honor with five Oscars® the grudging acceptance of the tragic loss model of coping with creative destruction, has the Academy chosen the perfect symbol of its own resistance to technology change in distribution?