the candler blog

Punctuation in The Artist

Design, Movies

Michael Leddy really liked The Artist. Well, he liked most of it:

There’s only one false touch in the film, and I’m not embarrassed to point it out: the intertitles use straight (“dumb”) quotation marks (" ") around dialogue, not curved (“ ”) quotation marks, aka “book quotes” or “curly quotes” or “smart quotes” or “typographic quotation marks.” Glance through an assortment of silent-film intertitles and it’s easy to see that proper quotation marks were the norm.

Technically, he’s right. Not all, but a great many silent films did use curly quotes, especially those that survive to this day. However, I think this kind of niggling misses the point of The Artist. Director Michel Hazanavicius is such a cinematic nerd I have little doubt his typographical choice was deliberate (unlike Brad Bird’s), or at the very least, considered.

The Artist may be a silent film about the silent age, but formally it is cut from the anachronistic cloth of the 1940s and 1950s. Hazanavicius makes this as clear as possible with allusions to Citizen Kane and the now infamous use of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score. Historicity is the last thing he is trying to sell.

I am now left to wonder, however, what was the point of using “straight” or “dumb” quotes? If I concede that the director did so intentionally, surely he had a reason. Perhaps it was a statement on the utilitarianism of post-modernity; that the curlicued flourishes of yesteryear have washed away with the career of the film’s protagonist, George Valentin. Sure, we have our own forms of frippery leftover (tap-dancing and puppies) but in the end the machines have won. Our punctuation is without personality.

Or there’s nothing to this at all.

The Artist, 2011, Michel Hazanavicius

Nosferatu, 1922, F. W. Murnau

The Jazz Singer, 1927, Alan Crosland

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