First published online by Steve Rose.
Future historians sifting through the cinematic detritus of the last 100 years might find themselves wondering whether some dozy assistant had mislabelled the reels for the early 21st century. After an orderly progression from silent cinema, through the talkies, Technicolor, right up to the digital era, it suddenly starts to get messy. What’s this 1950s melodrama doing in the 2002 pile? Why were a bunch of 1970s horror movies apparently made in the noughties? And which idiot thought that this silent movie belonged to 2011?
Movies set in the past are nothing new, but in recent years we’ve seen a boom in films made in the style of their particular era. It’s a new level of vintage: not just getting the period details right onscreen, but getting the whole mode of presentation correct, too … ideally so you can’t tell the difference. Let’s call it retrovision. Retrovision is more than just “doing” retro; it’s being retro, it’s seeing retro. You could think of it as a special effect like 3D, only cheaper and more convincing. Retrovision isn’t a new invention; how could it be? But at a time when history is continually repeating itself with every new costume drama, mythological epic or reminiscence of British royalty, retrovision could represent a great cinematic leap, er, backwards.
The best known example of retrovision has to be Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez‘s tongue-in-cheek double bill, which went against the tide of transposing 1970s/80s horror movies to the present day by making present-day horror stories look like they were made in the 1970s/80s. It wasn’t all that difficult, it turned out, given that the original grindhouse movies were characterised by bad-quality prints, primitive special effects, clumsy edits, muffled dialogue and generally exploitative themes. Those defects became part of the package in Planet Terror and Death Proof, and Rodriguez and Tarantino went to considerable lengths to achieve them, digitally “scratching” the prints, deliberately cutting sections out, mimicking vintage title graphics, and – best of all – creating fake retrovision trailers to play between their two movies.
Grindhouse spawned a mini-wave of retrovision horror. Two of those fake trailers – Machete and Hobo With A Shotgun – became features of their own, again more or less adopting the stylistic gimmicks and political values of the era, especially Hobo, which supplemented its lurid colour palette and awful gore effects with a genuine 1980s throwback: Rutger Hauer. There were others, such as the 1970s-style haunted house horror The House Of The Devil, and ridiculous killer-tyre movie Rubber.
‘I watched and re-watched many silent films to try to assimilate the rules of the form’ – The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius
Somehow, retrovision fits perfectly with “cult” viewing material. Perhaps it’s down to film-makers trying to reconnect with something “real”, in these cases the golden age of video nasties and their own adolescent horror freakery. But it could also be down to the fact that viewers too are pop culture-literate enough to know what’s going on, in the same way that pop fans can easily detect, say, the influence of mid-80s Simple Minds in the Horrors’ last album, or the Lynchian retro twang of Chris Isaak in Lana Del Rey.
But the film that’s taking retrovision overground and upmarket right now is The Artist, the new French-made “silent movie”. For those readers stubbornly living in the 21st century, The Artist is supreme 1920s retrovision: a black-and-white Hollywood melodrama, made in the old-fashioned 1.33:1 screen ratio, with intertitles, a continuous orchestral score, and (almost) no dialogue. The film wasn’t made with hand-cranked cameras (in fact they shot it in colour), but the lenses, the lighting, the camera moves – all the technical details – were carefully calibrated to get the look just right. “I watched and re-watched many silent films to try to assimilate the rules of the form,” says director Michel Hazanavicius. “What people usually do when they make a period movie is recreate what they are shooting, but they aren’t recreating the way they’re shooting.”
Tellingly, Hazanavicius cut his teeth at the cult end of retrovision. His previous two movies were OSS 117: Cairo, Nest Of Spies and OSS 117: Lost In Rio, which resurrected a forgotten French movie spy from the 1960s (played by Jean Dujardin, star of The Artist). Like The Artist, and unlike, say, Austin Powers, the OSS 117 movies sought to precisely replicate the technical look and feel of their respective eras, 1955 and 1967 (if you can’t tell the difference, you’ll never make it as a retrovisionary). The colours were treated to mimic faded Technicolor prints, vintage effects such as fake back projections and model planes were deployed, and camera moves were borrowed from Hitchcock thrillers. Add in the meticulous set design and clips of genuine archive material, and the OSS 117 movies were practically indistinguishable from the originals.
‘The sound was recorded, unspooled, crunched, trashed, kicked around, re-spooled and transferred back. Small technical details tend to work subconsciously on the audience’ – Matthew Holness
Perhaps the leading British exponent of retrovision is Matthew Holness. His Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was a fine mock-vintage TV show, led by the eponymous horror writer and “dreamweaver”. It looked like it cost about a fiver to make, but it was exactly the kind of cheap dross you’d have expected to find on late-night TV in the 1980s: a flimsy supernatural hospital soap fronted by a rotund Clive Barker wannabe from Romford with an inflated sense of his own manliness. Even when you do retrovision badly, you have to do it well, and Garth Marenghi’s details were spot-on, from its old-school “spinning blocks” Channel 4 logo to the primitive synth score.
“It’s surprisingly easy, really,” says Holness now. “Having the right sensibility is the main thing; knowing what looks too much or too little on screen. Darkplace was shot on 16mm film and preserved the 4:3 TV aspect ratio of the period. Sound was mixed through limited channels on to tape, then unspooled, crunched, trashed, kicked around the studio, re-spooled and transferred back. Small, seemingly uninteresting technical details tend to work subconsciously on an audience’s mind, so you don’t then need to employ more ‘obvious’ pointers.”
Holness seems to be bent on creating a whole retrovision universe. He’s just completed The Snipist, a half-hour show for Sky involving “authentic-looking fake 1970s public information films”. And he’s gearing up for a big-screen retrovision venture: The Reprisalizer, which promises to be a homage to manly 1970s pulp crime fiction. On the website of its fictional author Terry Finch the main character is described as “a savage street-tough vigilante riding a red hot trail of vengeance through the urban hell of Thanet”. “A great deal of modern TV and film leaves me cold,” Holness explains. “Images are too clean, plots and characters dull and formulaic. I like the look of things made with human hands; dirt, ugliness and natural imperfections are what make films ring true for me. Old movies now seem more honest and realistic.”
There’s more fast, loose retro history being cheaply made wherever you look. In Finland, Timo Vuorensola is putting the finishing touches to Iron Sky, his “Nazis on the moon” sci-fi pastiche, mixing modern special effects with 1930s expressionist black-and-white. In Australia there’s web series Danger 5, another 60s spy spoof (also featuring Nazis, strangely) that makes a virtue of its own cheapness. And you don’t have to look far to find a 1950s sci-fi B-movie homage these days. If you get the retrovisuals right, the history doesn’t really matter, it seems.
For a mainstream movie like The Artist, though, this might be a problem. For all its technical accomplishment and considerable charm, it tells us nothing new about silent-era Hollywood. It barely touches on the real 1920s or its movie scene, nor can it hold a candle to screen greats of the time. In fact, The Artist gets away with a great deal thanks to the prism of retrovision. The silent format demands exaggerated facial expressions, limited dialogue, and a plot that’s simple to the point of infantile. “People are tired of seeing old actors mugging at the camera,” says one of its characters of silent cinema. But in effect, that’s just what The Artist gives us. Charming as it is, it’s nostalgia, pure and very simple. Will it spawn an army of superficial imitators? Or will retrovision become passé now that it’s gone overground? Perhaps one day those future historians will look back at our current efforts and say, “Oh, retrovision, that’s so early 21st century.”