Wednesday, February 01, 2012

On The Artist



It'd be really easy to get all worked up about how bad this is, how it distorts not only the aesthetics of silent cinema but history itself in order to tell a pretty simple (yet still largely nonsensical) story, about how the decontextualization of of pastiches like this are indicative of the modern world's haphazard approach to history, of the elevation of ignorance to a virtue in the name of an all-out assault on elitist experts who have the temerity to know things about things.

I could complain that the movie seems to have been moved forward in time two years for the sole reason that the director seems to think it'd be funny for the lead's final silent film to be released the same day as the stock market crash.  By 1927, when the film begins, talking pictures were widely seen as inevitable.  Certainly by 1929, when the lead declares them a passing fad, they were an inescapable, established fact.  Less egregious is the film's closing tap dance number, scored to a "Sing, Sing, Sing" style Swing number in 1932, a few years before one could reasonably expect to hear Swing music, certainly outside a Harlem club.  I could also get worked up about the fact that the only sung song in the film is "Pennies from Heaven" , a wonderful song from 1936.  The weirdest thing about the film is that it exists entirely in its own universe: there's never any mention of any actual films, people, studios, music, anything.  It doesn't take place in our world, but one of those vaguely real counterfactual places you get in an essay by a terrible history student.


Lots of people get worked up about the Vertigo music used in the film's dramatic climax.  Kim Novak got worked up about it and used the word "rape".  The music is jarring, it doesn't fit the mood of the scene, though it would if the film was going in a different direction entirely, a more specific Hitchcock kind of thing where the girl is a creepy stalker or something.  It would be less jarring if the rest of the score was made up of references to other movie scores, but the rest of it is just stuff that sounds vaguely like older movie scores, not the thing itself.  That stuff could bother me as well, but I'd be more upset about the resolution of the scene, which goes for the tasteless Spielberg fakeout where you think something terrible is going to happen but it turns out to be a joke instead (think the shower scene in Schindler's List).

I could get worked up about the total lack of motivation for the main character, that he deals with the transition to sound in a wholly irrational way for no apparent reason.  He doesn't have an obstacle to overcome, his career flounders because he refuses to make sound movies.  But there's no reason for that.  We're not told he has a weird voice or thick accent, which was the main reason many silent film actors couldn't make the transition.  The film just assumes that silent stars couldn't be talking stars, which is simply false (one of the film's in-jokes is a quote of the famous Greta Garbo line "I want to be alone" so obviously the filmmakers are aware that there were actors who were big in both silents and talkies).  A possible motivation might be an Erich von Stroheim-style ego meltdown, that he is an "Artist" who refuses to compromise his art with sound and creates a giant flop that ruins his name in Hollywood.  This appears to be the approach, but we see no artistry at all in the guy's films.  They appear to be nothing but silly (anachronistic, as this wasn't a genre at the time, but apparently a reference to the director and star's OSS movies) spy movies (at one point we see footage of Fairbanks's Zorro with our hero clumsily spliced in, but making him a Fairbanks figure doesn't do much for the uncompromising artist angle (Fairbanks's decline had to do with middle age and bad movies, not an unwillingness to adapt the purity of his vision (which he never really had to begin with))).


Anyway, I could get all worked up about all of that, but there's really no reason to.  It's a light, at times effervescent film with some really wonderful moments (the Borzage-referencing jacket scene is one of the loveliest things I've seen in quite awhile) and what appears to be a genuine affection for film history.  It's a pleasant, cute film with some charming actors and a talented dog and to call it any less than that is to judge it as something it's not intended to be.  There's no reason to get worked up about it because there's no reason to take it that seriously.  No one takes it seriously, right?  Right?

7 comments:

  1. Such a great write-up, Sean. Thanks for contextualizing the film for me - I certainly didn't pick up on the date blunders or many of the references. I just left the film feeling vaguely dissatsfied and comparing it in a disgruntled way to Modern Times, which I'd just seen. But then, I started feeling guilty that I couldn't just ENJOY the darn thing for what it was, cute and effervescent, as you say.

    As Tobias pointed out in his A.V. Club piece, it's unfortunate that the film is getting so much Oscar/award attention - that attention almost demands it be more than it really aspires to be and so it's sort of set up for failure. I dunno. Maybe I should show it to my kids and they can help me take off my grumpy hat. 'Course, they love Chaplin, too, so maybe they won't be able to remedy things for me either.

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  2. I wouldn't show it to kids. There are so many films they haven't seen: give them the real thing and then years later when they watch this they can knowingly complain about all the things it does wrong.

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  3. Good advice. I'll take it! Some Buster Keaton up next, I think.

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  4. Unfortunately I took it seriously when the movie itself decided to become serious. The first fifteen minutes were pretty great but then Dujardin has to significantly dial down his own true gift, his charm, and become a dour, unlikeable whiny-pants. As you mentioned, his reaction to his circumstances are ridiculous and elicit no sympathy from the audience. I stopped caring about him-or frankly anyone in the picture-by the end of reel one.

    The film doesn't even feel like a silent film and that was the only real point of making the movie, right? There's something about the rhythm that is just off. Plus, what was the point of any of those references to cinema's past? Most were clumsily handled, some were anachronistic (why Citizen Kane?!?), and a couple were egregious (Vertigo). I wouldn't go so far as to call it rape though, more like prostitution (presumably Hazavinicius paid for the right to use the score has he pleased.) It's like getting an escort to up your profile on the red carpet, the Artist associates itself with greatness so it must be great, right? Each reference just made me long to watch the original versions instead of this malarkey. That's the difference between something like this and say, a Tarantino film. Tarantino's references make intuitive sense and ultimately enhance the experience, giving the films that extra jolt of excitement, whereas in the Artist it is simply distracting.

    My biggest bone to pick though is with the title. Who the hell is the Artist? I had a similar experience to you where I thought that Dujardin was going to pour all of his money into making a City Lights-like masterpiece to prove that silent films can still be made in an era of sound and succeed. Then like the film itself, he makes a clumsy, pointless work with absolutely no soul. And then Poppie loves it, either because she is blinded by love or just an idiot. It couldn't be for the film alone.

    If this film was released in the year it clumsily represents it would never have been nominated for an Oscar. The film is peddling nothing but snake oil underneath its artificial veneer.

    Oh and that version of "Pennies from Heaven" was atrocious.

    Harumph.

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  5. I forgot to mention the Citizen Kane reference. That was just weird. He took the content of the scene, which is mildly interesting, but removed the style, which is what makes it such a great scene. Instead of a single breakfast spanning years and the decline of a marriage, it's just a bunch of edits. What was he thinking?

    I actually really liked the end of Sparkle of Love ("Goodbye Norma, I never loved you>" is a great closing line). But that kind of adventure film didn't become popular until the early 30s. How do you make what is supposedly a "love letter to silent cinema" when none of your cinematic reference points are from the silent film era?

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  6. Just for the record: the reason he did not go onto sound films was influenced by his heavy accent, which was demonstrated in his one spoken line in the film, a very French "of course."

    As for anachronistic references, I'm surprised you didn't pick up on John Goodman's very clear mouthing of "shut the f-- up", which I can only assume is a Big Lebowski shout out.

    I mean, I liked the film quite a bit. The anachronisms didn't bother me (as the film is hardly trying to be a period piece) and I was far more taken by its charm, so it had a positive impact on me. Sure, it's no Chaplin, but that's hardly a fair baseline standard.

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  7. I think the accent thing should have been the reason, but it's never presented as such. The only reasons we're given for his failing to transition are his own stubbornness.

    Besides, Maurice Chevalier was one of the major stars of the transition era. Accents weren't a fatal hinderance, it's just when the voice didn't match the audience's idea of what the actor should sound like. From what we see of his films, his International Man of Mystery character should have been just fine with a French accent.

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