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?