Feb 07, 2012 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
You know it’s February when the awards-season backlash begins against the movies getting the awards, the chorus growing that the films so honored, whatever the year and genre and stars and director and other details, are not that great.
This time around, the praise, and the resistance, centers around a single unique piece of work called The Artist. At the outset it was hailed as a unique masterpiece, a love letter to early cinema. Now it’s an overrated curio that was too derivative in the first place.
What’s the truth? Well, having seen it, I can tell you that the bad words don’t apply. The Artist gives us an all-too-brief glimpse into a long-forgotten era of entertainment and, in the process, offers a subtle, and spot-on, dig at the modern film world and all the tricks used to draw us in.
You know the basics by now. Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a big film star in the late 1920s who sees his glory eclipse in the transition from silent pictures to talkies, just as Peppy Miller (Berniece Bejo), a starlet he accidentally bumps into on a red carpet, takes over Hollywood.
Of course, it’s an amalgam of Singin’ in the Rain and A Star Is Born – no secret there. Pieces of Citizen Kane also pop into the story on at least two occasions, as anyone familiar with the Orson Welles masterpiece will quickly point out.
To explain this movie’s magic – and the acclaim – we must go to several sources, starting with director Michel Hazanavicius. Totally unknown except in his native France, Michel set out to recreate early Hollywood and, in every way, succeeded.
First, he shot in gorgeous black and white. As with the silents, there’s script cards (but not too many), wipes, fades and all the tricks moviemakers had to use before sound took over.
Then Michel tacked on a soundtrack that ranged from jazz and pop standards to melodrama, all fitting perfectly to the scenes. In every scene, Michel pleases the eyes instead of assaulting the ears, augmenting both senses in the process.
As the leads, Dujardin and Bejo are breathtaking, too. Dujardin’s rugged good looks and comic timing bring attributes that made women swoon over Douglas Fairbanks and Clark Gable, and when he descends into darkness, it’s devastating. Bejo is enchanting and winsome, the sort of woman every man, attached or otherwise, would have a difficult time not falling in love with.
Add the support of John Goodman (as the studio boss), James Cromwell (as the faithful driver) and Penelope Ann Miller (as the suffering wife), among others, and the picture only gets richer. And yes, Uggie, that little Jack Russell Terrier, steals every single scene.
Above all, though, is that we notice something as The Artist proceeds. Somehow a laugh, a smile, a teardrop, every emotion is magnified without the distraction of people talking. And when that sound does show up (at two well-timed moments), it’s jarring and almost scary.
You also notice the details up on the screen, whether it’s a portrait or a carving or a house or a set. Lacking the sound, you find that your other senses make up for it in an endless exploration of all the small details that might get lost if someone is making noise.
This brings us, perhaps, to the larger point of The Artist. Film in the early 21st century is a full-on assault on the senses because, well, that’s what the film companies have decided. They think we want 3D everything, big budgets, sequels, remakes, sequels of remakes, scant attention to quality. What’s more, anything old is a mortal sin.
What The Artist reminds us is that such sentiments are far from new. George Valentin is dead weight the moment pictures gain sound. It doesn’t matter how popular or beloved he is. Once technology advances and Hollywood sees other profit centers, human talent is cast aside.
Adding to the lesson is the current wasteland of most of our multiplexes. Other than year-end awards circuit, there’s little genuine reward for good art. Worse yet, even the honors create a tide of resentment, and you get criticized because you got too much praise in the first place.
It’s only natural that this valuable lesson is taught by a French film, not something originating from an American studio. Somewhere in the latter system, they’d take one look at The Artist and either dismiss its concept or just scoff at the nerve of doing something that disappeared from our cinema a mere 85 years ago.
Here, as with so many other good American ideas and concepts, it takes outsiders to remind us of the best of ourselves. From light-hearted start to feel-good finale, The Artist tugs at you, evoking a smile and a chuckle, a shiver and a moist eye. It’s a beautiful reminder of how beautiful film art can be, while not saying a word.