Wednesday, February 22, 2012

 

He didn't need dialogue! He had his face!


By Edward Copeland
Writing a review of The Artist has proved unusually difficult for me. I watched the film for the first time a couple of weeks ago and found it charming enough but — and perhaps it's appropriate — I was at a loss for words. Not because the movie bowled me over so much that I was awestruck, I just felt that either I was missing something or the film was. I decided to watch The Artist a second time to try and determine what gnawed at me.


On the off chance you haven't heard about The Artist, I'll give you a brief synopsis of its plot. After all, the movie will be crowned the newest Academy Award-winning best picture Sunday night, you should probably know. There isn't much of a plot so it won't take long. In 1927, one of the biggest stars of the silent film era is George Valentin (Oscar nominee Jean Dujardin). Outside the premiere of his latest film, an eager fan named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, also nominated) stumbles into a paparazzi shot with Valentin and, later, as an extra on one of his films. From there, the story unfolds along the lines of A Star Is Born. Only in The Artist, George Valentin's career doesn't plummet because of alcohol but by sound coming to motion pictures. Peppy soars at the same time.

The Artist alludes to so many different films, I'm sure I missed some. What fascinated me about the choices was that the overwhelming number of references writer-director Michel Hazanavicius makes come from the sound era. For a throwback to the days of black-and-white silent films, very few pay tribute to classics of that era. (The closest — and it's a reach — is the opening scene of a film within the film showing Valentin strapped down with electrodes sending shocks to his head that vaguely recall Metropolis. Of course, he's not a robot and it gives the movie funny lines to open with as he tells his interrogators that he won't speak.) Contrast that with Martin Scorsese's nostalgic look back at silent film in his three-dimensional, color, sound production of Hugo which overflows with sets and sequences that include shout-outs to famous silent films such as Modern Times and Safety Last.

In The Artist, the breakfast table scenes between George and his wife, Doris (a nearly unrecognizable Penelope Ann Miller), obviously aims to evoke the famous scene in Citizen Kane. They revisit Kane later when George discovers that all of his personal treasures that the collapse of his career and the economy force him to auction have been stored in a room in Peppy's mansion beneath sheets. His find leads to the use of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score that gave Kim Novak a conniption fit. While I don't share the actress's over-the-top objections to its use, I do have to ask what message the audience should take from its presence. First, assuming that your average moviegoer recognizes that the music that begins playing comes from Hitchcock's classic (and that's a big if), by George's frantic fleeing, is the implication that Valentin fears that Peppy wants to shape him into his own image as Scottie Ferguson wished to turn Judy into Madeleine? Perhaps given their history of encounters he suspect she's a stalker.

You also can be pretty certain going into a silent film made in 2011 about the downward spiral of a silent film star that you aren't getting out of the theater without some Sunset Blvd. references. Valentin makes for the obvious Norma surrogate in this scenario. When the studio boss (John Goodman) tells him that he better not laugh at sound because it's the future, Valentin says (or, more accurately, a title card reads), "If that's the future, you can have it." Valentin even goes so far as to decide to make his own silent movie, though in 1929 he's typing out his screenplay instead of scribbling out a script of Salome as Norma Desmond was still doing by the time 1950 showed up. The big difference between Valentin and Norma though is that Valentin isn't bonkers and perhaps neither was Norma that soon after talkies took over. The crucial part of Sunset Blvd. concerns the screenwriter Joe Gillis seeking refuge in Norma's garage and meeting her, thinking he can scam her before he basically becomes a prisoner in her mansion. In The Artist, after being saved from a fire by the quick-thinking of his pooch Uggie (don't ask), George ends up hospitalized and Peppy takes him back to her mansion in a way, making her the Norma. This precedes the discovery of his auctioned memorabilia and the borrowing of Herrmann's Vertigo score. Even though earlier, Valentin's former chauffeur/butler Clifton (James Cromwell), who kept working for George for a year without pay but now works for Peppy swears to his former boss that Peppy "has a good heart." The Artist fires mixed signals all over the place.

Surprisingly, The Artist tends to steer clear of any direct references to the classic Singin' in the Rain, my choice and the choice of many others for Hollywood's greatest movie musical, that also covered film's transition to sound. Obviously, since The Artist eschews sound, except for a couple of appropriate moments, it can't very well be a musical or make a joke about a silent star having a horrible voice that won't work in talkies. More importantly, I don't think The Artist dared to go there because comparing it to Singin' in the Rain would be too dangerous. It can toss out references to great movies such as Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Sunset Blvd. because as a whole The Artist bears little resemblance to those films. Singin' in the Rain holds a mirror up to the essential emptiness inside The Artist.

This isn't to say that The Artist is a bad film, not by any means. It's affable, well directed and entertaining. It has many nice and funny moments. (One that probably only amused someone like me is the first time Peppy gets a screen credit, they misspell her first name as Pepi. It still amazes me how many times that happens. Frank Capra's 1948 film State of the Union was on recently and spelled Katharine Hepburn's above-the-title name as Katherine. No one has bothered to correct this in more than 60 years?) Guillaume Schiffman's black-and-white cinematography shimmers but I have to say that the original portions of Ludovic Bource's score can be overbearing. If they really wanted to do a silent movie now, why not have a score that sounds like what a moviegoer might have heard in a theater in 1927? Something simple, on a pipe organ, not a fully orchestrated blow-out-your-eardrums composition.

Jean Dujardin makes the film. You could believe he came from the silent era, yet when he's playing the offscreen Valentin you see the difference. Bérénice Bejo isn't the same story. There isn't much subtlety in anything she does.

I finally put my finger on what gnawed at me about The Artist. It's like the old joke about eating Chinese food. It's fulfilling enough while you're consuming it, but a few hours later you're hungry again.

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Comments:
I enjoyed The Artist a lot - but I'll concede it doesn't quite live up to the hype. I'd even go so far as to say that if any other studio besides The Weinstein Company were behind the promotional push for this film, it probably wouldn't be in the position it is now.

That said, I think it's a charming, well-made, vastly entertaining film that succeeds in evoking the era of silent filmmaking even when referencing films from different eras. Really, the film is a love letter to the movies - all movies - so why shouldn't it tip its hat to other genres? I don't think modern audiences - people who haven't seen Kane, Vertigo or Sunset notice anything as being out of place, and as for me, it never bothered me for a second. One thing that should be pointed out is that all three of the films you cite took quite a bit of their inspiration to films of the silent era - the cinematography in Kane, in particular, owes so much to Von Sternberg and King Vidor that it sometimes feels like a silent movie with sound - so it's not as though Hazanavicius was pulling in references that made so little sense as to upset the balance of the film. If he'd worked in a car chase in the style of The French Connection or a sex scene suggestive of Last Tango in Paris, yeah, it would have killed the mood.

If the contention is that a filmmaker's homage to previous eras shouldn't mix references from different genres - one must be a purist - contemporary filmmaking would be in a world of trouble. Tarantino created a hybrid of B-movie noir, gangster films, boxing films and blaxploitation in Pulp Fiction (with shoutouts to 50s pop culture at Jack Rabbit Slims), Martial Arts, animee and 70s grindhouse shlock in Kill Bill, and the 1940s WWII flick and - hell, a little bit of everything - in Inglorious Bastards. And Almodovar will freely mix bits of Hitchcock with extracts from French & Italian new wave cinema and pulp "women's pictures" of the Douglas Sirk variety. Mix and match all you want, says I - as long as you bring cohesiveness to it and everything feels of a piece, it's all good.

There were moments watching DuJardin when I truly did forget that I wasn't watching a silent film actor of the 1920s - his physicality is astonishing. As for Bejo...better known as The Director's Wife...she doesn't have a period look (Kelly MacDonald would have been perfect for this), and next to DuJardin, does hardly anything to suggest the performance style of silent films. It's the ultimate coattail nomination, and I feel pretty bummed out for much the more deserving ladies who didn't make the cut.
 
As an aside, I'll acknowledge it's very easy to get into the mindset best described as Pin-the-Tail-on-The-Weinsteins - sometimes a little unfairly (they did, remember, get The Crying Game and The Piano, two tiny little non-commercial films that no one else would stump for, out into the world and into the winner's circle.) Even when you consider that they've frequently used their powers for good, I'll be the first to assert that Harvey and his machine deserve considerable censure for the way they've highjacked The Oscars with their aggressive, preemptive campaign tactics - hell, most of their products attain the status of ironclad locks before they've even been released and people have the chance to see what garbage they are (if My Week with Marilyn isn't quite this year's Chocolat, I still don't any other distributor could have wrung two acting nominations out of it.)

That said, no one can pretend that the outcome of this year's Best Picture contest is going to be an outrage on the level of last year. While I like several of the films in contention, I don't think there's one entry that's so heads and shoulders above the rest of the pack that its' snubbing would constitute a criminal case of theft (I say that because, while I feel The Tree of Life is a truly great film - and easily my favorite - I acknowledge that it's an extremely polarizing film that isn't accessible to everyone. The merits of The Social Network were simply beyond debate.) The Artist is a good film, and its inevitable coronation will not be regarded by future generations as a blight upon the history of The Academy Awards...whereas I don't think we need to wait 50 years or so to assert that The King's Speech taking out The Social Network is an epic blunder on the level of How Green Was Your Valley topping Citizen Kane....or at least Dances with Wolves doing a hit job on Goodfellas. On some level, can't we equate Harvey Weinstein with the Tea Party Movement? Neither The Oscars nor The Republican Party were ever exactly pure...but the con artists seem to have brainwashed the sheep to the extent that the reasonable minority is always overruled....
 
My problem isn't with it making references to other films or playing with them, it's that while it is charming, it is utterly forgettable. Hugo fashions a far more compelling love letter to the movies. I don't know what The Artist tries to accomplish. Is it really nothing more than a love letter to movies? Neal Gabler wrote that if it wins, it's actually Hollywood giving the finger to itself. I wouldn't go that far, but what is the final message? Embrace the future or risk irrelevance? In the end, you do have to sell out even if your principles might not be practical ones? Part of the problem with Peppy may just be Bejo's portray but is it saying that the movie world belongs to the pretty faces and Valentin is just lucky that she decides to drag him back into the industry? This will be the first time since the 1981 year I haven't managed to see all the nominated best pictures before Oscar night (though I doubt seriously that Extremely Loud or War Horse would top my list) but of the seven I have seen, I would rank The Artist as sixth. As I said, it's not awful, it's just empty. Dujardin is great. The cinematography is great. It has a lot of charm. The score did drive me bonkers at times. It just doesn't add up to more than a well-made stunt. It's like Miller Lite. Tastes great, less filling. After watching The Help. I'm surprised it didn't get more nominations than it did since it actually is one of the few best picture nominees that deals with an important topic. Comparisons to The Blindside are so unfair because The Help is so vastly superior to it.
 
Not a major quibble, but still: Was anyone expecting a larger role for Malcolm McDowell? He was cast high enough in the credits as if there were more for him to do.
 
I think you've nailed what gnawed at me about The Artist as well. It's enjoyable and pretty clever and well directed and Dujardin is terrific, but...I was expecting something, well - more. Hugo delivered that.

And Josh, it's How Green Was MY Valley and it's a great film. Yes, Kane deserved the Oscar, but we're not talking about an unworthy film by a hack.
 
A couple of things about the Artist really bother me. The casting: why have two French actors and an American supporting cast? I've never been a fan of Penelope Ann Miller but she is treated just horribly here. Also I knew about the Vertigo soundtrack kerfuffle before watching it but I was more bothered about the clip of a Douglas Fairbanks film shown before the fire scene which is clearly meant to be Dujardin and I found that a much more distressing appropriation.

Unlike Hugo which in its po-faced way tries to stimulate interest in early cinema this to me seems to be re-writing it for the facile.
 
The American supporting cast has a lot to do with Harvey Weinstein's puppet strings being behind the whole enterprise. If this were truly a French production, it wouldn't be eligible, for example, for the Independent Spirit Awards that it is nominated for tonight. Stick John Goodman and James Cromwell's familiar faces in the ads and average people who don't know all the details like you and I do, will think it's a purely American production. It was filmed here. The director, while French, happens to have dual citizenship or something similar I read. It's that sneaky mastermind Harvey out to buy another Oscar. He used to try to do that for great films but when he found he couldn't pull it off with those, he decided to play the game with lesser ones.
 
Dealing with an important topic in a manner that feels inappropriately lightweight and glossy and caricatured can actually make a film feel far worse than a mere low-brow 'entertainment'. The Help is vastly superior to only the most mediocre of the mediocre (which, come to think of it, is exactly what The Blind Side is - so I guess I agree with you after all, ED!)- though I think Tate Taylor has potential as a director and IS clearly of superior skill to John Lee Hancock.

and 'coattail' nomination my a$$! Can Kelly Macdonald dance?
 
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