Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Artist

Alternate Title:  Why the French can't have Nice Things

One sentence synopsis:  A silent film star is destroyed by the advent of talkies, while his one-time protege rises in his place.

Things Havoc liked:    'Tis, apparently, the season for retrospective love letters to early film. First Hugo and now this movie, of all things a black-and-white, silent film dedicated to the last glorious days of, well... silent film. Art-house fare is not my cup of tea, normally, but I started this project so that I would see more than just the occasional blockbuster, so here we go.

The Artist stars Jean Dujardin, a french actor I've never heard of, as George Valentin, a swashbuckling silent film star at the end of the 1920s, an obvious stand-in for the famous (and much lamented) real silent film star Rudolph Valentino. Dujardin's take on the silent film star is frankly the best thing in the movie. In a medium where only expression and mime can stand out, Dujardin manages to evoke great breadth and even subtlety of character through look, posture, and gestures, giving us a character who seems lifted out of a more technically advanced film. The movie starts with him at the top of his career, and shows his ruination as the stock market crashes and talkies become popular. Meeting him on the way up as he slides down, is Berenice Bejo, playing (and I'm not making this up) Peppy Miller, a wide-eyed girl-come-to-Hollywood type who meets Valentin by chance at the beginning and rapidly eclipses him in popularity as the transition to sounded films occurs.

One of the things I like most about this film is that it doesn't turn into a bad ripoff of Sunset Boulevard, Any Given Sunday, or any other damned movie you've seen about one star crashing while another is born. Specifically, the movie doesn't turn the two against one another. Valentin, at the height of his career, is a egotistical showboat, certainly (the sequence where he refuses to stop taking ovations is awesome), but (crucially) not an insufferable prick. When he runs into Miller by chance, and later as she is extra-ing in a scene in one of his films, he is more than willing to humor her, uses his clout to prevent her from being fired, and later offers what turns out to be career-making advice on how to stand out from the crowd of would-be actresses. And rather than paint him as just looking to get laid, the movie seems to show this as a sort of noblesse-oblige act on his part, without condescension or lechery. This establishment helps tremendously, in that it gives him a certain impoverished nobleman air that sticks with him when later he loses everything. His reluctance to be helped out by Miller, when she is the rich star and he a penniless victim, comes across not as conceit, but as simple unwillingness to be coddled.

The rest of the cast, though not as good as Dujardin, do a decent job. John Goodman (of all people) actually comes the closest to Dujardin's skill at silent theatricality, playing the studio boss as a comedic, yet gregarious character. Missi Pyle (she of the angular face) also steals her relatively small role as Valentin's long-suffering co-star. The rest of the cast are certainly competent, if not amazing.

The movie also has fun little meta-touches to it, playing with the conceit of having a silent film in a modern setting. The sequence where sound effects start to occur inside Valentin's dressing room is actually fairly trippy, given that the audience has now had enough time to accustom itself to the lack thereof. Similarly, the ending sequence (which I will not spoil here), is a sort of fun wink at the audience, noting the artifice of the silent movie, while maintaining the style throughout. It's clever enough, I suppose.

Things Havoc disliked:  Silent films, by necessity, relied heavily upon melodrama. Gestures and expressions had to be exaggerated absurdly both because of the limited quality of the film process at the time, the need to stand out dramatically in a black and white medium, and the impossibility of relying on spoken word or sound effects to convey anything. Such melodrama has to be taken with the old films of the 20s and early 30s, but in a modern movie, to a more jaded audience, strikes something of a wrong chord. And while this movie isn't overly melodramatic, and is extremely competently executed, there are sequences (such as Valentin burning his apartment, or preparing to commit suicide, or the antics of the dog) that really come across as hilarious in all the wrong ways. It may not be fair to blame the movie for this, given that it comes with the territory of a silent film, but I have to review these based on what I thought, and what I thought and what the critics thought are not gonna be the same.

And speaking of unfair criticisms...

Final thoughts:  There are great silent films. City Lights, Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Gold Rush, Battleship Potemkin, October, Out West, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The General, The Kid... I could go on. These films pushed the bounds of their medium to the utmost limit, and are justly regarded as great works of art. There is, however, a tendency among film critics to regard silent films as more 'worthy' than sounded films, and black-and-white films as more 'intellectual' than films in color. Permit me now to quote Roger Ebert's review of this film:

Is it possible to forget that "The Artist" is a silent film in black and white, and simply focus on it as a movie? No? That's what people seem to zero in on. They cannot imagine themselves seeing such a thing. At a sneak preview screening here, a few audience members actually walked out, saying they didn't like silent films. I was reminded of the time a reader called me to ask about an Ingmar Bergman film. "I think it's the best film of the year," I said. "Oh," she said, "that doesn't sound like anything we'd like to see."

Here is one of the most entertaining films in many a moon, a film that charms because of its story, its performances and because of the sly way it plays with being silent and black and white. "The Artist" knows you're aware it's silent and kids you about it. Not that it's entirely silent, of course; like all silent films were, it's accompanied by music. You know — like in a regular movie when nobody's talking?

With respect to Roger Ebert, and to the rest of the film critics of the world:  Fuck yourselves.

A film's choice of medium, style, and content, are artistic choices, not moral agents. The decision to film this movie in black and white and in silence was one made by the director and producers, insofar as they believed that the film they most wanted to create necessitated these means. It was not done because silent films are inherently more virtuous than sounded ones, nor black and white films rendered more intellectual and highbrow than their colorized counterparts.  A film is rendered into great art based on what it contains, not what it does not contain. Great children's movies are not defined solely by their lack of violence and sex, but by the artistry, imagination, and sheer bloody-minded work that elevates them to a higher level. And while it is certainly possible for a black and white, or even a silent film to be excellent, even in modern times (consider Schindler's List), they are not made so purely by lacking sound and color. Spielberg's choice of filming in Black and White for Schindler's List was inspired, in that it lent a style and an feel to the film that color would have leached from it. It does not, however, follow that a preference for films shot in glorious color, or with full sound and voice, is the mark of a boor and a hick. Black and White stiffens the film, reduces its depth of space, alters and, yes, limits the ability of the camera to find expansive angles or shades of metaphoric meaning within the visual art style. Silence goes much further, eliminating the possibility of lengthy dialogue or intonation, preventing the editor from using sound as a tool to supplement the action, and forcing the actors to over-emphasize their actions to compensate, eliminating subtlety and fine characterization. Neither of those things are to say that silent or B&W films are all bad, but the medium as a whole was immeasurably enriched by the development, first of talkies, and then of color.

In painting talkies as nothing more than pedestrian garbage suited for easily-amused audiences looking to oggle pretty women (as this film somewhat does), the movie seems to regard the development of sound in films as a net-loss to the artistic merit of film. And in regarding those who prefer color or sound in their films as uneducated rednecks, most movie critics seem to be indicating the same. I would ask these critics if any of them would prefer to see the Godfather done silently? Or Fantasia in black and white? And I would further ask how preferring these films over those of the 20s and 30s is somehow evidence of an uncultured heathenism. After all, of the hundreds of great directors and filmmakers to be found in Asia, America, and Europe over the last fifty years, working both within and without the studio system, how many chose to produce their magnum opuses without benefit of sound or color? Yes, there are films such as Schindler's List, Raging Bull, Great Dictator, and others, I know. But contrast that with the libraries of films made with these benefits.  Is this because directors like Lars von Trier, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, or Werner Herzog are all in the business of making only lowbrow trash to appease the masses?  Is that what Aguirre, the Wrath of God was?

Of course nobody is suggesting that. They are instead however constructing a world wherein The Artist is a good film solely because of what it lacks, rather than because of what it contains. Though I place myself in poor company, I choose to act otherwise. The movie is a perfectly workmanlike exercise in filmmaking, but is only that: A melodramatic, overacted film elevated by (admittedly very) good performances and a few quirks.

The simple lack of sound and color does not make a damn bit of difference.

Final Score:  7/10

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