Friday, January 13, 2012

Raging Debate on "The Artist"

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I first previewed the new silent movie, The Artist, when it surfaced at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and then reviewed it when it opened in New York on Thanksgiving weekend, but now folks who know about these things are saying it might actually snatch the best-picture Oscar. We'll have to wait until January 24th for the nominations, but meanwhile The Artist has won best picture in Boston and San Francisco, copped six Golden Globe nominations, garnered four nominations from the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and was named by the Producers Guild of America and the Houston Film Critics Society as one of the year's top 10 movies. As we get closer to the February 26th Academy Awards, money, reputations, and artistic correctness will all be at stake, so of course the opinions are flying!

The main criticism of The Artist is that it's sentimental fluff, a lot of fun if you like that sort of thing, but not a film of any significance. And of course the question then arises — and it is a fair question — can a silent movie ever really plumb the depths of our complex world without the use of words? Isn't Tree of Life profound and The Artist superficial?

Here's an exchange from the Movie Club section of the online magazine, Slate, which I found interesting enough to pass on to you. First up is a criticism by Dan Kois, talking about movies (see chart, below) that are difficult to watch but that you later find meaningful vs. enjoyable but forgettable flics:

Are there films that work in the reverse? Films that offer enjoyable viewing experiences, but then afterward provoke disdain? Of course! How about apparent Oscar front-runner The Artist, a charming piece of work that never tires, never bores, never in its 100 minutes stops tap-dancing for your smiles? As soon as it was over I was angry at myself for each chuckle I’d given the movie, and now, weeks later, it only provokes a shrug. This is what everyone is so crazy about? I don’t even mind that it’s a trifle—I like trifles! —but did it always have to go for the easiest joke, the simplest twist, the most obvious turn?

Coming right back at him is another Slate critic, Stephanie Zacharek, who said it better than I could have:

I think, as just the first round of Movie Club proves—as every full year of moviegoing proves—there are an infinite number of ways for movies to reach us, to sneak in through cracks we didn’t even know existed. If you have a house with cracks, you’ve got to seal them up. But for moviegoing, don’t seal the cracks! It’s how the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen said. Which leads me to something you said, Michael, about how both Melancholia and The Tree of Life were both made by directors who think cinematically, and my lack of warmth for TOL notwithstanding, you’re right. As you said, “Directors who don’t think cinematically sadly account for most of the movies we see all year.”

Which is why I really need to talk about The Artist, allegedly the Philistine’s choice for movie of the year. Because it’s not nearly as good as the great silents—it’s not Keaton, it’s not Murnau, it’s not Griffith. Because it’s a crowd-pleaser, a trifle, a soufflé of a movie with no overarching theme or purpose. Because it’s not as great as the buildup from Cannes led us to believe. Because Harvey Weinstein saw it and immediately thought, “I can make money off this.”

I’m afraid there are lots of reasons for not liking The Artist that actually have little or nothing to do with The Artist, and though that happens with lots of movies, I still find it troublesome. I love The Artist, as Dana said, “without disclaimers or shame.” I think shame is a useless construct when it comes to movies. (Disclaimers—well, we all need those once in a while.) In terms of cinematic thinking in 2011, Michel Hazanavicius trumps Terrence Malick. For one thing, he doesn’t need any “Oh, mother! Oh, father!” voice-overs, no shots of the sun peeping through tree branches, to make sure we’re feeling what we’re supposed to be feeling. And he’s relying on the grace of his actors, their way of moving, their subtle shifts in expression, to tell a story in purely visual terms. Not only is there no dialogue; there’s no expository dialogue, no overt explanation of why the lead character, Jean Dujardin’s George Valentin, is so resistant to talking pictures, which some of the movie’s detractors see as a flaw. For me, George Valentin lives in a mirror-universe where he foresees an actor in another universe (the real one), John Gilbert, drinking himself to death in 1936: The problem wasn’t that Gilbert’s voice wasn’t good enough for talkies (it was), but that filmmakers’ awkwardness in the new medium ended up reflecting badly on him, through little or no fault of his own. In other words, the fictional George Valentin had a premonition of something that happened in real life. Why wouldn’t he be afraid?

I love the economy and discipline of The Artist. Hazanavicius finds all he needs in the faces of his actors, Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. And I’m astonished by the effect the movie has had on audiences. I’ve seen it three times now, twice with a “real” audience (the first time, at Cannes, doesn’t count), and both times I’ve been amazed at how restless the audience is at the beginning—there’s that point where you expect the talking to kick in, and it just doesn’t—and how wrapped up they are by the end. I know, I know—just because lots of people love a movie doesn’t make it good. (The Dark Knight, anyone?) But I do think Hazanavicius and his actors have helped unlock the code of silent-film acting for many people, people who have always thought it was overdone or, at least, just too weird to understand. Film critics know all about silent film and silent-film acting, but who cares about us? As the writer Eileen Whitfield observed in her wonderful biography of Mary Pickford, Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, modern audiences often view silent movies as if they're trying to be talkies and failing, whereas they're really much closer to dance, a symbolic re-enactment. The Artist is all about faces and movement and the emotion that can be drawn out of those things together. To me, it’s elemental.

Here, here!

And two more morsels for you. That cool web site, Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Film Locations, has an excellent new post up about the shooting of The Artist. Check it out here. And here's wonderdog Uggie visiting the offices of the London Guardian newspaper:

And you can even read all about Uggie in this Daily Beast profile.

1 comment:

Chris Michael said...

Thanks again for another great blog.

It's interesting to hear the analysis of audiences' reaction to a silent film - I would reference Wall-E which had no dialogue for a very large section and not many people even noticed.

The description of silent film as dance and elemental is spot on. There is a world of non-verbal activity which can carry its own beautiful, real, naturalistic narratives if we just try to find them.