Skeptics making some noise over ‘The Artist’

by Michael Phillips

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

6 February 2012


If there’s one thing I had failed to consider this Academy Awards season, it’s that “The Artist” exists not to show people a good time (take it or leave it), but to make them feel like “idiots.”

Is this why “The Artist” has done well in the big cities but less so in the smaller markets? To date, the front-runner for this year’s Oscars has grossed $18 million in the U.S., after faring far better ($46 million) abroad. Perhaps something about the particular foreign-ness of this French-made, black-and-white, virtually silent pastiche (95 percent silent, anyway) will prove more forbidding in the commercial sense than “Slumdog Millionaire,” the mood-swinging genre mashup that won three years ago.

That word “idiot” was used the day of the nominations by Vincent Anzalone, one of several of us on a Siskel Film Center Oscars panel. Anzalone, whose Twitter profile specifies his interest in food and film and his business as a “lifestyle marketing solution” expert, is hardly alone in resisting the film. First time he saw it, he said, he fell asleep. Second time, he said, he stayed awake and hated it less. Later he tweeted: “(Jean) Dujardin, (Berenice) Bejo & the dog are good but why make a silent movie with nothing new? Stupid.”

“The Artist” also has its skeptics among those less innately hostile toward the lack of yak. Many people find director Michel Hazanavicius only sketchily faithful to the style of the pictures to which he’s paying homage. They find the film charming but slight, or … take your pick of the “buts.” Amusing but minor. Amiable but twee. On his excellent blog somecamerunning.typepad.com, Glenn Kenny of MSN Movies wrote of the film’s “technical slackness” and “how actually ignorant (Hazanavicius) is of silent film craft beyond a certain superficial level.” He also wrote that it’s an “amiable, intermittently engaging picture that is as charming as it wants to be about 40 percent of the time, better-than-tolerable another 40 percent of the time, and rather dire during the period that it inexplicably uses a large chunk of Bernard Herrmann’s score for ‘Vertigo.’”

There’s really no question that Hazanavicius’ use of a key, lengthy Herrmann “Vertigo” theme is simply lazy, like pulling out Herrmann’s shower-murder music from “Psycho” for nonparodic use by another filmmaker. (I’ve had it with parodic use of that music as well.) There’s also an argument to be made, a correct one, I think, about Hazanavicius’ camera technique being less than dynamic, as his tone sometimes wavers between sincerity and spoof.

And yet I do find “The Artist” charming. It delivers in so many other ways, I have reservations about my reservations. Dujardin (the surest sure thing come Oscar night Feb. 26) makes sense of the material’s mood swings even when the film itself struggles. It may not have made my top 10, but I love hearing some of the fervent reactions, whether from positions of knowledge or positions of I-know-what-I-like-damn-it, provoked by this essentially unprovocative entertainment.

Those who find themselves making excuses not to see “The Artist,” for whatever reason … just see it, to see what you think of it. And take the time to acquaint or reacquaint yourselves with the two films cited as the best of 1927-28 by the fledgling Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “Wings,” director William Wellman’s World War I flyboy adventure, won the Academy Award that year for “outstanding picture.” F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” took home the de facto “art” award for “unique and artistic production.” “Wings” is now available in a DVD and Blu-ray reissue; “Sunrise” also is widely available.

We have come a long way. But we would be idiots to take the glories of the industry’s first three decades for granted.

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