[26 December 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There are those who understand the importance and impact of the silent era in film - and there are those that don’t. Just like the individuals who dismiss the comedy of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton as ‘crude’ or simplistic, or fail to see the genius behind the otherwise reactionary racism in D. W. Griffith, it’s generation and era-specific. For those who believe everything is better with technology, the old days of cinema contain minimal delights and even fewer insights. Forget the fascinating work of Lon Chaney or the sprawling spectacles of Cecil B. DeMille. It’s 3D and CGI for the digital dismissive. Into this clash between classicism and the contemporary comes The Artist. A old fashioned silent melodrama with a slight modern sensibility, it is being pitched as one of 2011’s best. While perhaps not that notable, it’s still an interesting experience.
We are introduced to fading star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) as his latest swashbuckling epic, The Russian Affair, is opening to audience hysteria. During a premiere press op, a young girl named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) finds herself photographed with the actor. The next day, she’s the talk of the town - and the Valentin household, including George’s sullen, hateful wife (Penelope Ann Miller). When studio chief Al Zimmer (John Goodman) decides to stop making silents and hop on the “talkies” bandwagon, our hero is livid. He won’t have it. He quits and goes off to make his own movie. In the meantime, Peppy is primed as the company’s latest “It” girl and quickly becomes a national phenomenon. Sadly, George sees his solo effort flop and he becomes downtrodden and destitute. Naturally, fate will find a way to bring these two destined love birds together, that is, before tragedy strikes.
In 1976, reigning funny man Mel Brooks had an idea - why not make an old fashioned silent comedy. Physical shtick had fallen on hard times since the supposed sophistication of the post-modern movement came around, but the writer/director/actor understood that for every snooty audience member out there looking down their nose at broad burlesque, there were dozens who delighted in daily TV doses of Three Stooges style slapstick. It was a brilliant move, one that would cement Brooks as an innovator and a creator of sophisticated stupidity. For French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, a lifelong dream to emulate his silent idols has resulted in The Artist. It’s a good film with some great moments and two excellent lead performances, but if that is the mandate for a movie’s position as the year’s top achievement, there are hundreds of similar entries that deserve such a status.
It’s not like Hazanavicius is doing anything that new or novel. Taking Singing in the Rain and stripping it of its musical numbers is not some radical reinvention of narrative. Indeed, George is the old school star who can’t embrace the notion of change. Peppy is the pert young thing who eventually convinces him of his narrow-minded ways. In between we have the rags to riches/riches to rags parallel, the Lassie like magic of George’s delightful ever-present dog, and a bunch of intriguing cameos (LOOK! There’s Malcolm McDowell! Hey! Isn’t that James Cromwell as the chauffer?). The result is a gimmick given over to way too much praise, and the reason seems sadly obvious. In a world where everyone is a critic - professional or blog pundit - the silent stunt is making up for a lack of legitimate consideration.
It happens all the time. A director will copy some less remembered riff from a considered cult title and the new ‘Net geek contingent wets itself. Even better, the last remaining vestiges of the legitimate press view a nod to the knowledge they must keep in check and get equally unhinged. There is nothing really wrong with such a response. After all, a movie like The Artist has many noble things to champion. But to act like said novelty is a recently uncovered masterpiece is to ask for a rebuff, even if its slight. What Hazanavicius has made is a likeable love letter being pitched as a major masterwork - and it isn’t. Instead, The Artist argues for the reason the original silent movies remain so vital within the artform while bringing nothing new to the discussion.
Still, there’s enough magic here to make up for the lack of reinterpretation. There is a sequence early on when George and Peppy are involved in a dance scene that’s sunny and smart in its off the cuff behind the scenes sensibility. Similarly, when our lead is out making his own movie, the mechanics montage is very well done indeed. While the monochrome image is a bit too gray on gray to really emulate the black and white sharpness of the past, the visuals are captivating and strong, and the performances all live up to what Hazanavicius wants out of his storyline. We get caught up in the various personal and professional positives and pitfalls, waiting for that one meaningful moment when guards will be let down and true love will cure and conquer all.
Yet when looking for a single word to describe The Artist, “piffle” comes to mind. Sure, Hazanavicius is using antiquated tricks on us, his big city backdrops nothing but studio sleight of hand, but little else of weight is being offered. A good way to determine overall quality here is to ask the following question - without the silent aspect, would this movie really be so special? Those captivated by everything it represent will probably say “Yes.” Others may be wary of going so far with sound. Of course, this won’t stop the debate. It will merely fuel it.
As in every film year, something comes along to astound those whose frame of reference expands beyond October through December. Before one knows it, consensus has crowned a champion before all the players are even acknowledged. 2011 seems like a year when no real singular winner is running away with the edge. The Artist is excellent. It’s just not an example of something timeless. It’s purely of its era.