Reviews

'The Artist': Both Gimmicky and Nostalgic

Resisting change, The Artist's movie star repeats a familiar history, that is, the history of movies that's been passed on in the movies.


The Artist

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, Missi Pyle, Malcolm McDowell, Penelope Ann Miller
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Weinstein Company
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-11-25 (Limited release)
UK date: 2011-12-30 (General release)
Website
Trailer

"If that's the future, you can have it." It's 1927, and Hollywood's biggest star is putting his foot down. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) has always made movies one way, as stories told in movement and expression. He and his sidekick Uggy, an adorable wirehaired terrier, have made millions of fans happy for years, not to mention millions of dollars for his studio. He's sure of his identity and his art, and now that silent pictures are giving way to talkies, well, he won't budge. “I won’t talk," he says, "I won’t say a word."

And so The Artist begins, with no one saying a word. A silent movie shot in crisp and lovely black and white, it's both gimmicky and nostalgic, with a dash of self-awareness to make it palatable to viewers who don't remember or esteem the olden days. The silence is punctuated by music and occasional sound effects, these to remind you that the movie gets the joke of its frame -- a silent movie about silent movies -- even as it asks you to reflect on the seeming simplicity of the past.

That reflection is increasingly complicated. For George is not only stubborn and arrogant; he's also afraid. Of course, being the star of any number of adventures and romances, he masks this fear as bravado, telling himself and his colleagues that he's right and the rest of the world is wrong. Even as the wide-waisted, cigar-puffing studio exec Al Zimmer (John Goodman) insists they have to keep up with the times, George still hopes he can define the times.

In this, George repeats a familiar history, that is, the history of movies that's been passed on in the movies. As in Singin' in the Rain -- The Artist's most obvious precursor -- people who make movies, artists and business types alike, are unsure of the coming technology, how to master it and also, crucially, how to pitch the new experience to consumers. Much like Singin' in the Rain, The Artist is less about the shifting technologies than the identity crisis they produce in George, a star who prefers the success of his past to the uncertainty of the future.

As such, George embodies a number of mythologies about the movies, from their commitment to formula to their investment in the star system, from their romantic grandeur to their crass greed. He knows what he does well, and is loathe to step out of that box, but he's also worried about being left behind. Conveniently, as myths tend to do, the movie provides him with easy-to-read incarnations of his options, his resentful wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) and the brilliant ingénue, literally discovered on the street, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). As George sits at breakfast with Doris, their fine table a huge expanse between them à la Citizen Kane, he ponders what to do as she draws mustaches and glasses on his magazine covers. And as George spots Peppy on the set of a movie where she's supposed to be a chorus girl, he loves her legs first, her body and face obscured by a bit of backdrop en route to another part of the studio.

Thus The Artist reminds you why you love movies, namely, their capacity to make fictions seem true. George dances a few competitive steps with Peppy's legs, she measures up, and everyone else on set -- from the grips to the script girl to Al Zimmer -- nod and smile broadly, aware of the magic being conjured before them. As The Artist helps you to be aware of their awareness, it's awfully clever. As it trots out movie tropes, it reminds you that these are illusions, however emotionally rewarding and culturally constructive. Just so, George's infatuation with Peppy is reduplicated in her near-instant success on screen: as soon as she begins appearing in movies, a montage (of course) tracks her ascent, from bit player to co-star to fabulous headliner. As magazines showcase her, fans love her, and so does the studio: it's not long before she is the future that George resists.

Meantime, he decides to fight that future, financing and directing his own old-school, still silent movie. Donning yet another safari helmet and jodhpurs, George wanders into a jungle, where he and Uggy find a blond in distress and do their best to save her from savages carrying spears and wearing teeth necklaces. That George's character in the film is finally sucked into quicksand, self-sacrificing and noble to the end, underlines both the enduring romance of his self-image and currently disconcerting passivity. The scene is both comic and tragic, especially as Peppy attends the film's opening, watching from the balcony with her smug and pretty boyfriend, her eyes filled with tears. Whether she's crying because of the beauty of the art or the abject obstinacy this vanity project represents is not clear.

As the shot of Peppy in the balcony makes clear, The Artist again and again sets George's decline against Peppy's rise (à la A Star is Born or the much-repeated real-life story of John Gilbert and Greta Garbo). That Peppy remains loyal to the man who so good-naturedly helps to jump-start her career speaks to her good character even as it creates some creaky melodrama. Her loyalty is matched by that of George's manservant Clifton (James Cromwell), as both appreciate his stardom, his nice-guyness, and also his art. Even as George is cast off by an industry devoted to next new thing, or more precisely, the thing that can make the most money, Peppy and Clifton (hired by Peppy when George can no longer pay him) keep a watchful eye on their onetime mentor even as he descends into obscurity, depression and bitter alcoholism.

As George's melodrama rages and Peppy -- and Uggy -- must come to his rescue, The Artist seems at last to be stuck in its own metaphor, celebrating its imagined past even as it also recognizes that process of imagining. The good old days may be good, but they're definitely old. This means they've been remade over time, fictionalized and embellished. And that means they look even better.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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