As we slowly march ever onward toward the inevitability which is the Academy Awards, one film seems destined to determine the fate of all others in the movie mix. Those clever Weinsteins, who play the cinema like well versed horse breeders each and every year, have once again backed what they believe is the eventual winner of 2011’s Best-of race – The Artist – and are going full bore through the rest of the telling trophy cavalcades looking for that elusive thing that makes a Oscar shoe-in: consensus. It is slowly forming – various critics groups, the recent Golden Globes, the PGA and DGA nods – and while many are unhappy with the hardball approach to the brothers campaigning, it cannot be denied that it gets results.
So it’s with a wink and a disapproving laugh that we learn about one of the problems facing The Artist in theaters across the world. Most specifically, there are reports out of the UK about audience members accosting the theater management post-screening, many demanding their money back…and the reason why is even more amazing than the original chutzpah it takes to go back to a ticket booth and ask for a refund. It seems that some consumers were dissatisfied with the film and needed to voice that disapproval. And, again, what were they unhappy with? Believe it or not, it was the fact that the film was silent.
That’s right, modern day moviegoers, supposedly inundated with as much information on the media they partake of than ever before, dared to protest that a silent movie…was silent. No dialogue. No audible narrative direction as to where the plot was going or how the characters interact. Told through gestures, camerawork, performance, and a recognizable set of standard story cliches, The Artist uses its novelty to remind the viewer of an innocent time when films were pure escape, when a kind of clever interactivity existed between patron and picture. As a orchestra (or more than likely, a single musician at a massive organ) played along with the images, fans fell into these wordless offerings, losing themselves in the familiar tropes and the usual human iconography.
There were superstars during the silents, comedians like Chaplin and Keaton, leading lights like Valentino, Chaney, and Clara Bow. They didn’t need words to make their mark, just imagination and the artform they were shaping. Now today, something like The Artist is nothing more than a stunt, a way of making an old fashioned experience seem fresh and inviting. Of course, a post-modern silent is nothing new. Mel Brooks did it back in the mid-’70s and no one was screaming Oscar for his loony Silent Movie. Recently, titles like Margarette’s Feast and Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain! took the concept to clever, original heights. But the sudden outpouring of love for The Artist – and the inevitable backlash over said popularity – comes more from marketing than anything else. The movie is good. All this arch affection is not.
It’s also endemic of the new journalism, a press constituency made up of experts schooled at the University of Internet Messageboards and Comment Sections. While many in the old fourth estate guard remains steadfast and sullen, this outgrowth of www.populism takes everything – EVERYTHING – as something to fawn and fall over. Name a movie made in the last few decades – any film, any region, any genre – and you’ll find a blog begging to have it considered a new classic. On the opposite end of the spectrum is something called ‘perspective’ – or in this situation, a lack of same. Watching The Artist and being swept up in its amazing combination of old and new world ways is one thing. To argue for its placement among the Best of this or any year is nu-tech shortsighted.
It’s an annual conundrum, something started long ago but made more vital by the introduction of the virtual worldwide soap box. If there are one million outlets for film criticism around the globe, there are an equal number of opinions about what is and is not the very best the medium. The Artist seems to fall into the category of offerings like The Hurt Locker (which some saw as over-praised because of its female director) or Titanic (a big, bloated spectacle awash in CG tweaks and romantic Tiger Beat hogwash). Few would argue that they are on par with such noted names as Citizen Kane or Taxi Driver, but they did win the battle of AMPAS aesthetic attrition, so they earn the right to consider themselves as same (note the two films mentioned that didn’t win).
But the issue with demanding refunds goes much deeper than mere cluelessness. There was a time when going to the movies was an event. Mom and Dad would dress up, take Junior and his frilly Sis to the local Bijou, and for a fair and equitable price, treat the entire family to a full night of wholesome, happy entertainment. Of course, almost all of that is gone today. Instead, audience members treat the theater like their own soiled living room, stretching out along the stadium seats, feasting on whatever oily food court items they can sneak into the show, talking, texting, laughing inappropriately and, in general, behaving like what’s on the screen is no more important than what they are currently invested in within the personal bubble of their entitlement. So naturally they need something to remind them that they are actually at the cinema.
A few months back, the Alamo Drafthouse removed a disruptive patron who was bothering others with her smart phone. Her phone call response remains a bellwether of what today’s filmgoer believes about the experience. So it makes perfect sense that people, driven by their daily visit to whatever search engine and news aggregates they prefer, would hear about The Artist and want to examine the hype for themselves. Even its status as a silent is well, well known. The desire for a refund probably has nothing to do with the lack of dialogue. Instead, in a dynamic where paying attention is far down on the list of reasons to be sitting in a movie theater, the missing aural cues must throw the new patron for a loop. Instead of mocking them for their taste, we should be criticizing these short attention span tendencies.
The next thing you know, they’ll be complaining about an animated feature done in traditional 2D pen and ink, not by a computer. Don’t worry, it’s not a question of if, but when.