Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Past imperfect -- 'The Artist' and cinema nostalgia

The way critics are writing about The Artist, you would expect it to be the second coming of Charles Chaplin, F.W. Murnau, and Douglas Fairbanks. It's not. And what's worse, the way critics are writing about this film is so completely hyperbolic, so utterly selective, so clouded by grand rosy nostalgia that it's frankly baffling. You'd think these people were drunk off their asses when they watched this movie.

Maybe that's a little harsh. But The Artist is embroiled in a very nostalgic, very basic history of Hollywood from 1927-1933. Just as lead actor Jean Dujardin looks remarkably like Gene Kelly's silent screen star from Singin' in the Rain, so too does French director Michel Hazanavicius's film fall back into the commonly accepted mythologies that 1952 film purports about Hollywood. It never challenges our conception of Hollywood. It shamelessly endorses them. Which is fine for the light entertainment it is, but more problematic when you pair the film against the discourse surrounding it.

At least it doesn't suggest sound really took instant hold in 1927. It just pushes it back two years. For once, I'd like a film about Hollywood to at least give up a little bit of those fantasies. Talk about, if only for a few minutes, how complicated the transition really was. For crying out loud, even Singin' in the Rain works that in a little bit, even if it is spottily and covertly positioned using genre. As a postmodern reappropriation of the era, The Artist is about a quarter Singin' in the Rain, two quarters A Star is Born, and a quarter all its own. It follows the steep decline of Dujardin's A-list silent star George Valentin (did ya forget the "o"?) just as bubbly sweetheart Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, who is utterly radiant and arguably the best part of the film) begins a chance rise to the top. Miller's career begins with a flirtation with Valentin (she's a dance extra on one of his final films) and their lives both refract and intersect throughout the film until, you guessed it, they dialectically converge.

But beneath its conventional narrative, the film is actually quite adept at staging its own series of visual gags, mostly calling attention to what the absence of sound can do. The film opens with a movie premiere, with an accompanying orchestral score moving with the action on the screen's screen. Only when "The End" flashes and the audience applaudes can we even realize we're in a silent film. Following are an avalanche of references -- from the Jack Russell terrier sidekick culled from The Awful Truth and The Thin Man  to John Goodman's gesticulative movie producer -- that begin to form a postmodern reconstruction of the silent aesthetic. Signs such as "Silence Behind the Screen" are a tad obvious, as are title cards like "Why won't you talk?" -- It's charming, but a bit derivative when the same joke is done over and over. And, as an aside, if anyone can explain to me what five minutes of the Vertigo soundtrack is doing in the film, I'd be really appreciative, as that's one of the film's biggest miscues. I'd daresay it flattens the whole scene (and it's an important scene).

Part of what makes the film so interesting is its rather perfect recreation of the silent form. From the camera positions, the tracking shots, the lighting, the editing, the original music, and the acting are fantastic. And for the first hour of the film, it's all rather romantic and light-as-air. And while it certainly maintains this comic lightness throughout, earning its smiles and laughs through almost perfect aesthetics, it's still a film that feels broadly empty. At the end, it's not entirely clear what Hazanavicius is saying about Hollywood, or why he's using this particular set of mythologies to say it.

I came at The Artist just one week after watching Far From Heaven again, which to my recollection is the last time a major film tried to wholly recreate an older film style. But in Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes comes at the Sirkian melodrama from a more intellectual angle, thinking about how the 1950s created a prison for different genders and sexualities through a key mediated representation of the time.

Maybe I'm just blind to what the bigger idea of The Artist is. I'd like to know. I certainly feel like I get why it's so entertaining, but its painstaking recreation of a period and a form of making films must have something else going on. Why is Hazanavicius making this film now? Is it a plea for us to remember FILM as it is becoming eroded by digital? Or is it a potent reminder of technological change in the industry as we're experiencing a new kind of change? Is there an exploration of the contradictions and problems of this society buried within the text? None that I can see, or at least, none that weren't already being explored in the 1930s.

The Artist is a delightful film, don't get me wrong. I enjoyed most all of it, and definitely admired the pains Hazanavicius took. It's an experiment, but is it any more-so (or less-so) than what Guy Maddin did in Brand Upon the Brain (just to give one example)? Does it speak to the critics' selective memory when they overlook Maddin's work as exercises in silent aesthetics, and praise The Artist as a great representation of Hollywood in its transitional period?

This is what happens when nostalgia overtakes discourse and reception. It indicates how powerful a tool it is, especially for people who love movies (or, I suppose, anything). We let the Basic Story take control because it's simpler and more entertaining. Some critics can't even remember the movie properly -- I've read multiple reviews say it only has one line of spoken dialogue. By my count, it has four separate lines.

Again, my biggest qualms with the film are not about what it is. It's a fine film. I just can't fathom why it's been cobbled into this broader nostalgic discourse and catapulted into the "Best Picture of the Year."

I'd love for someone to convince me The Artist is one of the best pictures of the year, and deserves to have its praises sung through the rafters. I wish I thought it was one of the best pictures of the year, because I think it's great that not only are more people actually making retro movies, but they're getting distribution and generating conversation. It's entertaining, it's impressive, but it's hampered by regurgitating a silly mythology about industrial change. The critics may gobble that up and say it's a great love letter, but it all seems very manipulative to me.

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