Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Film. Now more than ever.

My favorite moment in The Artist isn't one of Michel Hazanavicius's deep focus, cross-compositional gags where signs comment on or joke about the action or the lack of talking. It doesn't involve Uggie, either.

My favorite moment in the movie is where Peppy recovers George's film and holds it up to the light, examining it carefully. The film cuts to a close-up of the frames, and as she looks, they animate ever so slightly. It is an image of the two of them in the outtake from earlier in the film, dancing for one moment and collapsing into laughter the next.

This is, for me, the soul of The Artist, and the whole reason it will win Best Picture, the whole reason it may become the platform from which many an impassioned blogger will campaign for the necessity of film. This is one of the few moments where The Artist overcomes its own nostalgia to revel in the beauty of its medium.

George, if we recall, has burned all of his films in a fit of drunken rage. Save this one. He holds on to it because of its exact lack of commercial or artistic value. It's just a shot, a moment that was discarded and tossed out of the film (though not of The Artist. One of several instances where the film effortlessly conflates the diegetic and non-diegetic seamlessly. We don't seem to care, even though it shouldn't make sense to us. It takes the POV shot to fascinating highs.). And yet, where George's producers could find no value in this shot -- this mistake -- he saves it at its moment of potential destruction.

"The film" has become, in this instance, a transcendental, romanticized artifact. The medium itself has captured a moment of real interaction. A "real interaction" that stands in direct contrast to the "artifice" of the scene that is being filmed.

The Artist is, deep down, a plea for us to keep films around. I have a couple of friends who like to poke at me for even calling them "films" -- it is, after all, the "pretentious" way of saying "movies," although not as bad as "moving pictures," which they see as just retrograde and silly. But there is deep concern in some pockets of the scholarly pool, and I'd argue beneath the cheery veneer of The Artist, about whether or not "films" are still "films," and if they're not, what are they?

If a "film" is meant to connote celluloid, is "digital film" still "film?" Is it more like video? Are video productions films? I know, it's a semantic quagmire, and part of me is simply being rhetorical. But as much as The Artist wants us to remember "the language of the silent cinema" as filtered through the retrospective mythologies of our 21st century perspective, its larger cause is to make us remember the medium itself.

There are many "gazes" in the film, and lots of them are turned towards a stage. In one shot, the camera takes the perspective of the screen, looking at the audience. In the theater, the effect is almost like being behind a one-way window. In other moments, George appears to be lit solely by the flicker of his small film projector. And while the film ultimately seems to insist that progress is more like a steamroller than anything (George has to do a film with sound, even if he just dances and covers up his very un-Hollywood voice), it begs us to at least think about what we're losing. It wants us to have a dialectical engagement with Hollywood history (or history in general?) even though I think it stages the thing a little incorrectly.

What will happen when "films" cease to be "films"? A Blu-Ray may look great, but you can't hold every frame in your hand. The Artist emphasizes, in my favorite of its moments, film's ability to stop and preserve life in an instance. An instant that is 1/24th of a second. What was a throwaway exchange was captured, preserved, and serves as the core of memory. Life, replicated mechanically.

Part of what's difficult to sort out about Michel Hazanavicius's film is where exactly he's placing this film rhetorically, critically, theoretically. Clearly, despite what this moment of holding the celluloid signifies, he sees film as a construction (it's one of the most formal movies imaginable) and not real. He makes us love Hollywood and its locations, even though any of us who've seen Sunset Blvd. have a pretty good idea of what will happen to George. Because in 2011, we know more than George Valentin. But because we know the "tragic" version, we can accept this fantasy, this alternate reality that "only the silver screen" can give. George Valentin is the shadow of the Old Hollywood. He is not its reality, nor does he try to be. He is its fantasy. That's why the omnipresent score grinds to a halt at the moment of the "BANG!" - The Artist delights, more than anything, in re-writing Hollywood history to something we want it to be.

Hazanavicius pays homage, invents his alternate ending of dialectical fantasy where George Valentin morphs seamlessly into Gene Kelly, but he wants to guide us back to a moment of "film language," a moment that lacks congestion and clutter. A moment that creates spaces to not only enjoy the film but think about its devices.

I don't mean to suggest that all the Academy members will vote for The Artist because it makes them want to "save film" from the unstoppable onslaught of digital projection and filmmaking. They'll vote for it because it makes them feel good and it's the ultimate "They don't make them like they used to" movie (even when it's not really making them like they used to, because it knows more than they used to).

But The Artist wants us to (figuratively) hold it as lovingly as Berenice Bejo holds that strip of celluloid. It wants us to remember not Hollywood, but film. Film now. More than ever.

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