Thursday, March 15, 2012

pride and despair

The Artist* reminds me of the pretty, intelligent girl, the one who looked vaguely like Lauren Bacall, who sat next to me in high school Physics.  I liked her, but I was not certain why.

By now, all of you must know about The Artist.  A black and white silent movie.  French made.  But a tale of Hollywood film-making in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

It was beguiling enough to convince the handful of aging Academy voters to award it this year's Best Picture.  Maybe because so many of them were in silent films.

And nostalgia may be one reason the film gained so much attention.  It turns out that they do make them like they used to.

The reason I may be ambivalent is that The Artist is really two films.

The first one is what my friend Patti called ”charming.”  The not-too-original story of the silent film star at the top of his career who laughs at the coming of talkies.  And is then professionally and psychologically undone when both he and silent films are quickly forgotten.

His despair is heightened by the fact that he has fallen in love with a young actress who turns into the very symbol of the talkies.  (By the way, if you can watch this film without falling in love with Bérénice Bejo, you have no soul.)

His marriage and career in a shambles, he nearly dies.  And without the help of the young actress he would -- along with the attendant problem of Spring-Winter romances.  Think A Star is Born.

There is nothing original in that tale.  It predates the movies, and it was a staple of the early movie days.

But that is the movie’s point.  It is not original.  It is meant to charm you.  To give you hope.  Just like the depression films it is meant to reflect.  And (nudge nudge) aren’t we in the same position now, the movie so delicately asks.  Just looking for a little hope?

If that is all The Artist was, I would say: don’t bother seeing it.  After all, Mel Brooks already filmed a far more clever piece based on the same idea: Silent Movie.

But there is a far better film hidden amongst the mundane tale: a sophisticated French film comfortably cohabiting with its perky American cousin.

The French, as we know from Ridicule, honor wit far more than humor.  And The Artist is as witty as anything Molière penned.

Cultural references abound.  Visual film cues and bits that evoke the works of Degas, Rodin, and Magritte.  A tip of the hat to Jung with a shadow leaving its object.

But that is the subtle stuff.  The film is a veritable warehouse of cinematic tributes.  Every silent movie cliché is reworked into a clever homage.  Wardrobe malfunctions remind us that costumes were real clothes in those early days.  Life's worst experiences are resolved with a wide-eyed smile.

And then there are the bits from other films.  Douglas Fairbanks.  Busby Berkeley.  Charlie Chaplin.  Orson Welles.  Billie Wilder.  Rudolph Valentino.  It is as if a cinematic rapture had occurred.  And no one was left behind.

Witty it is.  But two hours of that business can cloy.  And expose itself for the conceit it is.

I have two friends named John.  Both are academics.  And they are both fascinating conversationalists.  When I get together with them, we essentially re-enact the same style I liked in The Artist.
But I am always pulled back to reality by their wives.  After about five minutes of our impersonations of Oscar Wilde on cocaine, they roll their eyes and jump on the first shuttle back to the planet Earth.

The Artist is a good film about pride and the despair that it can bring.  The ending is a typical American ending.  And that was disappointing.  I had held out hope that the witty French film would win out and give us a more thoughtful conclusion.  More like life as we know it.

But, as I said earlier.  The film is Hollywood’s attempt to bring back its take on the depression.  That a little dance step is all we need to have practically perfect lives.

The French know better.

* -- I must confess I violated one of my cardinal rules by watching this movie on a pirated DVD (that undoubtedly passed through the peso magnet of some drug cartel).  But my friend  Nancy was kind enough to lend it to me.  And I certainly was not going to find it on Netflix.  The experience taught me one thing.  The DVDs are not the bargain they appear to be.  An anti-piracy warning repeatedly showed up at the top of the screen.  And the Spanish subtitles would obliterate the silent film dialogue cards.  Both annoyances really detracted from this highly-visual film.  


Andean said...

After this review it escapes me whether to watch it or not !

Felipe Zapata said...

People who use the noun "film" instead of "movies" tend to be wine-sipping, elitist, armchair communists.  You disappoint me, amigo.

Steve Cotton said...

Interestingly, this is a film satisfied to be a movie.

I need to get back with Engles at our private club.  He just ordered another glass of Merlot for me.

Steve Cotton said...

 It is well worth watching.  I have sent hours mulling it over.

John Calypso said...

We enjoyed the film (movie for those who care to get caught up in word games). It was pretty much as you describe - mostly mindless entertainment (we watched a better copy apparently).  Full coverage might have included a mention of the cute dog. What is it - actors should not work with kids or animals?  The dog was cool.

Steve Cotton said...

 It was a great dog.  And the little hierarchical bit with the dog and wife was a nice little touch that we were not amongst a Nora and Nick marriage.

Mexican Trailrunner said...

I loved it, film or movie - whatever.  Agree with John.  And you, Steve:
(By the way, if you can watch this film without falling in love with Bérénice Bejo, you have no soul.)  WASN'T SHE MAGNETIC!  I think it's her smile, dunno, but she certainly can act as well.  Recently read they retired the cool doggie.  BTW, you can delete/change subtitles etc with your remote.

Alinde Omalley said...

I don't care what any of you all say--I found it to be the best movie I've ever seen!  But I did see it in a theater, with only two others present. I will buy the DVD when it's available in Mexico, and will watch it so many more times.  There are many themes which intertwine, and the relative silence of the movie is such a thrill to those of us fed up with the cultural NOISE (cell phones and such; mall music blasting etc.) When I have trouble falling asleep, I often find the recalling scenes from The Artist calm me, and I do sleep. 

Steve Cotton said...

i don't think anyone said they did not like the movie. In fact, almost everyone I have talked with found it charming (that word again).

You are correct. It has many layers. And that is what keeps it from being merely a fluff piece. If I ever get an opportunity, I would like to see it in a proper movie palace.

I have been listening to the film score. It is good.