Saturday, February 11, 2012

Out of words

The Artist is the favourite to win the Oscar for best film: it would be only the second silent film to do so, after Wings won at the very first ceremony in 1929 (although many of the intervening winners caused most observers to lose the power of speech). It’s hardly fair to group those two together, of course: for Wings silence was the necessary medium, for The Artist it’s the conscious subject, as well as the aesthetic strategy. It starts off in 1927, portraying silent screen idol George Valentin at the height of his popularity, knocking ‘em dead in one Fairbanks-type epic after another. When the sound technology comes in, he laughs it off, but suddenly he’s washed up, replaced by a modern new wave of personalities. One of these, the vivacious Peppy Miller, never stops idolizing him, even as her stardom far eclipses his, and tries to watch over him in his decline.

The Artist

I saw the film on Christmas Day afternoon in Edmonton. Because it was playing on just one screen in the whole city, I assumed the theatre would be just about full, but it attracted just a handful of people. Not to over-extrapolate from that narrow personal experience, but veteran film reviewers might not be well-placed to grasp how plain weird The Artist might seem to some people. To some of us, this is a gorgeous exercise in nostalgia (drawing extra resonance from our knowledge that it’s actually a French movie, even if filmed in Hollywood and with familiar American faces in supporting roles); to others though, it might merely seem like a bizarre exercise in self-denial. Basically, what’s the point of telling a hokey old story, using hokey old means? And for all its strengths, The Artist can’t entirely surmount that objection. Assuming you have only limited time available to invest in watching silent movies, it’s hard to see why you’d prioritize this over Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.

That doesn’t mean the film, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is unrewarding though, far from it. You have to admire any movie that relies so much on undiluted, right-between-the-eyes charm. Jean Dujardin is almost spookily perfect as Valentin, smiling too wide and emoting too broadly without ever crossing over into parody or condescension; Berenice Bejo, as Peppy, is equally as winning, but appropriately lower on the dial. And Dujardin shares virtually every scene with a dog – Valentin’s on-screen co-star and off-screen faithful friend – who also hams it up to just the right degree. The movie is full of scenes that certainly feel as if they might be homages to - or for that matter, stolen from - old pictures, even if you can’t place them (it also evokes Citizen Kane and Vertigo at various times, although it’s a little harder to see the point of that). And the overall narrative draws on the classically satisfying arc of A Star is Born without, in this case, simply pilfering from it.

The Artist versus Hugo

Hazanavicius has more in mind than accomplished pastiche though. The movie is constantly about silence, teasing us to consider it as a quality, a commodity. It presents Valentin’s inability to adapt to sound as an existential condition, not just a vocal limitation, and cleverly suggests this conditions his relationship to the real world, not just to cinema: a couple of the film’s cleverest moments, drawing on this, actually do involve sound. The ending might be taken to suggest, very subtly, that silent cinema really did embody a vanished purity, the natural heir to which would be the gorgeous abstraction of Astaire and Rogers. It’s a fanciful thesis, I suppose, but throughout The Artist you find yourself lingering in scenes which would typically pass by much quicker, as if sound could only be noise, a barrier between you and the luxurious truth of things. Which does have something in common with the transcendence of dance.

But if The Artist is a skilled advocate for a certain thesis about cinema, it’s hard to see where it leaves you once you leave the theatre and the smile wears off your face. The film has a fair bit in common with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which I raved about a few months ago; Hugo reaches back even further into the dawn of cinema, before they’d even figured out the movies might depict the real world, let alone make it talk. But unlike The Artist, Scorsese finds a way to make this relevant and vital. By using 3-D – and perhaps using it better than anyone ever has before – he embraces all modern cinema has to offer, while insisting the future is best unlocked by understanding and drawing from the past. And by applying this to a theme of self-repair, of a broken community coming together, he seduces us into believing that cinema – even in its largely disposable current form – is still socially relevant and nurturing.

The Artist embodies a broadly similar theme: the logistics of thriving in a world where the reference points are shifting. But its answer, basically, is to find a way to preserve your past corniness and give it a fresh polish. An acceptable enough answer, maybe, during the undemanding season of goodwill, but not particularly stimulating otherwise.

The Muppets

To illustrate further how undemanding that season can be, I went on Christmas Eve to see The Muppets. I thought the movie was winding down by then, reduced to a single afternoon showing, but it was nearly full (again, this was in Edmonton, not that I’m saying that explains anything). I sat between my wife, who reacted to it with much the same coolness she’d have exhibited at an Ingmar Bergman movie, and my nephew, who laughed at loud at virtually every line, if not every syllable (guess who picked the movie that day?)

The premise is that the Muppets are all washed up and dispersed, their old theatre derelict and facing demolition; then inspired by a young superfan (who doesn’t realize he’s a muppet himself), they get back together to do a fund-raising reunion show. The movie wants to make us happy, and usually succeeds, especially through its appropriately bouncy and giddy musical numbers; my nephew was particularly taken with the series of humiliations visited on Jack Black, playing himself as the unwilling host of the big show (i.e. they kidnap him and tie him to a chair). He failed though to recognize some of the other celebrity cameos who pepper the movie – Judd Hirsch, even Mickey Rooney – or to appreciate the old photos of the likes of Rich Little on the walls of the theatre. That’s right, yet another movie reaching right back to the very dawn of entertainment.

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