Monday, February 27, 2012

Oscar's Ode to the Silents

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

For many, last night's Academy Awards honouring of Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist as Best Picture likely came as no surprise. As movie technology becomes more digitized, it seems quite natural that a modern film using modern techniques would try to lovingly recreate the beginning of cinema. (Martin Scorsese's Hugo does much the same.) This very consideration became part of Shlomo Schwartzberg's intelligently thorough examination of why he enjoyed The Artist.

Reminding Us Why We Love The Movies: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist

Jean Dujardin in The Artist

I must confess, I resisted seeing Michel Hazanaviciu’s The Artist for the longest time, fearing and assuming that the idea of making an honest-to-goodness silent movie in 2011 was merely a gimmick, like Mel Brooks’ tepid Silent Movie (1976). Well, I was fortunately wrong about that. Not only is The Artist one of the year’s best movies, it’s also a timely reminder of why I fell in love with cinema in the first place oh so many years ago. And though of late I have mostly fallen out of love with the movies because so many of them have been so bad, more so, perhaps in this past year than ever before, The Artist also reminds me that, when done exceptionally well, films like this can rejuvenate an art form that is well-worth seeking out and appreciating.

The other thing The Artist has in common with 2011’s best movies is that it’s not afraid of evoking emotions in the viewer. Those other stellar films, including Of Gods and MenThe Illusionist,IncendiesWar HorseHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, even the year’s finest documentaries, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Project Nim, all laid their feelings bare on screen, prompting the audience to fall in love with their protagonists, fear the outcome of their fates and be compelled to follow them though their often dangerous adventures in living and surviving. (Even Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, his somewhat disappointing follow-up to Sideways, was, despite being a touch too manipulative and pat, an honest and often powerful attempt at delineating the emotional turmoil that roils a family when the mother is grievously injured in an accident.) Those films stand out while so many other critically acclaimed films, such as Meek’s Cutoff and Another Earth, are, by comparison, arid and emotionally pinched movies. They seem almost determined to keep the viewer at an emotional distance; at best, asking you simply to admire them intellectually. (Terence Mallick’s The Tree of Life, another vastly overrated movie of 2011, does contain emotions but it’s such an incoherent mess that those feelings come across as stillborn.) Genuflecting at the altar of dry movies like those, as so many film critics do, is a denial of what makes cinema so emotionally potent and why it became such a significant art form. Be it SunriseCitizen KaneThe Rules of the GameCasablancaThe Apu TrilogyThe GodfatherThe Stunt Man or The Social Network, the finest films over the last century display the strong emotions of love, regret, anger, violence and joy. I won’t refuse a movie's ability to wash over me and to enfold me in its emotional embrace providing it's sincere and truthful; that’s why I, and so many others, at least, go to the movies. And it’s also why The Artist is a movie for the ages.

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo
‘The Artist’ within the movie is silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who in 1927 is at the top of his game and the leading box office draw in Hollywood (the famous monument on the hill still spells it Hollywoodland). Along with his adorable dog Jack (Uggie) and movie star wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), he is basking in the glow of audience rapture at the premiere of his latest silent extravaganza A Russian Affair when, on the red carpet, he literally bumps into a winsome fan (Bérénice Bejo) named Peppy Miller. The paparazzi catch that moment on film and, with a Varietyheadline blaring Who’s That Girl?, the stage is set for the pair’s further involvement, particularly when they cross paths after she auditions as a dancer for Valentin’s next film. The advent of sound, however, spells doom for Valetin’s career (Studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) feels that he has to step aside as the public wants ‘fresh meat’); and even as Valentin goes into a precipitous decline, his former protégé Peppy begins her ascendancy as a leading movie star.

Deliberately framing The Artist as a modern take on silent movies, from its apropos full-frame aspect ratio to Guilluame Schiffman’s sparkling and beautiful black and white cinematography to its silent era segues from one scene to the next, Hazanaviciu, who also wrote the screenplay, is paying homage to the beginnings of cinema. But he is not attempting an exact copy of the form – the only parts of The Artist that actually look like silent movies of yore are the film projects Valentin stars in. Hazanaviciu is set on – and succeeds in – replicating the often outsize emotions and pathos of the best and most appealing silent movies, from Napoleon to Sunrise to City Lights to The Thief of Baghdad, where what was felt had to be conveyed on screen solely through facial expressions, physical movements and music. (The Artist’s music is lovingly scored by Ludovic Bource except in a key moment towards the end when the director shrewdly borrows Bernard Herrmann's obsessive love theme from Hitchcock's Vertigo.) That’s a tall order in many ways, but The Artist and its superb cast pulls it off with seemingly consummate ease.

Dujardin and Uggie
As Valentin, a swashbuckling cross between Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, Dujardin (Little White Lies), who deservedly copped the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, is riveting and never more so than when he plays opposite real life partner Bejo. Alternately charming, considerate, vain and wallowing, his Valentin, a proud man facing change he cannot handle, is a tragic figure on the order of Emil Jannings’s doorman in F.W. Murnau’s classic The Last Laugh (1924). Yet opposite Bejo’s Peppy Miller, Valentin is capable of coming to glorious, giddy life, though it takes him forever to appreciate that her motives are not on par with the conniving thespian Anne Baxter played in All About Eve (1950). (The Artist’s cinematic references are certainly not all geared towards the silents; in addition to All About EveSingin’ in the Rain (1952) – which also dealt with the advent of sound movies – and the glamorous films of Astaire and Rogers, are also subtly evoked.) Bejo, too, shines as Peppy, a decent woman adrift in an often crass and self-absorbed Hollywood, who finds in Valentin a soul mate, though to its credit, The Artist does not spell out whether theirs is to be a romantic relationship or one where their feelings will be sublimated in favour of a deep friendship.

I have to remark, too, on Uggie, the adorable Jack Russell terrier who has as much personality as any human in the movie and consistently steals the scenes he’s in. (His is the best performance from his breed since that of ‘Eddie’ on TV's Frasier.) Terrific supporting work comes also from John Goodman as the not-so-bombastic studio head Al Zimmer, and James Cromwell (Babe) as Valentin’s supremely loyal valet Clifton. I do have a couple of quibbles, however. Penelope Ann Miller’s Doris is quite unlikeable, and though The Artist is taking place in the waning weeks of her marriage to Valentin, we still need to see why he fell in love with her in the first place, but we don’t. I also expected to see more of Malcolm McDowell in the movie. He first shows up after he meets Peppy while she’s auditioning for Valentin’s film (and showing of the Variety article about her), but though he seems to be just another extra, the movie suggests that he will pop-up later on, perhaps in a more significant role. For some odd reason, that never happens, though I don’t know if his was just a cameo appearance or a larger part that was left on the cutting room floor. You also have to be good at lip reading, which I'm not, as The Artist's inter-titles do not cover everything that is said, which was often the case with the silents; I may have, thus, missed a joke or two in the film.  As is done with e mails and occasionally in silent films, The Artist, smartly, uses those inter-titles to convey especially declamatory statements by capitalizing them and making their font size bigger than the norm.

Bérénice Bejo
The Artist, actually, is not entirely silent. Three sequences utilize sound, including a surprise one at the conclusion which reveals why Valentin is not prepared to adapt to sound cinema. (I won’t spoil it for you except to point it out that it sounds a note of cultural critique of American chauvinism in a movie that is otherwise a fulsome love letter to Hollywood. The linkage between French and American cinema has always been one of cross pollination from the influences of Abel Gance’s Napoleon and The New Wave on U.S. filmmakers to the French talents, Gerard Depardieu, Marion Cottillard, who have often starred in American movies.)

The best one, however, and an inventive tour-de-force on Hazanaviciu’s part, is just after Zimmer demonstrates the new-fangled sound in movies to Valentin. Returning to his dressing room, the actor is suddenly aware of the noises around him, from the thud of a dropped glass to Jack’s shrill bark to the laughter emanating from the extras he encounters on set, sounds we startlingly hear for the first time ourselves in the movie. It’s a brilliant way to show how the movies had to change and how those who'd grown used to the old ways had to give way to the new regime in cinema. For that sequence alone, Hazanaviciu, whose previous best known credits are the spy spoofs OSS 17: Lost in Rio (2009) andOSS 17: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006), which I have not seen, deserves acclaim as a significant talent to watch. (Considering that The Artist is, along with Of Gods and Men and The Illusionist, one of the year’s greatest cinematic achievements, French cinema is in healthy shape indeed.) The entire film, however, is a testament to his directorial abilities as you’ll quite quickly forget you’re watching a silent movie and simply be engrossed in the storyline and entranced by the characters.

That ultimately is why The Artist works; its deeply felt story is rendered so adeptly and perfectly presented that you can’t help but fall for it. And like the audiences of the 1920s, greeting the advent of sound, you feel like you’re seeing something new and fresh on screen. In a year rife with unimaginative sequels – 60 per cent of last year’s top grossing movies were of that sad ilk – and pedestrian story-lines, that is something of a miracle. That audiences are flocking to see a movie of this unique sort, is even more miraculous. As long as artists like Hazanaviciu are around, the future of movies can still appear to be a bright one.

-originally published on January 6, 2012 in Critics at Large.

 Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

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