Friday, December 23, 2011

Squalor: The Artist

There are times, my friends, where I find myself deep within the critical minority. The Artist, I fear, is one of those rare moments of nearly complete disagreement.  After all, the film has already landed on numerous 'best of' lists, racked up the most Golden Globe nominations, is a shoo in for a half dozen Oscar nods, and -for a moment- was a major contender for the Palme d'Or at Cannes (luckily, Tree of Life topped it).  I'd left a space open for The Artist on my own personal end-of-the-year wrap up, certain that I too would fall victim to the rosy warmth of its silent era nostalgia.  After all, a cinephile is a sucker for a movie about movies, and who could possibly resist a contemporary dose of shimmering black and white?

 I was ready for a rebooted silent; a playful, wink wink nudge nudge commentary on our current landscape of big budget monstrosities and loud, cacophonous disillusioned dark horses. A bit of that dolled up, wide-eyed glamour could have gone far. In some ways, we do need a film with a heart of gold and a simplistic sincerity to waltz in and remind us that movie making at its simplest can be a magical, transcendent experience.  What I got with The Artist, however, was little more than vapid pastiche with an overly familiar plot, a sort of perfume ad version of old world magic: dressed up, ready to go, playing to the style but simply mugging for the camera.  The Artist was a tremendous disappointment.  It was empty, silly, cloyingly saccharine, with a story that could be told more effectively by Bill Hader in a four minute SNL digital short.

Ironically, the film I'd hoped for has already came along this year, and when it did it arrived dressed up in all the trappings of the modern blockbuster:  it was Hugo.  With Hugo, Scorsese brought silent films to life.  He showed us their beauty, what went into the construction of their little worlds and how thoroughly they built the framework for everything we have today.  Scorsese showed us how to love silent film, how to believe in its powers and see it as relevant and alive.  In The Artist, director Michel Hazanavicius is playing a cheap parlor trick, trying to fool us into thinking we're seeing something new, something fresh, when instead all he's showing us is a dusted off something old (with a still-wet coat of varnish).  "Isn't that nice?"  we're supposed to say as we dip into our bouts of seasonal depression,  "it's just so nice when you can go to the pictures and see a movie with a happy ending and a little scene stealing dog. Oh goody, oh golly, look at that half-assed tap dancing!  Isn't it great? Wow, forget Gene Kelly, you just don't get that from movies today.  Ugh, all you get are talking robots, 30-minute trips through the cosmos, and Michael Fassbender's wang. But this is so nice! They just don't make 'em like they used to..."

At its heart, The Artist is about one thing: making a silent film in 2011 that reads like a silent film from 1930.  As such, it has about a 50% success rate (but we'll get into more of that later), so it dresses up its attempts with a story nearly as old as Hollywood itself: talkies kill the silent film.  George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a debonair silent star at his zenith.  Valentin is John Gilbert and William Powell and Gene Kelly and, obviously, Rudolph Valentino all rolled into one omnipresent symbol.  Dujardin has the look and the charisma to pull it off.  We believe his face, the words of Norma Desmond echoing forever in our minds.  In this film, Hollywood is a mechanically flat galaxy with room enough for only one star at a time.  As Valentin stubbornly retains his belief that talkies are merely a passing fancy, he's phased out in favor of Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a cute kid with a toothy grin who's plucked out of the chorus line and foisted into the limelight.  Peppy does not have the face.  She has none of the gravitas of a Greta Garbo and is clearly more of a Clara Bow 'it' girl, but for some reason Hazanavicius has aligned her with the star(...and isn't it amusing when she's given the "I want to be alone" reference. Uh huh. So amusing my eyes rolled back into my skull).

As Valentin's world crumbles, Peppy ascends. The two are inextricably linked: riches to rags, rags to riches, with a cheaply strung together love story somewhere in the middle and the full understanding that this film is not about to end badly anytime soon.  As such, The Artist is constantly aware of its own artifice and yet sincerely trying to overcome it.  The result is cloyingly cute and offensively inauthentic in a way that seems unaware it's picking up merely on stereotypical cliches instead of delving deeper into the medium. It is to silent film what Panda Express is to Chinese food: an altered state, a phony stand-in.  Yet, someone out there will actually think this is what the real thing is supposed to taste like.  It's like, hey, guys, it's a silent film about a guy who fails at life because he won't listen when other people talk. Get it? Get it? That's something new, right? That's the twist?
Frankly, my dear, as I watched The Artist I went from being unimpressed to actively disliking the film on nearly every level.  If you'd like to see a great version of the story The Artist is loosely working with, please go watch Singin' in the Rain. If you'd like to see the films that Singin' in the Rain loosely works with, please go watch a great silent film.  Choose from any of a long list of worthy titles: dig up Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, F.W. Murneau, Fritz Lang, and Louise Brooks.  In the spirit of Festivus, it seems appropriate that I simply air the rest of my grievances on the matter in a spilling, stumbling block of word vomit.  SO I SHALL...

Everything in the film feels over-calculated, phony, and just slightly off.  Bejo's face is all wrong for this role.  She has the eyes of a silent film star, but she doesn't know how to use them.  Her expressions are always empty, but then again, she's rarely given anything of substance to convey.  Instead, she transforms the whole thing into one long fashion editorial. A Chanel ad, perhaps. Her look is too modern, like a mix of my cousin and one of the Jackson clan. She needs heavier makeup, a kewpie mouth, and brows of a different sort.  The rest of the supporting cast, too (Missi Pyle excluded), feels dropped in.  No one here has the "face", they all need the "words." Speaking of, the dialogue cards are mostly poorly considered, like a bad student film script or dumb one-liners (no one laughed).  Too much faith is placed in Uggie the dog, who's no match for the dog in Beginners, though he can do some irritatingly overplayed tricks.  Human wise, the movements are off.  It's a muted version of an already silent film.  The actors feel tampered, restrained, unwilling to commit to the extra mile or frantic head movement.  The Waxworks in Sunset Boulevard had more life in the facial expressions at their bridge game than the stars do here.  No one can decide whether this is the sort of silent in which exaggerated motions are necessary, or if they can get away with Maria Falconetti realism.  Hint: they need a bit more exaggeration and some time with Tyra Banks: model head to toe, don't forget your face when you're focusing on your feet.  Part of this, though, could be that the cinematography doesn't take the broken, crackling look of those old pictures and run with it.  It goes as far as the aspect ratio and stops.  The blacks are not black enough.  The whites are not white enough.  The score is tremendously overwrought.  Granted, I've always had a problem with silent film scores, but there were points here which felt like they'd simply put the soundtrack from The Sims game on a loop.  You know what I'm talking about.  Why do we care about these people?  How are we attaching ourselves?  Everything happens simply and without reason.  Everything is pulled from an 8th grade understanding of history and not explored further. BOOM: stock market crash.  BOOM: talkies. BOOM: celluloid burns up fast (but here, not fast enough). The meet-cute is contrived, the downfall is as trite as it gets, and the resolution is so predictable it makes the end of The Change-Up seem almost like a gamble...ehhhh, I dunno guys, do you think they'll switch back!?  In other words: you've got to be kidding me.
2011 has been a remarkable year for cinema.  The sheer range of emotions and human experiences we've seen captured on film in such startling, inventive ways has left me in a sort of celluloid rapture.  I'm more in love with movies right now than I have been at any point since discovering Fellini as a teenager, more willing to admit to loving a silly bit of fancy, and open to finding the beauty in even my least favorite genres.  In some ways, I will admit that my evaluation of The Artist has been colored by all of the 2011 films to come before it.  Now, as I see this middling film at the tail end of a stellar year, it hurts to watch it receiving the praise and accolades that so many truly moving works of art simply aren't receiving.

For your consideration, I submit that The Artist is a pastiche at best.  It reminds me, in many ways, of a gift shop knick-knack.  You know, like a Venus de Milo paper doll set with sunglasses and evening gowns that you can play with to remember the trip where you saw the real thing.  No, I'm serious.  The Artist is a plastic snowglobe. There have been better pastiches this year, ones that have transformed their genres and blurred the edges of our expectations (Rango? Drive?)

For your consideration, I submit this as a meaningless distraction.  It may entertain you momentarily, but it is not worthy of awards.  No games have changed here.  The acting is so-so, the story is a retread, and the cinematographic possibilities have barely been touched upon.  This film barely accomplishes what decades of cinematic progress have worked towards and constrains the medium instead of liberating it.  This is cinema that has been trivialized in the instant it needs to expand its own possibilities.

For your consideration, I submit that The Artist is not a good clean reminder of the purity of cinematic roots.  It's not a breath of fresh air.  I believe that we have kept silence in our cinematic toolbox, that the silent film still exists, and that faces and physical expressions still matter.  I'm not speaking in the literal Guy Maddin way (though it's worth noting that he's been playing with the silent for years).  No, what we forget is that our definition has evolved.  Silents in the 20's were limited by necessity, not by artistic choice.  Now, we have that freedom of movement, we also have sound as part of our storytelling palette.  Now, when we make a silent film, when we punctuate something with dialogue, it is spoken instead of written. The emotion is felt, the words are given meaning, but silence has its place. Our silents now are films like Somewhere, We Need to Talk About Kevin, My Winnipeg, or Tree of Life. These films make use of their actors. They allow us to see what goes unspoken on their faces, to read between the screenplay's lines.  The Artist is a tchotchke, a nice reminder, an interesting novelty, but that's it.  If this film had been made in 1930, it would have been forgotten by now, condemned as a fluff piece from a studio system, and rarely dug up for public consumption.

For your consideration: if The Artist wins Best Picture...I will break my TV.


  1. So, did you end up breaking your TV?

    I just watched The Artist yesterday (as the last person in this planet), and even though I didn't dislike it as much as you did, it still didn't live up to my expectations.
    Entertaining it was, but a masterpiece? Outstanding? Oscar-worthy?
    Not so much.

  2. TV is still intact. I just threw some candy around instead (not really).

    Glad to hear you weren't thrilled with the movie either. I feel like I missed something, honestly, I just don't see most of what people say they love about it.


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