The Artist (2011)

artist_ver3God dammit, it seems that once again I’ll start with quotation marks. This time it’s James Berardinelli’s voice speaking: “Hazanavicius isn’t just making a silent movie, he is attempting to enter a time warp and craft something that would fool all but the most studious and scholarly into believing it could have been a lost film from a bygone era.” So says our James, and we laugh a little. Cracking a mad, demented laugh sprinkled with subtle hints of satanic rituals just because I intend to use this we pronoun from now on. We don’t consider ourselves even close to ‘studious’ or ‘scholarly’ yet we can spot the difference in an instant. It only requires some perception, some interest and  some knowledge of how did these silent-era movies actually looked like. This isn’t any sort of scholarly knowledge. It’s easily acquired. All one needs is to actually watch some of them. It shouldn’t be a problem, considering this thing we call Internet, but nevermind this now. We tend to rant. We would have to read some notes on production or even an interview or two to see if this discrepancy is intentional or if Hazanavicius is just one of the hipsters who really loves ‘cool stuff’ from the past without really understanding them. This is just too bothersome for us (remember what I sad about ‘studious’?). Still, we are inclined to go with first interpretation. There is evident knowledge of silent-era form, there is some knowledge of its “essence”, and obvious discrepancies in style, structure, themes, framing and acting we’ll explain as intentional. After all, Hollywood was always about illusion and making things better than they are. Hazanavicius’ The Artist is something like a boob job on your grandmother. You notice the boobs, but you notice the grandmother as well.

vlcsnap-2014-06-20-00h13m29s213Anyhow (I’ll drop this we act for now), I am still puzzled by the effect of The Artist. I can understand why it was awarded with Academy Award (though Scorsese’s Hugo,with which thismovie shares similar motifs, was much more to my liking), but I can’t understand how it managed to do so well with revenue. It seems that, despite all of my supposedly bravado know-how of the inner workings of media, I still manage to disregard sheer impact of marketing and thoughtfully constructed media-hype. Playing on nostalgia card is perfectly understandable, though existence of recipients attuned to this particular type of nostalgia is something of a mystery. Intertextual dialogue with silent-era was done before. If nothing else, Sunset Blvd. and Singing in the Rain come to mind.  Every so often, wave of nostalgia sweeps across a cultural landscape transforming all media in its wake. What is left is rarely more than cute manirism (in some way The Artist is as maniristic as they come) but sometimes it happens that it resonates well with crowds. If I had to guess, I would say that amongst the thousands who went to see The Artist, almost none had any particular connection with a world of silent movies. The Artist was “an event” movie. This is to say it managed to replicate what it was trying to replicate (despite everything that formalists like myself had to say about an actual success of replication). For a brief season, it managed to conjure the paradise lost. This innocent time of fairytales in screen-form. So remote now that it almost seems like it never existed at all.

vlcsnap-2014-06-20-00h13m39s45Part of me was weirded out seeing “silent movie” in high definition. Every “original” silent movie that I have seen, even when I saw them in theatres, was lacking in some aspect. Either it was restored poorly, or it was a bad copy, or it was something else. This grainy picture which bared marks of damages that piled up during past decades became something like a metaphor for life, universe and everything else. Seeing something that tried to emulate silent-era in crystal clear form wasn’t quite the same. It drew attention to its artificiality. Make-up wasn’t quite the same, camera work was too modern, editing as well, affectation and hyperbole were almost non-existent, narrative was “blasphemous”, and myriad of tiny little details kept reminding me that what I was seeing is something like a love letter. It was a letter written by an admirer, not by a fan, and part of me wasn’t satisfied. The other part of me wasn’t satisfied with general tone of The Artist (despite it being generally attuned to the dominant sentiment of American moviemaking). I couldn’t help but see cynicism in treatment of Jean Dujardin’s character (even on a metaphorical level). His transformation from silent-era romantic action-figure to Fred-and-Ginger-dancing-darling of the thirties strengthened up the underlying notion that it was always about entertainment and never about Art. I couldn’t force myself to applaud to that.

Recollecting my thoughts on The Artist it seems to me that once again Academy Award went to the movie that managed to create best illusion amongst contenders. There were far better movies produced that year, but none of them managed to create this artificial vibe that resonated almost too well with the essence of Hollywood. For the Industry, it was always about Industry and it’s no wonder that Industry rewarded the guy that felt nostalgic about that.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Produced by Thomas Langmann
Written by Michel Hazanavicius
Starring Jean Dujardin
Bérénice Bejo
Music by Ludovic Bource
Cinematography Guillaume Schiffman
Editing by Anne-Sophie Bion
Michel Hazanavicius
Studio La Petite Reine
ARP Sélection
Studio 37
La Class Americane
France 3 Cinema
U Film
Jouror Productions
JD Prod
Wild Bunch

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