Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Artist

         The Eyes Have It (But Please Don't Turn on Your
         Cell Phones Just Yet ... It's So Peaceful in Here)

                   Review by Ken Burke
This is a spectacular rendition of what a film from the early era of sound movies about the early era of sound movies would have looked (and not talked) like.  Marvelous!
            “I won’t talk.  I won’t say a word!”  These defiant statements are the first “utterances” we get from silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) via an intertitle card in Michel Hazanavicius’ fabulous film The Artist.  While it may be a bit obvious in retrospect, this statement—“spoken” in character by a dashing Douglas Fairbanks-type captured by a harsh enemy trying to get him to divulge secrets via electroshock treatments that conjure up everything from Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1926) to Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975)—summarizes the main plot arc of the film:  a successful actor of Hollywood’s first Golden Era, the 1920s, refuses to follow the industry’s move to talkies, leading to imminent disaster for him.  But just like the dashing (and masked, along with top hat and cape of course) adventurer who (somehow) escapes his captors and flies off to a fabulous ending in 1927, so does George rise above his difficulties and recapture his former glory, with the help of his new leading lady, the incomparable (and incomparably named) Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo).  In a marvelous case of life within art (the film industry’s backstage realities) imitating the art of life (George would likely perish if his travails were part of the hardships of the audience’s world but, just as miracles happen even in our hard luck existences, with Peppy’s love and determined Good Samaritan attitude he’s brought back from despair to enter a new era of triumph) we find The Artist near or at the top of 2011's cinematic ladder of accomplishment.
            At some level, there’s really not much more to say about this terrific film (although that’s rarely stopped me before) except to praise how well conceived and executed it is, but given that completely successful concept and execution there are certainly many aspects of it that are worth our consideration, especially for such a cinematic triumph that’s well deserving of Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and some might even consider a Best Supporting nod for Uggie (gender unknown as of this writing) as The Dog (although if Andy Serkis is having difficulties being recognized for his marvelous motion-capture acting as a couple of famous simians in Rise of the Planet of the Apes [Rupert Wyatt, 2011] and King Kong [Peter Jackson, 2005]—as well as the de-evolved former Hobbit, Gollum, in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy [2001, 2002, 2003 ]—then I guess an actual animal on screen faces even tougher competition, even the smart-as-Lassie equine star, Joey, in Spielberg’s War Horse)

In fact, if Academy voters are open-minded enough they might even consider The Artist  for Best Original Screenplay (especially with more appropriate categories such as Original Story and Story and Screenplay no longer available) not only because Hazanavicius as scribe manages to weave a compelling tale without the benefit of the mainstay of powerful scripts, clever and engaging dialogue, but also because the concept and structure of a narrative such as this is the essential foundation for the success of the film (although it takes great actors, especially Dujardin, to bring it to life) and these elements are just as essential as words to the realization of a superb script.  But that auxiliary speculation will just have to wait while the current focus plays out on this satisfying production as a whole, with its outstanding direction and performances.

            Much has already been noted elsewhere regarding The Artist’s reasonable connections with such Hollywood classics as Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952) and A Star Is Born (with the likely reference intended to be the George Cukor version with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954, but the musical nature of the Frank Pierson version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976 would also be appropriate, as would the original William Wellman version with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in 1937, not a musical but essentially neither is The Artist until its final scene and the foregrounded energy and mood music that we the audience hear throughout the majority of this “silent” movie finally morphs into an actual real-time soundtrack synchronized to the energetic dance finale).  Certainly the era of silent-to-sound crisis for the original studio system as portrayed in an equally whimsical manner in Singin in the Rain merits comparison here, but so does the melodrama of the many manifestations of A Star is Born and even a hint (now this is sounding like a wine review but that's reasonable given the French heritage of this film so pour me a glass of Bordeaux and let's move on) of the interactions between different zones of reality as presented in The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985), so let’s look over some of those allusions to see how apt they may be.

            As far as Singin’ in the Rain is concerned, we not only have a similar evocation of the chaos of the late 1920s for those who were hesitant or incapable of making the drastic switch from one mode of performance to another but we also have an early scene in The Artist that mimics the love triangle in the earlier film in an even more comical way, as George has the Gene Kelly role after the premiere of his latest film, taking numerous bows from his adoring audience but allowing his co-star, Constance (Missi Pyle), only a minimal appearance on stage (just as Kelly’s Don Lockwood did all the public speaking for their silent star team; George even repeats “I love you” to his live audience, just as Don did on screen in his disastrous first attempt at a sound movie), which angers Constance as the audience is enthralled with her competition, which in this case is George’s talented co-starring dog as the ingénue who really has George’s heart at that point (just as Debbie Reynolds’ Kathy Selden became Kelly’s real amour rather than the “mate,” Lina Lamont [Jean Hagen], that the tabloids assumed comprised the devoted couple; after Peppy arrives to give the dog some further competition for George's attention, there’s even a repeat of George/Don preventing Peppy/Kathy from being fired from her first film then becoming highly attracted to her once she’s on the lot—despite George having a real conflict because of his marriage whereas Don just had to deal with studio PR hype and media assumptions about his supposed “love” for the luscious Lina).

            The protagonists of the Gene Kelly film are eager to keep their careers going with the conversion to sound movies, although Lina’s voice will prove a complete disaster for her and Don’s acting style will require a more subdued makeover.  Peppy Miller’s eagerness for displaying her many vocal and movement talents in the talkies is reminiscent of the positive attitudes of Lockwood and company, George’s refusal to speak (which might be based on his sense that his costumed adventurer character isn’t meant for aural experiences, just as Chaplin knew that to be true for his famous Tramp, even as late as 1936 with Modern Times, the last great true silent film, or George’s hesitation may be an acknowledgement that the French accent we hear at the end of The Artist wouldn’t play well in 1927, although Maurice Chevalier did just fine with his starting in 1928), and George’s unsuccessful attempt to produce, write, direct, and star in an outdated silent vehicle—Tears of Love—complete with histrionic gestures and a tragic end for his adventurer persona (again evoking Allen’s Purple Rose, but with just heartbreak rather than death for Jeff Daniel’s adventurer character, Tom Baxter) connects to Lina’s implied disastrous career plunge when her horrible intonations are revealed for all to hear at the end of Singin’ in the Rain.

             Similarly, with A Star Is Born we have the tear-jerking story of a former movie idol whose career is on the wane coming in contact with a tremendous new talent who cares for the falling star, really appreciates how he’s helped launch her career, and ultimately comes to love him deeply, even to the point of being a caretaker as he loses direction through a combination of bad choices—alcoholism in the case of A Star’s Norman Maine, alcoholism and making the anachronistic silent film in the case of The Artist’s George—and circumstances beyond his control (a shift in public interest toward the male stars of both approaches to this “embrace of the ever-changing new” as well as George’s financial crash along with the 1929 stock market, a situation that presumably postdated the fortunes of Singin’ in the Rain, as no one there had yet to feel the icy breath of the oncoming Depression).

             Of course The Artist shows not only George’s rescue by Peppy’s unselfish devotion but also his defiant determination to resist her gracious gestures toward him, especially when he’s being a masochistic defeatist, still refusing to take the one path available to him for salvation: giving in to working in sound films; but, like the later character of Norman Maine—based on the time periods the various films are set in—he’s representative of a good number of famous losers in classic silent films, especially German ones which Hazanavicius seems familiar with, including the Doorman (Emil Jannings) fallen from grace in F. W. Murnau’s 1924 The Last Laugh and the pathetic con man Khalibiev (Fritz Rasp) in G. W. Pabst’s 1927 The Love of Jeanne Ney (compare, if you can, this photo of despondent George with that of Khalibiev to see the well-studied similarities [sorry that I couldn’t find one to include with this review, but if you get a copy of Mast and Kawin’s A Short History of the Movies you’ll see an amazing resemblance on p. 184, 11th ed., 2011, but used in many earlier editions also]).

            In The Purple Rose… dowdy protagonist Cecilia (Mia Farrow) can only dream of such romantic alternatives to her dreary, poverty-stricken life during the post-Jazz Era Depression of the 1930s, but she also exists in a narrative of a film-within-a-film as the dashing Tom as a lead in her movie house escape not only is captured by her many-hours-in-the-dark gaze but also returns the favor by stepping off the screen into her world, which, in a way, is what happens with George and Peppy, except that she first steps into his make-believe studio fantasies just as Cecilia will later step on screen with Tom.  It doesn’t end so wonderfully for Cecilia, though, as she comes back to the Depression’s reality and mistakenly abandons Tom who rejoins his film only to have the projector shut off and the prints destroyed, so she must console herself with the next dose of escapism, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing gracefully cheek-to-cheek in Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935) while the horrors of the world continue to deteriorate outside the theatre.  Peppy is able to stay in the dream world that Cecilia was tricked into leaving, becoming a Ginger Rogers-like song-and-dance star who not only rescues George but provides a new source of escapism for all the Cecilias of her time, whom we don’t hear much about after George is brought back from the brink but whom we know are still out there, as hopeless and devastated as George was before Peppy brings him his needed salvation (just like many films of the early sound film era that barely acknowledged the harsh realities of the Depression that their patrons were trying to escape from).  Peppy performs her heroic rescue despite having inadvertently contributed to George’s morose withdrawal from the world by bragging on a radio interview about “Out with the old, in with the new,” a younger’s starry-eyed slam against old-guard actors that she regretted and worked hard to atone for.

            But the important thing here is not so much how well Hazanavicius may have researched films that have relevant evocations for this story, as did Mel Brooks who channeled Universal Studios classics into his hilarious 1975 Young Frankenstein, but more so how he matches Brooks in capturing the cinematic feel of the films that he’s emulating.  His successful filmic inclusions are extensive but some that particularly caught my attention are based in awareness of history as well as technical devices that feel organic in recreating a sense of the silent era rather than just “photo”-copying it.  I’ll begin with noting the name of George’s studio (run by Al Zimmer [John Goodman]), the Kinograph Motion Picture Co.  While there is a Kinograph toy movie viewer (you can buy one on eBay; bid now!), there wasn’t such a studio in old Hollywood but the name conjures up both the original Edison kinetograph camera of the 1890s and the famous Soviet films of the 1920s where “kino” is Russian for cinema.

            Other nice allusions include those to famous films such as the marvelous scene where Peppy is alone in George’s dressing room and uses one of her arms through his coat sleeve (hung on a coat rack) to produce a comic embrace of herself worthy of the best movements of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton (with a poster of George’s Thief of Her Heart poster in the background).  Hazanavicius also references Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941; anyone who knows me knows I had to note this whenever possible) both in a strained breakfast table scene between George and his wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), complete with an offending newspaper front page (about George and Peppy) and a low-key screening room scene in which George symbolically sees his life before him—not literally as viewers do with the Kane newsreel—in a screen test for recorded sound and his rejection of it as something that would never impact him (just as the characters in Kane give up on deciphering the meaning of “Rosebud” even as we get to know the implications of both a burning sled in Welles’ film and of George’s film career literally going up in flames in his small post-fame apartment).

            From the production viewpoint our director also shows a keen awareness of older movie conventions including: (1) the foundational fact that the film is shot in black and white but it’s also shot in the 1.37:1 format (usually called 1.33:1) common in the movie industry from the 1890s into the 1950s when it began to be replaced by the widescreen formats common today; (2) a slight use of shadowy irising around the edges of the ruined takes of George and Peppy’s first attempt at a dance scene, not only implying the common use of such a device in silent films but also helping us differentiate shots of a film-within-the-film from the framing structure of the larger vehicle of The Artist that we’re also watching (a bit of a celluloid möbius strip, as with the inter-dimensional crossovers in The Purple Rose of Cairo); (3) an active use of old school movie structures such as circular iris fade outs of a shot, wipes of one shot replacing another as a different sort of transition to show the rapid growth of Peppy’s career, an active montage of George shooting his misbegotten silent movie, and the trick of using newspaper headlines to provide written information in many shots thereby eliminating some need of interruptive intertitle cards.

            Of course all of this is set to music so that we have the sense that we’re watching a late ‘20s movie with a synchronized soundtrack added, in which we’re seeing a capsule history of the times just as we have in that great “Beautiful Girls,” etc. montage of early sound film tropes in Singin’ in the Rain; what most audiences of The Artist are unlikely to realize, however, is that few feature films were made in 1927-29 with silent images and just mechanically synchronized music (one of the most notable was the first, John Barrymore in Alan Crosland’s 1926 Don Juan, using the Warner Bros.-Vitaphone sound-on-disc process that would really strike pay dirt in 1927 with Al Jolson in Crosland’s The Jazz Singer by incorporating spoken dialogue).  Talking on screen was the revolution that audiences really wanted to hear, the acknowledgement of which concludes The Artist when a few spoken words finally issue from George and Peppy after the successful performance of their energetic dance number (a likely allusion to the soon-to-be-triumphant team of Astaire and Rogers, who would later console Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo).

            Beyond emulating the look and feel of authentic silent films and the culture that embraced them, Hazanavicius also constructs a marvelous nightmare scene with George, reminiscent of the unsettling situations of early Surrealist silents only this one has synchronized sound effects so that objects on his dressing table suddenly make noises when they touch a hard surface, dogs bark in the background, a telephone rings (with George in an unsettled diagonal framing so that we feel the out-of-balance sensation that terrifies him), passing chorus girls laugh at him, yet he can make no sound, as if his initial refusal to speak has caught up with him in a Twilight Zone-like barrage of demented irony.  It all turns out to be a dream brought on by his unspoken fear that talkies really will replace his screen stardom, but it’s just another of the brilliant allusions in this film to the full spectrum of sound that we encounter or that is removed from our normal sensory expectations.

          In a final ironic twist, the last words the director says at the conclusion of The Artist are “Silence, please” (because the off-camera set must be as quiet as was the area backstage in a movie theatre, as we saw with George and company at the beginning of our film and in the first image at the top of this review)—so that even in a world of sound there is still a need for silence as a balancing phenomenon—and then “Action” which we’ve had plenty of for the previous hour and a half (a running time more appropriate for a silent feature as well) but will now take on an added dimension in the life only known by and shown to these characters as George, Peppy, and that wonderful dog explore the beginnings of a brave new world that will eventually evolve back to us (as the möbius strip of existence continues to connect past and present within and beyond this marvelously magical movie).  This one has to be seen—even if not fully heard—to be believed.  Bravo! 

Best film of 2011?   Maybe so and even if not then certainly a “contenda” that would have made Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy proud (On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan, 1954), just as I’m proud to have The Artist as the subject of my first review of 2012.  I can only hope that many of the rest of them will have such wonderful aspects to examine.

            If you’d like to explore this film in more depth there are some suggested links: (also notes My Week with Marilyn)

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