A site of satirical musings, commentary and/or rhetorical criticism of the world at large.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Artist

The art of motion pictures seems to undergo a revolution every 30 years or so. In the 1920s, movies learned to talk; the 1950s saw a brief fling with projection effects (Vistavision and 3-D) before conceding some of its influence to its upstart little brother, television. The success of one science fiction franchise enabled the entire industry to develop new cinematographic and sound effects in the 1980s with the parallel development of computers. Now another revolution is reviving 3-D for a more permanent place in the film industry.

Throughout all of these revolutions, the main component of filmmaking — the soul of the artist — endured. In 1927 Hollywood, the eve of the first revolution, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a swashbuckling hero in the mold of Douglas Fairbanks. With his faithful Jack Russell terrier by his side, he is at the top of his game as he subdues villains, rescues damsels, and rides off into the sunset via sports car and biplane. He is adored by millions, and he becomes smitten when one of those millions, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), accidently bumps into him just as the newspaper cameras record the premiere festivities of his latest cinematic triumph. The accident becomes a media sensation which aspiring Hollywood extra Peppy parlays into a film career. Unbeknownst to George, this triumph will be his last for a while.

It is a story as old as Hollywood itself. It is a story of the parallel lives of two human beings as they further their respective careers: one going down, the other going up during the traumatic time when the industry had to - like it or not - stand up on its primitive legs and begin to talk. Valentin does not like it. In fact, he sneers at the coming technology. Unfortunately for him, the march of progress will not be denied, and he gets left behind in his silent world. In the process, he alienates his fans and everyone around him; in a clever sight gag, even his shadow walks out on him!

The Artist can be cliché ridden, but fortunately it is about a time period in Hollywood history that has attained a romanticism of mythic proportions. At the time, cliché’s were still conventions and not perceived as moldy. For instance, there is a scene depicting the two leads meeting on the stairs inside the movie studio. Valentin has just walked out of the studio boss’s office and his prediction that sound films are here to stay. Valentin (and his career) descends the staircase, while the studio’s newly signed starlet, Peppy (and her career), ascends the stairs. His gait is pathos ridden, while she strides with the youthful exuberance of a promising future. Indeed, she takes the time to blow a farewell kiss his way.

Valentin’s personal life suffers as well. His spouse (Penelope Ann Miller), contemptuous of him from the get-go, gradually loses all respect and affection for him as his career declines into ruin. The deterioration of their marriage is denoted in a montage of breakfast scenes, giving a nod to a similar scene in Citizen Kane. (Another apparent in-joke is John Goodman’s portrayal of the studio boss, recalling the haughty demeanor of 1930s character actor Eugene Pallette, with mannerisms resembling Chaplin’s early on-screen nemesis Eric Campbell.)

As the story unspools Valentin’s fall, the cinematic conventions abound. His marriage and career gone, he walks the harsh streets of Hollywood (real Hollywood), while a theater marquee nearby telegraphs his dilemma as it advertises a film called “Lonely Star”. Meanwhile, Peppy watches him from her car, just after she has (unknowingly to him) bought (by proxy) all of his possessions. Her current screen triumph at this point of the story is splashed on another marquee: “Guardian Angel”.

Conventions, clichés, whatever! The Artist succeeds because it has chosen to tell the industry's trauma of technological change by actually taking the audience through the change. It is not a totally silent film; more accurately, it is 95% talky free. It celebrates the wonderfulness of silent films in our very noisy 21st century.

It is a valentine from those who love movies to those of us who have loved movies since, well, since before many of us learned how to talk ourselves. And, of course, it has the tried and true sentimental Hollywood ending. Rest assured, Valentin is rescued from his self loathing and descent into destruction by fire — never underestimate the resourcefulness of a Jack Russell terrier — only to be redeemed as a song and dance man in the newly tweaked film industry.

The Artist has garnered world-wide accolades from critics and is poised to do well in the current awards season. Over the weekend, the British equivalent of the Oscars gave The Artist its highest honors, even as America mourned the untimely loss of pop diva Whitney Houston. This is not to say that the British are insensitive to rapidly changing events. My comparison may seem off-base, but hear me out (no pun intended). Both the fictional Valentin and the very real Houston both understood the age old show business maxim. No matter what their personal trials and tragedies may be, they realized that the show always must go on.

And their souls — silent or otherwise — endure...

(Thank you for reading! And no, children, you cannot have a Jack Russell terrier for Easter!)


Anonymous Janey said...

Two thoughts:

One, a prominent media source should hire you to review films, and pay you much money to do so!

Two, Whitney Houston, who at times could be a trash-talking crack whore (not that there's anything wrong with that) was a great beauty with a soaring voice I always admired and envied. I'll miss her...


February 17, 2012 at 6:42 AM  

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