I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Artist (2011)

Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a lavish love letter to old Hollywood cinema, but it is so much more. It speaks volumes without ever saying a word. Shot in luscious black and white and (mostly) silent, it harkens back to a time when film was a purely visual medium, proves that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a second of film is worth that times every one of its twenty-four frames, and assures us that louder isn’t always better. At their simplest and quietest, movies are sometimes the most magical.

Steeped in a bold, unapologetic and unashamed nostalgia, the film chronicles the movie industry’s often painful transition to sound in the late 1920s, and what happened to so many silent film stars when audiences demanded they be heard as well as seen.

The Artist, which spans a five year period, opens in 1927, when the sign in the hills still said HOLLYWOODLAND, and dashing movie star George Valentin was on top of the world. The public adored him and his arsenal of arched eyebrows and dazzling smiles almost as much as he adored himself.

Hazanavicius’ movie starts on a film within the film, an Errol Flynn-esque adventure featuring dapper bandits in evening suits and distressed damsels. The first words of the movie, seen on an old-fashioned intertitle, are “I won’t talk. I won’t say a word!” Valentin watches his own masked and mustachioed face from behind the screen. And what a face!

As Norma Desmond, the forgotten silent star of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, which The Artist resembles at times, says, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” French actor Jean Dujardin demonstrates that some actors still do. His face, comic timing, body language, and especially his accent, seem made for silent films. A little Douglas Fairbanks, a little Gene Kelly, with a name only one letter short of Valentino, and perhaps borrowing some smoldering suaveness from the Sean Connery-like agent in Hazanavicius’ French 007 spoof that made Dujardin famous, his George is the quintessential twenties movie star.

But the times are changing, and he stubbornly refuses to change with them. When cigar-smoking studio chief Al Zimmerman, a grumpy but lovable big teddy bear of a man (a wonderful and memorable John Goodman) tells Valentin sound is coming, the actor laughs the news off and tells him that if that’s the future, he can have it. The whole movie industry is changing, being taken over by businessmen, and even Zimmerman, as a symbol of old Hollywood’s powerful studio system and its moguls, seems a relic of another era; “people want new faces, talking faces. The public wants fresh meat, and the public is never wrong.”

Young ingénue Peppy Miller (played by the director’s wife, Argentina-born French beauty Bèrènice Bejo), on the other hand, embraces the transition to talkies. When she and Valentin meet for the first time, she is a nobody, a dancing extra come to Hollywood off a bus with dreams of stardom. Valentin takes a liking to her and helps her get her first acting job.

The cameras witness them falling in love. A brilliant sequence of discarded takes, each screwed up by Valentin staring for a bit too long into his extra’s incandescent eyes, tells the story of their beginning relationship, taken no further because of the actor’s wife—bored, distant, divorce-ready Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), who gives new meaning to the words “we need to talk, George. Why do you refuse to talk?”

A beautiful montage of Peppy’s films show her climbing the credits ladder from extra to star and becoming America’s sweetheart, with her name placed firmly above the title. In her own words, it’s “out with the old, in with the new. Make way for the young!” The next time she sees Valentin, on Kinograph’s hive-like staircase, in a scene borrowed from Fritz Lang’s Spies, she is on her way up as he continues his inexorable descent. He is reduced to dealing with young moviegoers who think “my father is a big fan” actually constitutes a compliment.

The Depression finds Valentin losing everything. He is forced to sell his mansion, a marble monument to his former greatness, along with all his other possessions, which he pawns or auctions off. In a low-angle shot, the auction gavel cheerfully passes a cruel sentence: “Congratulation, it’s all sold. You have nothing left.” In his fall from the spotlight and from grace, he is accompanied only by his loyal chauffeur Clifton (a touching, matchless James Cromwell) and adorable Jack Russell terrier (scene-stealing dog actor Uggie).

Allusions and tributes to some of Hollywood’s best abound, making The Artist every movie lover’s catch-the-reference cinematic wet dream. There is a beautifully shot breakfast-table montage inspired by Citizen Kane, music borrowed from Vertigo, and a sound check scene lifted almost entirely from Singin’ in the Rain.

But even with hints of Sunset Boulevard and splashes of A Star is Born, Hazanavicius’ film ultimately emerges as its own distinct creature. The Artist is slyly silent and black and white, placing its tongue firmly but affectionately in its cheek. It celebrates Hollywood’s silent era while lovingly poking fun at its artifice and playing with its silence and sumptuous monochromatic palette. The movie indeed uses sound in a few masterful scenes, the most powerful one at the very end, when just a few words break the spell woven by the rest of the film and bring us back to aural reality.

Although films were never truly silent. They had music. Academy Award winning composer Ludovic Bource’s grand score, ranging from big orchestral numbers to simple and lonely piano solos, sets the mood throughout. And in spite of entering some unexpectedly dark spheres—filmed in sometimes slanted angles of near-noir intensity—and the poignant, almost palpable feelings of longing and regret, the predominantly lighthearted movie never loses its buoyancy overall.

Everyone seems so sure about what we’ve gained with the introduction of color to film, but few talk about how much we’ve lost. The subtler shades of meaning and essence often go unnoticed in a sea of bright hues. Would it really make a difference if we could actually see that the Germans wore gray and Ilsa wore blue in Casablanca? The Artist is a powerful testament to the power of monochrome. Guillaume Schiffman’s satiny, warm cinematography creates a dreamlike black and white—or, more accurately, silver and white—world of light and shadow, an alternate, enchanting universe removed from time, space, and reality.

However, Hazanavicius also managed to make a film utterly of its time. The Artist is significant today, as the industry is once again loudly affirming that bigger is better, and this kind of quiet, sincere, and touching human stories are lost amid the special effects, CGI, and 3D extravaganza.

More than a valentine of unbridled movie love, Hazanavicius’ film reminds us how the present connects with the past as with a long-lost friend, and of the joy and importance of that connection. Now, more than ever, we need to look back and understand old doesn’t necessarily mean quaint, archaic, and inferior.  Only when something passes from memory into myth, when it stops being dated and starts being history, does it become truly eternal. In the 1930s, silent films were old; now they are timeless.

The Artist is a great movie about why the movies are great. It has all the elements of a good film: excitement, action, romance, laughs and tears, and the magic of escaping into a different world. It left me speechless.

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