Sunday, December 4, 2011
Movie Review: The Artist
There have been a few films this year that have reminded me that above being well-directed, well-acted and well-written (my three criteria for a "good" movie) there is an inherit need for entertainment to do just that, entertain.
It sounds silly, but when you spend as much time at the movies as I do you often find yourself in screenings for films like The Tree of Life: beautiful, immersive cinematic experiences that, when push comes to shove, aren't that fun to watch. I loved Tree of Life, much like how I loved Se7en, Schindler's List, Hotel Rwanda and Kramer vs. Kramer. All of those films are heady dramas that teach us something about humanity and the world we live in but at the end of a long day at work, you don't always want heady dramas, you want delightful escapism that reminds you -- or at least convinces you -- that even though you may be worn out and exhausted, life, love and laughter are still grand.
In the summer it was Super 8, with it's nostalgic love-letter to the boundless imagination of a childhood mind. Recently it was The Muppets, with it's low-fi reminder that you don't have to fill 2 hours with green screens and explosions to captivate an audience. Yesterday, it was The Artist, a black-and-white silent film that reminded me just how magical a day at the theater can be.
The Artist is the tale of George Valentin, an appropriately-named late-1920's silent film star struggling to survive in the transition to "talkies." The sub-text is the obvious metaphor to today's Hollywood, as computer and motion-capture technology in all of it's multidimensional glory is opening doors faster than we can walk through them to new ways of telling stories and achieving what was once thought to be impossible. We find ourselves in a day and age where death need not halt a star's screen time and a man's portrayal of an ape is among the greatest performances of the year. With so many avenues at our feet, it can be quite easy to get lost.
One the eve of the dawn of sound, Valentin meets and helps launch the career of Peppy Miller, an up-and-coming actress in the old age of Hollywoodland where studio execs hawk on the street for talent like men do today for illegal workers. When Valentin is introduced to the "future" of sound by his producer -- a body-language tour de force performance by the John Goodman -- he resists the new medium, staunch and proud in the traditional format. As a result, he is booted from his studio to make way for the new age of cinema which finds Peppy Miller as the new face of sound technology.
The film goes as expected from there. Valentin spirals downward, grasping for straws until he is all but derelict, tortured by the shadow of his former self while Peppy's star only burns brighter and brighter. A romance is born quickly between the two which builds despite his crumbling world until eventually Peppy is in a position to offer him a second chance, but will his pride allow him to accept her help?
The Artist is full of winking self-aware gems. In one of the film's best scenes, Valentin is haunted by a nightmare where the sound of a feather striking the ground burst his ears like cannon fire. Later, in the script-written dialogue between Valentin and his estranged wife, she berates him with a familiar plea, "Why won't you speak?" that is rendered all the more useful by the film's setting. She means "to me," but it's the same question we, the audience, ask of our protagonist.
There's nothing earth shattering about what is presented in The Artist. Besides a peek at "the way things were" you're not going to learn anything about the world you live in, but the experience of enveloping yourself in the film's narrative -- prompted by the orchestral cues in the background and reading between the lines of the few cue-carded dialogue that leaves more unsaid than said -- is altogether a unique experience. For many in my generation, who have likely never witnessed such a thing as a "silent" film, it is almost magic to see how much context and emotion can be conveyed by the clever twitch of an eyebrow or pursed lips when the benefit of speech is removed from the storytellers tool set. It is a rare feat of artistry, indeed, that this French-import that reminisces of old Hollywood while being the antithesis of new Hollywood can entertain and enthrall so fully, but somehow it does.
There are movies that you want to see and movies that you need to see. The Artist is, in every way, both. A