Academic Writing

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Artist

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 In an age where movies seem to be shouting louder and louder to be heard in a cluttered and frenetic media landscape, it is a bold and daring move for director Michel Hazanavicius to make a black and white silent film.  The film is meant to hearken back to a day where film was a young art form, still in the early days where directors were learning intricacies mise en scene, the nuances montage can bring to a story, and where actors were still honing their craft in this medium still in its infancy.  This was a time where much of the techniques we take for granted today had not even yet invented.  Yet there is something to be said for revisiting this style and eliminating many of the external hype to make a film which focuses on the artistry of the medium. The Artist is aesthetically beautiful with great attention paid to costumes and set design.  If not for some of the recognizable actors, one might think it was actually made in the era about which the story is told.

The Artist is about George Valentin (Jean Dujardin who captures the puckish flair of an Errol Flynn), a mega star from the silent era.  He's a charismatic, charming, and well-loved actor in the height of the silent film's popularity until the talkies come in and he's rendered obsolete.  Not helping matters, he refuses to accept this new medium and is convinced his beloved silent films will continue to endure.

A young ingenue, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) with whom he had done a couple of projects and whom he had mentored to a degree, however, thrives with the new style and is propelled into stardom.  While she encourages him to adapt, George's pride doesn't allow him to accept the help and he continues to spiral down into his own self inflicted despair until he eventually accepts the fate of progression and parlays his talents and skills into a new era.

To a certain extent, The Artist is a retelling of Sunset Boulvard, but with a nicer and less crazy main character.  I kept expecting George to announce that he is still big and the pictures got small.  The difference ultimately is based on ones ability to adapt to changing surroundings. George was dangerously close to becoming a Norma Desmond 2.0 had Peppy not stepped in and brought him out of it, and had he not agreed.

 The aesthetic beauty of the film is both a strength and weakness of The Artist as it provides a beautiful visual landscape, yet ironically it undermines it's own message.  The irony of the movie is that it’s about the failure of someone who has the inability to adapt to a changing world.  So by making in the style that was long ago abandoned for technological achievements seems to go directly against the case it's trying to make by bringing this genre back.  In the end of the film George does learn to take his talents and apply them to a movie with sound, thereby evolving with the times.  Therefore the lesson seems to be to evolve or die.  Shouldn’t that message be provided in a movie that’s 3D Imax?  Teaching this through an antiquated art form seems a little incongruous.   Furthermore, one of the biggest reasons why this movie won't be seen is because it's a silent black and white film and most movie goers have no interest in that. As The Artist makes perfectly clear, no one wants to see silent films anymore; their message is directly oppositional to its own style.
The greatest strength of The Artist is its subtle grace and artistry of the film.  It's beautiful to watch, and really asks the audience to sit back and enjoy the aesthetic experiences.  While it's about evolution and adapting to modern times it also asks us to remember where film came from as an industry and, in an era where interesting characters and strong stories are often neglected to make way for showcasing technology, asks us to return to what has always been and what will always be the most important elements of film: the story and the characters.  No matter how great the technological achievements, it cannot alone carry a film.  The Artist makes it clear that the basic elements are still and will always be necessary.

Clocking in at over 2 hours, the movie is a little long, especially for a silent film.  It's not boring, but it's slow at times. I will say though that it's definitely worth seeing as not only are the characters dynamic and interesting, but it's a rare opportunity to see a silent black and white film made to mimic those which preceded it with the sensibilities and influences of nearly a century of filmmaking knowledge applied to it.

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