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The Artist (2011)

February 22, 2012 Leave a comment

No thanks to Justin Timberlake, there’s a terrible cliché: what goes around, comes around. Although I’ve no reason to believe silent “movies” will make a come-back, The Artist (2011) is a genuine pleasure for modern times (a deliberate reference to Charles Chaplin). Michel Hazanavicius, the director and screenwriter, gives us a carefully calibrated recreation of the experience of seeing an original silent film. He’s exploiting the notion of anachronism in a somewhat subversive way. Hence it’s shot in black and white using Academy aspect ratio 4:3. The semiotics of film-making is all too clearly on display as we begin watching a classic film in the adventure style of the late 1920s. The first few minutes obey the rule of the fourth wall. Then the camera pulls back and we see the audience watching the same film with the orchestra in the pit playing the music we hear. Finally, the camera tracks behind the screen to show the cast waiting to be introduced to the audience at the end of the showing. There’s a big notice on the back wall warning those on stage to keep quiet which, of course, they do. In reverse on screen, we therefore see some of the action as the dog rescues the hero and, then, together with the girl, they fly off into the sunset. It’s beautifully judged to set the “stage” for a drama about film, film-making and the consequences of a technological revolution.

Jean Dujardin and the star of the film

 

Our hero is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Together with Uggie, his faithful Jack Russell terrier, he rules the screen in the tradition of Rudolph Valentino who also literally had women swooning in the streets. Curiously, American men were far less impressed by acting in the style of Valentino, a trend they believed was feminising the male gender roles. American men preferred the Douglas Fairbanks lifestyle and screen persona. To that extent, this Valentin embodies features of both romance and action. To complete the list of talents, this artist can also dance — rather in the spirit of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.

 

The prevailing acting style in 1920’s cinema was, of necessity, closer to mime since only the images were available for the viewer to interpret. By modern standards, this makes most silent films appear very melodramatic. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), the rising “it” girl, describes the acting style as mugging the camera, i.e. using the face and heightening the expressions to communicate meaning more directly to the audience. This had been the prevailing theatrical style. In Victorian stage productions, there would be a build-up to intense physical and emotional points which would then have a moment frozen on stage. This frequently ignored the convention of the proscenium arch and had the actors directing their words and dramatic poses to the audience rather than interacting with the other members of the cast. It was not until the middle class in the stalls replaced the working class in the pit that the actors retreated behind the proscenium arch and stopped trying to win the applause of the audience through their extravagant posing. It took the arrival of the twentieth century to produce greater realism of character and behaviour on stage. When the film industry got underway, the Victorian style of acting prevailed as the actors externalised their emotions directly into the cameras. Without speech, they had to rely on expression and gestures — total body language. Only when talkies began could actors revert to the greater realism of characterisation then emerging in stage productions. In a sense, it also marked the change from the stage and cinema being an actor’s domain, to the rule of the director and the script.

Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) showing she's full of "it", i.e. pep

 

In a film, there’s a binary divide. The sound is either on or off (except in this film, where sound effects do make a couple of dramatic appearances for effect while music plays throughout). The key year was 1927 when wax recordings were synchronised with the film projector. It was a big risk for the film industry because it meant rewiring all the cinemas. Warner Brothers proved the value of the investment with The Jazz Singer. This shattered conventional wisdom and forced one of the most expensive commercial revolutions of all time. It was also lightning fast as studios changed over to sound production. Those whose voices did not fit were out. One of the most interesting films about this period is Singin’ in the Rain in which the star Lina (Jean Hagen) has a voice representing sudden death to the film as made, so she’s dubbed by Kathy (Debbie Reynolds). In The Artist, George Valentin also has a voice problem. It may not be the “squeaky voice” of some of the silents stars but, if I was going to be unkind, it might have been a problem for the American audiences of the day. Perhaps the success of Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer might suggest his fears were unfounded.

James Cromwell — more than just a driver

 

This is a clever meditation on two difficult human emotions. When we take pride in what we do, we do it well. But if pride gets in the way, it can be our downfall. So when our world is turned upside down by forces we cannot control, how should we react? Here’s a silent star who tries to buck the studio system, loses his money in a futile attempt to run against the tide of technological change, and takes to the bottle. This leaves the second question of whether he can be saved by love, or perhaps that should be whether his pride will prevent him from loving. It’s a strange but all-too-common situation in which some people feel humiliated if they have to be saved by someone else out of love. In this case, George actually has loyal and loving people who could help but, first, he must reconcile with himself.

John Goodman — studio boss watching the money being made

 

The Artist (2011) is a very sophisticated piece of film-making and it tells a very human story. On the way, we get to see John Goodman as the boss of the studio who balances a heart of gold against his pursuit of real gold through box office takings, and James Cromwell as the paragon of a faithful servant. Together we embark on a 100 minute journey from the hero’s quiet confidence in his continued success to the pits of despair, and then to that sense of betrayal when it becomes apparent people have been trying to help him without admitting it. It doesn’t matter whether this film and/or its performances win any of the ten Oscars for which it is nominated (it’s not shortlisted as a foreign language film!). This type of film-making deserves to be celebrated albeit that it does say something very interesting about our current attitudes towards nostalgia. Just think. This could be the first silent film to win an Oscar since 1931 — the slowest come-back on record. For everyone who enjoys film as a medium, this is a must-see!

 

Let the record show that the French film academy gave six Césars to The Artist, including Best Film and Best Director to Michel Hazanavicius. At the Indie Spirit Awards, The Artist pulled in Best Feature, Best Director, Best Male Lead and Best Cinematography. At the 84th Academy Awards, nostalgia triumphed with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor for Jean Dujardin, and others.

 

Shadow Bridge & Lord Tophet by Gregory Frost

As I sit here, peering uncertainly out of my window at a night sky polluted by light, there is nothing but darkness. Not a single star twinkles back at me. The contrast with my childhood could not be more stark. Long before the development of the high-pressure sodium lamp and its characteristic yellow taint, I grew up in a house overlooking dark tides that sucked unwary swimmers to their doom, the milky way stretching my imagination across storm-tossed seas to other lands of mythic grandeur. I could stand on the headland at night, the looming mass of the gothic keep rearing up behind me and the immensity of outer space spread out in front of me as a smorgasbord of infinite possibility. This, if nothing else, explains my interest in SF and fantasy fiction.

Sometimes an author is overambitious and misjudges what is required to produce good metafiction. It is all very well to want to subvert conventions, but there are times when you can go too far and, rather than produce a literary masterpiece, produce a literary mess. The key problem is always to provide a consistent vehicle for the subversion. In some senses, it works best in the theatre when you watch actors perform a play, e.g. The Dresser by Ronald Harwood, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard or Sounds Off by Michael Frayn because it breaches the convention that the proscenium arch is a barrier through which no member of the audience may pass. Or on stage, cinema or television when a performer demonstrates awareness of role and steps through the fourth wall to directly address the audience. In literature, we have wonderful examples such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, where the author appears as a character and offers alternative endings to the book.

I muse along these lines because of the entrancing duology by Gregory Frost, Shadow Bridge and Lord Tophet. Before coming to the books themselves, a minor gripe. Given the propensity of the publishing industry for profit maximisation, this could have appeared as a brick-sized book. At that length, there is a risk we might have left it on the shelf because of the risk of pulling a muscle lifting it down. Nevertheless, I would have preferred to read the work as a continuous whole rather than wait months for the publication of the second volume. Then we come to cost. A single work costs marginally less to buy and ship. Two volumes, even though in trade paperback size, cost more to ship separately and at a retail price of $28 for both, are at the edge of prices for a single hardback volume. Continuing the gripe, there is a slightly dead patch quite early in the second volume. If an editor had been working to produce a manageable length for a single printed book, that would have been tightened up. As it is, I suspect it was left in to make a better balance between the two volumes as a page count.

That said, this is an author at the top of his game. He has constructed a story about a young girl who makes her living as a puppeteer, moving from span to span on the ever-widening network of bridges that magically encircle this world. In each new place, she captures a local story to make her puppet dramas resonate with local cultures. Thus, the narrative is continually interrupted by the telling of other stories that illuminate the history of the world and the all too human condition of its peoples. This sets up a subtle interplay between the mythic universality of some of these stories and the current dilemmas of the protagonists. In turn, this braiding of narratives threads eases us through the novels. They intertwine and, significantly, assume direct parallels with the myths we know so well on Earth. Indeed, the structure of the narrative comes to have three strands: the narrative arc of the primary characters that ultimately becomes the stuff of myths in its own right, the increasingly complex stories of mythic characters who can affect the primary characters’ actions, and the potential for the first two strands to become a retelling of a familiar Earth myth. Or perhaps that should be the other way round. Perhaps the Earth myth as a character directs the actions of the people in the story so that what happens to them transcends their place and time, achieves universality and matches the original myth.

So at an intellectual level, this pair of novels is magical. It equally involves the reader’s emotions because the main characters remain so true to their own fallible natures. It is all too common in fantasy for there to be hero figures who, when in danger, pull out a sword and hack the opposition to pieces. Frost has created real people who have greatness thrust somewhat arbitrarily upon them. Their lives are made extraordinary by accident or design depending on your point of view. Having been forced into excellence, they must rise to the occasion as danger comes looking for them. They become players on a wider stage, seeking something more than survival as they care for and fight for each other. The outcome, in the literal sense, is the stuff of legend. For me, this was the best pair of fantasy books for 2008 and I cannot recommend them too highly.

For my other reviews of books by Gregory Frost, see: Attack of the Jazz Giants and Fitcher’s Brides.

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