Silent Movie Weekend and my Thoughts on the Artist

by - Friday, January 27, 2012

from thefineartdiner.blogspot.com
Last weekend, the Boy and I went to see the Artist. I mostly thought the movie was cute (this picture above is one of its more adorable moments), but it has some strange problems and seems weirdly over-hyped. Don't get me wrong, it has some a few ridiculously great moments, but let me complain for a moment first.  The story is of a silent film actor who is grappling with his genre's waning success, all while falling for a spunky (seemingly) American woman, eventually finding a solution (Spoiler alert!) in musicals.

from www.nytimes.com

from tomandlorenzo.com

If you think this sounds a whole lot like Singin in the Rain, you certainly aren't the only one. The lead actor even looks and moves like Gene Kelly (though let's not kid ourselves, his butt doesn't compare at all). It's sad that now I watch this movie, and all I can think of is the countless comparison papers that will be written in the future. There is a competition with his glamorous lead actress (both of whom are dressed in all white and are played like caricatures). Of course, the Artist works differently because it has internalized its narrative so that the film itself is silent. This works really well in most parts, and it amazingly reminds us that in the face of a beautiful image, words really are unnecessary. It also raises the stakes, and the forlorn actor has more breakdowns then he has cute mugging with the dog (and let's face it, that is never the correct ratio).

He meets a young woman who is cast in one of his films, setting up one of the best moments in the film for its sweetness and spot on depiction of sparks flying. Unlike Gene and Debbie, these star-crossed lovers have some real large problems that they have to work through (a wife being one of them) and despite her cuteness, dear Peppy seems to have very little going on beyond an insane number of ridiculous mugging shots (really, producers? We couldn't take a few accurate 20's style photographs?) and a completely unmotivated commitment to this guy. This film is about as far as you can get from passing the Bechtdel test, and it sure isn't because no one can talk; she is really the only woman in the world, and even if she had a conversation with herself, it would only be about the man. She is a Dickens Lucie- a plot device, and never a person. But more on this later! Let's talk about something less depressing.

from www.ferdyonfilms.com
The film is seemingly organized around Georg Valentin's inability to speak (you have to love the film's cheeky use of text) and uses mirrors and stairs almost endlessly as metaphors for the ascent and descent of fame. The absolute highlight of the film is the dream sequence, wherein the simple setting down of your glass literally blows your mind. It reminds the viewer that the narrative rules before them are entirely arbitrary (it actually reminds me of the dream sequence of Dumbo, which similarly reminds you that really anything could happen). Everything in the scene makes noise, except for the poor silent actor who screams into the mirror but makes no noise. At this point, I was pumped, and I thought things were really going to get weird, but alas it was only a dream and he went back to a world where everyone followed his narrative form (though his spunky lady friend was doing well in the talkies, she remains mute). 

Valentin's inability to talk is presented throughout the film as a simple generational issue, against a city which is always about the new, but this is complicated in the finale, which is a pretty blatant "homage" to Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell's famous tap number:

from imdb.com
from www.nydailynews.com













After nearly committing suicide (twice- seriously, the "hitting rock bottom" phase of the plot last for like half the movie), Valentin is saved by his super successful fembot. She demands that he be in a film with her, and they get a gig in the musical, which the Jazz Singer and his creepy mother will tell you is the only antidote to talkie angst. They do what is a little bit sad tap routine (this guy's butt... really nothing to write home about) and end mugging it for the camera. Their trepidatious taps, done in a set Eleanor Powell would have destroyed with her dancing, open the world up to sound much like the tap of the water glass earlier, and suddenly the audience is overwhelmed with the busy buzz of a lot of dudes working. The dog barks. The head honcho and an assistant both ask them to do it again. And Valentin says, with a thick french accent, "with pleasure."

Maybe I shouldn't take this to be a big deal, but his frenchness, and the frenchness of the film itself seems like an interesting issue here. I also question if the reason poor Peppy doesn't get to agree to more work is because it would reveal that both of the leads are not American (and based on her name, I am pretty sure we are supposed to take her as American as you can get). Of course, Valentin's frenchness is not historically unfounded- we could talk about Maurice Chevalier and Lubitsch to cover that base, but the big reveal of his voice and his accent seems significant in a film which is so much about Americaness and speech. Maybe I just want the film to be more critical than it is, and I am using his voice as the tapping glass, the moment that says this could be more than it is. I should probably watch it again before I really comment on whether the film has a second formal politic, because the content itself is kind of a feel goody sort of business. I would recommend seeing this film (despite my criticism now, I would probably give it a 4 out of 5); it is a nice way to think about film history, the lead really is pretty good, and it is just fun to go see a movie that is so different- by using such a historical conceit, it ends up feeling really fresh and different (probably even more so if you didn't go see Harold Lloyd the day before). All in all, an interesting movie and an awesome weekend of movie-going.

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