The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius)
!! CAUTION !!
Nobody particularly wants to hear the grouchy rantings of your average silent movie buff about Singin’ in the Rain. Missing the point of the 1952 film entirely, they will grouse about the way it woefully mischaracterizes both silent cinema and Hollywood’s adoption of the talkie. Which isn’t an entirely unfair critique of that film, but its explosive joys and modern, acerbic humor are more than enough to compensate. Flash forward nearly sixty years and French comedy director Michel Hazanavicius’ big breakout is a film that makes a similar number of errors about pre-sound cinema, with the additional problem that it seems to come from the eyes and ears of a person who’s never actually seen any of the movies he’s making fun of — but it’s all in good fun, right? Just like Singin’ in the Rain, which is probably why the film essentially lifts all of the basic plotline of Singin’ in the Rain wholesale. A hundred years on from the birth of Hollywood, we’ve entered a brave new world of cut and paste, as this terrifyingly vapid age-of-Tumblr variation on the Silent Comedy painfully indicates.
But you already see the problem, right? That would be the fact that a couple of generations removed from the elderly grouches’ hemming and hawing and grave worries about Singin’ in the Rain besmirching the legacy of Murnau and Griffith and DeMille, all unfounded (except in the sense that the film seems to have given at least one young director his only passing familiarity with early U.S. cinema), I have now become the elderly grouch. It’s crucial to recognize that The Artist can very easily be imagined to serve an important utility for a new generation of film buffs: it’s a highly watchable, unambitious and supposedly engaging (I found it too dreadfully artificial and safe to apply that adjective, but I’m taking others at their word) entry point into a different kind of storytelling — black and white, Academy ratio, and wholly free of dialogue until the sweet-natured finale. It even centers very simply on the story of the transition of silent to sound film, which threatens to leave one actor in the dust thanks to a voice problem that is charmingly underlined in the final moments, while a rebuffed dancer a la Kathy Selden named Peppy (Bérénice Bejo) vaults into full-fledged stardom — he reaches Chaplinesque downtrodden status despite his pride, and their kissy faces grow eventually into a Chicago-like mutual support, and the commercial cinema, helmed believably by a cigar-chewing John Goodman in a semi-reprise of his part in Matinee, lives to fight its many battles to come.
Problem is, The Artist doesn’t in turn offer much to the cinephile who loves silent pictures, or more importantly, the cinephile who has seen more than a couple of films from the ’20s, especially those by Chaplin or Keaton. A significant difference is that no film from the ’20s is about the fact that it’s silent — that would make about as much sense as a 2013 film being about the fact that it’s on a screen; we didn’t, and don’t, know anything else, hence a film that doesn’t put real jokes in its title cards but expects the title cards themselves to be automatically funny, for novelty to carry the day, is at a marked disadvantage to the seasoned viewer. I don’t think seasoned viewers are all that important, but I can’t lie: I was downright bored by The Artist. To explore the reasons why, I had to go back to a movie I hadn’t really thought of in years but which is formally and narratively similar to this one: Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie.
Brooks’ film is far from flawless; in fact, it’s a flimsy trifle that cops out on its initial promise and is most likely the weakest of the movies he made in the ’70s. And moreover, it’s no more predicated upon a passion for classic cinema than is Hazanavicius’ film, but unlike The Artist it has passion for something: namely, it’s a full-length love letter of sorts to Brooks’ late wife Anne Bancroft, in which guise its sincerity and goodness is almost overpowering. More pertinently, Brooks obviously knows a lot more than Hazanavicius about telling a joke without dialogue. The sequence in which Brooks, essentially playing himself, casts Burt Reynolds in his film by cornering him in the shower isn’t exactly Harold Lloyd but is more inspired than the entirety of The Artist. So a vital difference between Brooks (who paid tribute to but didn’t make fun of silent films), Stanley Donen (who did make fun, but with affection) or Billy Wilder (who made fun with no affection whatsoever in Sunset Blvd.) and Hazanavicius is a sense of historical awareness. Context, even.
It seems proper to mention here that Kevin Brownlow, most likely the world’s leading living expert on American silent film, loved The Artist; the film is certainly more gentle than the same idea seemed in its earlier incarnations — the years have dulled the teeth of the world, and anyway there’s a Jack Russell terrier here even cuter than the one in Beginners. To boot, Hazanavicius nakedly celebrates his film’s audience, continually playing to them as much as Jean Dujardin’s lead mug George Valentin does in his self-consciously toothy stage encores in the first act. But with title, premise and stylistics, you’d sort of imagine this film to try and approximate the actual artistic plane on which the directors of the late ’20s were operating. The film’s failure to even come close, with its lazy production design and mediocre, telefilm-caliber cinematography, is perhaps the greatest disappointment here. Even a lesser Warners or (especially) Fox production of the period depicted has a stronger look and considerably more sophistication than anything we’re faced with here, which if anything is closer to the quality and ambition of a Biograph short. There’s even a scene of the dog helping to save its owner from a burning house, which recalls uncannily the cheap thrills and cheaper pandering of a pre-WWI nickelodeon picture.
When there are no such broad strokes to appropriate, The Artist settles for aping older movies — oddly enough, very few (if any) of them silent or reflective of pre-Depression sensibilities. Citizen Kane is invoked directly by an appropriation of its witty, haunting breakfast montage — one of the most succinct breakdowns ever of a failing marriage — and the result is hardly insulting but a bit goofy in its unadorned use of another film’s brilliant idea as shorthand. (Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York took inspiration from the same sequence but ran in another, newly fascinating direction with it.) That sets the stage for the more problematic lifts The Artist makes. The director claims not have taken specific inspiration from Singin’ in the Rain; if he honestly believes that, the only explanation is that it’s perhaps been many years since he saw Donen and Gene Kelly’s film and its details simply entered his subconscious. Because the borrowings are uncanny — Missi Pyle’s character is a direct allusion to Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont, Peppy is Kathy Selden, and Dujardin even resembles Gene Kelly more than slightly, and the egomania of both men is mocked mercilessly by the respective films, only with a bit less detail and wit in the remak– uh, new film.
The absence of detail is, indeed, a major issue with The Artist‘s rather threadbare story; some critics commented that this was indeed a feature of silent films like Sunrise, and if I dwell too much on the fact that said critics were comparing a film that emotionally honest with one that is so inherently showbizzy and fake my brain will blow up, so moving on: the only thing that isn’t specific about Sunrise is its refusal to name its characters, a trait that again throws back to Griffith and in the case of Murnau’s film means specifically to comment on the universal nature of the story being told. The Artist might fly on being nonspecific and on grand, broad gestures, but it isn’t universal unless you know a lot of famous millionaires struggling with the introduction of sound to cinema, which as usual is depicted not as an artistic problem (Murnau complained that it simply happened too early, stunting the maturity of the form) but a commercial one.
And what do you do if your story is too vague and silly to be resonant? You make it as cloying and big and unsubtle as you can and declare yourself to be pushing emotional buttons; it’s the old Oliver Stone or Forrest Gump trick. A quick way to invoke a desired reaction in audience members is to try and evoke something else that many of them will fondly recall, or reuse a trick someone else once scored on and hope for the best. This brings us to the film’s most egregious and cringeworthy lift of another’s work: its perfectly legal but perfectly reprehensible, and in many ways baffling, interpolation of an enormous chunk of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo at the climax. I think Kim Novak’s comment that Hazanavicius’ use of Herrmann’s music was an act of “rape” is pretty wrongheaded and silly, but I agree with the spirit of her remarks — it seems like a lose-lose situation for everyone to me. It dilutes the impact of Herrmann’s music, which is tied very specifically to a situation and dramatic coalescence in the Hitchcock film that has no connection whatsoever to the far more benign and differently targeted occurrences in The Artist; it raises the hackles of those who love Vertigo and turns them against an otherwise fairly inoffensive film. Most of all, it’s an act of pure cynicism that attempts to make the final scenes of this film more momentous than they are by using music that works so beautifully in its original context and attempting to achieve the same effect to, I guess, lift up a finale that really seems more than a little frivolous. It’s the worst kind of use of film music, all too familiar from years of on-the-nose pop music supervision; now apparently even well-loved film scores of the past aren’t safe from brutal recycling. To put it another way, would anyone accept it if the Star Wars theme were nonchalantly invoked to calculatedly suggest a sense of triumph or childhood nostalgia? It certainly would seem crass to me, for one.
So Hazanavicius doesn’t really have anything new to say about his subject matter, and his emotional content is too rote to have any impact that transcends his central gimmick the way that Sylvain Chomet or Guy Maddin (whether you like them or not) can. I suppose some of this is personal bias because this deals with material I’m passionate about, but if you’re going to try to make a movie about an aspect of popular culture as interesting as Hollywood in the silent era, please please please have something new to say about it and don’t just retread a couple of vastly superior movies, copping their emotional points and even running right over them. But really, perhaps this would’ve worked better if the filmmakers had spent as much time looking at actual films of the relevant period as they did looking at magazine covers. Something does shine through the banality: a dream sequence about a third into the film, wherein Dujardin wakes up to find a world full of noise in which he cannot speak — if that one moment had been the entire film, it could have been playful and bizarre and brilliant. That’s in part because it has the giddiness and invention of the actual great films of the silent period, which The Artist seems to think were all cute mugging and hamming. This bogus interpretation of the formative years of his chosen profession would make me want to call out Hazanavicius even if he didn’t apparently believe that silent films are sexless, which is enough to disqualify me from ever having to pay attention to his neutered pap again.