(Published over at Flickering Myth on Oscar night)
The infamous and incomparable Academy Awards are about to launch their annual global invasion. Nothing will be able to resist the onslaught. Facebook and Twitter will be colonised, blogs occupied and living rooms stormed. Of course, every year, one film is promoted to lead the assault by a mixture of critical buzz, hype and hyperbole. This year The Artist, an outside bet when it emerged on the festival circuit way back in 2011, leads the charge for golden Oscar statuettes. And yet everyone remains baffled by it.
For a throwback to yesteryear The Artist has been pretty controversial, certainly a lot more than last year’s juggernaut, The King’s Speech. There was the furore surrounding the cinemagoers who asked for their money back when they discovered that the film was silent. Then, more recently, there have been the attacks on The Artist’s Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Ignorant sceptics scoffed at the irony of a film without dialogue getting the chance to win recognition for its script. Soon their infectious dribble was plastered all over the web, in the form of tiresome tirades too numerous and forceful to argue with.
The Artist’s script, written by its director Michel Hazanavicius, is in my view the most deserving winner in its category at tonight’s ceremony. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s screenplay, in the adapted category, is in some ways a greater achievement because of the way it condenses the original novel. But the idea that because The Artist is silent it does not tell a compelling story or craft magical moments is plainly ludicrous. There is far more to a screenplay than dialogue, as most film fans will know. Its main competitors for original screenplay are crude (Bridesmaids) or sporadically charming (Midnight in Paris), and not that original.
You might say that The Artist is not at all original. Before I saw it I suspected it to be an exercise in nostalgia, pandering to critics pining for Hollywood’s golden age. After you’ve seen it, you know that the film does a lot more than look back charmingly into the past. It does copy classics from the past with its gimmicks, flourishes and rise and fall structure. But it has its own completely unique perspective. The frustrating thing for fans of the film is that still, on Oscar day itself, The Artist is talked about only in terms of charm, musicality and entertainment.
On Friday Lisa Allardice posted to the books blog of The Guardian, inspired by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris to speculate about which literary era would be the best to travel back in time to. In her introduction however a casual reference to The Artist irritated me. She says that in “direct contrast” to The Artist, Midnight in Paris is all about words. The thing that most surprised me after seeing The Artist was how much it is completely about words and language, despite being silent.
Hazanavicius uses his film’s modern day vantage point to look at the lost era of silent cinema, but he also uses silent movies to look at communication in the present day. Jean Dujardin’s George Valentin struggles throughout the story to express himself; as a professional, a lover and an artist. The scene where sounds suddenly burst into Valentin’s dreams is a perfect example of both this commentary on the saturation of modern day culture and the analysis of one character’s battle with the human condition.
The Artist is delightfully sweet, endearing and moving. I know this, even now, because as I write I am listening to tracks from Ludovic Bource’s sublime soundtrack. However, it is also about the limits and boundaries of language, what it can and cannot do. It is about much more than people give it credit for and there are many more meanings to discover from its simple story. It is worth bearing this in mind as its glamorous tidal wave washes away the competition at tonight’s Oscars. It’s the most interesting winner in years.
After a great night at the Golden Globes this homage to a bygone era of cinema looks set to cement its position as the frontrunner for Best Picture at the Oscars. But is its charge for award season glory based upon anything more than charm and nostalgia?
When a film has been hyped as enthusiastically as The Artist, nagging doubts and suspicions are always likely in the minds of those of us forced to wait for its general release. We brace ourselves for disappointment. No other outcome seems possible once the high minded critics have finished hoisting our expectations into the heavens, so we look to cushion the fall. At least I do, but then I might be overly cynical.
The subject matter and execution of The Artist added another ingredient to the usual pre-release hype however. It’s the story of George Valentin, a silent movie star, toppled by talkies. In one of the opening scenes the lost magic of cinema, and the lost mystique and glamour of celebrity, is perfectly illustrated at the premiere of Valentin’s latest movie. At the end of the screening he bursts onto the stage, hogging the limelight to toy with the rapt attentions of his audience. This is show business, as it used to be. At it’s thrilling best.
Some critics lust with every cell in their body to be transported back to this time of cinematic birth and discovery. Many regularly rant at the failures of the modern film industry. Few, in short, are going to be able to resist a well executed slice of nostalgia pie. It’s always hard to keep a balanced perspective before seeing a film with rave reviews. But The Artist is a film about Hollywood’s golden age, praised by hordes of reviewers who have longed for a second coming of this filmic Eden for their whole lives.
There may well be good reasons to be wary of The Artist’s gimmicks and charms then. However the reviews are right to say that most of the visual flourishes are irresistible, even and perhaps especially, the infamous cute dog. The wordless acting is touching as well as funny. The Golden Globe winning music has an impressive range and playfulness. Best of all, for me, was that the story had far more to say than a nostalgic and whimsical sigh. It grapples with emotional connection, the limits of language and purpose. Valentin’s gloomy fall from grace is far more than homage, but it isn’t automatically Oscar worthy either.
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Last night I watched the last in the series of Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood on BBC 2. I actually watched it on TV! You can watch it here on iPlayer:
I really enjoyed it and will be trying to see the first two episodes somehow. This episode chronicled the death of silent cinema, which Merton shows to be at the height of its creative powers when the technology for talkies arrived. Silent films starred ingenious performers, and were shot in inventive, imaginative and inspiring ways. They could afford to make classic escapism for the masses as well as experimental pictures, which also more often than not turned into hits by capturing the public’s lust for the cinema in new ways.
Talkies, Merton argues, brought the quality and the standards crashing back to basic levels. Yes audiences could hear the tinny voices of their beloved stars but they lost much of the magic of cinema when it was silent. They lost the live musical performances accompanying the pictures in theatres. They lost the moving camera angles, zooming in and out to visually dazzle and excite. They lost the cults of intoxicating mystery that grew up around actors, as soon as they heard their ordinary or often foreign accented voices. Instead there was wooden dialogue in front of static cameras. Imaginations were stifled and limited.
It’s impossible not to compare the arrival of the talkies with that of 3D films in the 21st century. In my view it’s obvious that the shift is not so dramatic. Sound is a far bigger leap forward than three dimensions. This seems an odd thing to say; when in theory 3D should mean the action literally happening in front of you. But we know the reality of 3D is mostly gimmicky after seeing the offers of studios in cinemas.
This might suggest that greater efforts are needed to improve the technology, so it’s truly as transformative an experience as listening to sound for the first time in a movie theatre. However Merton’s documentary focuses on the ability of good storytellers to adapt. Irving Thalberg, who died in his 30s, was the extraordinary man at the centre of last night’s episode.
A German immigrant, Thalberg grew up in New York, after being born with a weak heart. He spent long periods of his childhood mollycoddled and stuck in bed through illness. During this time he read classic literature, plays and autobiographies. And followed the fortunes of the film business.
Then he got his big break and headed to Hollywood as a secretary to the head of Universal Studios. He was unexpectedly promoted to Head of Production, because of the qualities he showed his employer, where he established a reputation in his early twenties, before moving to MGM in the same role. His influence transformed MGM‘s studios into a vast dream factory with all manner of storytelling resources on site. He handpicked films for suitable directors, mixing traditional stories with bolder projects. He ensured that before release all his films were screened to members of the public, which led to scenes being re-shot frequently. A modest man, his name never appeared on any posters.
Thalberg’s MGM was at the top of its game when talkies arrived, courtesy of rivals Warner Brothers. But before his death Thalberg oversaw a successful transition to sound, with that same focus on good storytelling. As a producer he called the shots, made decisions in the company’s financial interests, but never compromised a good story.
3D audiences have been declining and champions of the technology pin their hopes on Michael Bay’s third Transformers movie, Dark of the Moon. In press previews the 3D is said to be cutting edge, mind blowing and the best yet. But as this Guardian writer, Ben Child, points out, Bay’s films are so loud and bombastic that they simply become tedious. And the only real hope for 3D is that someone, a great individual of Thalberg’s ilk, can steer a truly great and inventive film project to fruition. One that makes the best of 3D‘s unique assets but one that, above all, tells an unbelievably good story.
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