Sunday, January 8, 2012

Who's The Artist here?

The Artist is a 2011 French romance film directed by Michel Hazanavicius, starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. The story takes place in Hollywood between 1927 and 1932 and focuses on a declining male film star and a rising actress, as silent cinema grows out of fashion and is replaced by the talkies. Much of the film itself is silent; it is shot in black-and-white, and has received wide praise from critics and many accolades. Dujardin won the Best Actor Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where the film premiered. The film has six Golden Globe nominations, the most of 2011.

Swashbuckling silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) attends the premiere of his latest film A Russian Affair. Outside the theater, Valentin is posing for pictures for the paparazzi when a woman, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), admiring Valentin while lost in a sea of adoring fans, drops her purse. She bends down to get it, but is accidentally pushed into Valentin. She ends up photographed, and the next day, she is on the front page of Variety with the headline "Who's That Girl?".

Later, Miller auditions as a dancer and is spotted by Valentin. He insists she have a bit in his new film, despite objections from the studio boss, Al Zimmer (John Goodman). Peppy slowly rises in the industry, her roles growing larger and larger.

Two years later, Zimmer announces the end of production of silent films, but Valentin insists that sound is just a fad. When Zimmer unloads all his silent stars, George decides to produce and direct his own silent film, financing it himself. It opens on the same day as Miller's new sound film, and Valentin is ruined.

His wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), kicks him out, and he moves into an apartment with his valet, Clifton (James Cromwell). Miller goes on to become a major Hollywood star. Later, Valentin fires Clifton and sells off all his effects. Desperate and drunk, Valentin starts a fire in his home. His dog gets help and he awakes in a bed in Miller's house.

Clifton is now working for Miller. Miller insists that Valentin co-stars in her next film, or she will quit Zimmer's studio. After Valentin learns that Miller had purchased all of his auctioned effects, he has a nervous breakdown and returns to his burnt-out apartment. Miller arrives, panicked, as Valentin is attempting suicide.

Peppy and George reconcile, and remembering that he is a superb dancer, she convinces Zimmer to let them make a musical together, and the picture ends with the implication that Valentin will return to fame again. In the final shot, the sound finally comes in as the film starts rolling. Afterwards, Zimmer calls 'Cut! Perfect. Beautiful. Could you give me one more?'. Valentin, in his first audible line, replies in a clearly French accent, "With pleasure", revealing the reason he refused to speak on camera.

OK then. . . Wiki has spoken.

I watched this movie last night, but only because somebody I know had a copy of it. (Never mind.) The premise seemed strange, especially in light of the fact that movies have already thoroughly covered this ground (most notably, Singin' in the Rain, often called the best movie musical ever made.)

Expectations were high, because I can't seem to find a bad review of this thing anywhere.  Critics are falling all over themselves calling it a masterpiece. And it is "different", for sure: at first you think there's something wrong with the sound track, that they've left out the vocal element (and believe me, I've seen that before), creating a very frustrating scenario of mouths moving without any words.

This Valentin guy (and by the way, his obviously-French name immediately gives away the "secret" of his having an accent and thus being unable to speak in a movie, ha-ha) sort of looks like a lot of other people, including one of the best dancers in human history. The final dance sequence in The Artist reminds me of two dinosaurs lumbering around. Anyone familiar with "real" musicals of the '30s will wince at this.

Or maybe they won't! Sometimes I wonder if critics get together on this and just decide they're going to rave, no matter what the quality (or lack of it) of the movie they're reviewing. Then the public, embarrassed that they might look like they're not "getting" it, do an "emperor's new clothes" thing and pretend like mad that they love it.

This thing was pallid and uninteresting, and very predictable. The plot was maybe five minutes' worth of ground which had been covered many times before. I got tired of seeing Valentin's impressive but obviously tampered-with set of teeth as he constantly grinned and laughed, then watching his increasingly-threadbare suits as his career hit the skids.

What could be more cliched than this story, I wonder? I've been watching a lot of Harold Lloyd lately (again!), and once more I've been amazed at his versatility, at the many different Harolds he played, all convincingly: the country bumpkin, the rich hypochondriac, the girl-shy tailor's apprentice, the timid department store clerk scaling the heights of a tall building, the movie fan trying his luck in Hollywood, the Chinese missionary, the . . . but we'll stop there.

This is real movie magic. 

Ironically, not unlike Valentin, Harold Lloyd struggled to find a place for himself in sound film and made several movies that did well, but never equalled the dizzying box-office heights of The Freshman or Safety Last! His was a 1920s character, one who (in the words of his longtime director Hal Roach) "couldn't age". In Movie Crazy, he played a 40-year-old man living with his parents. His voice wasn't awful, but it was nothing special and had no resonance, sometimes making him sound a bit like Jiminy Cricket.

Obviously, The Artist is a sort of smudged photocopy of this story. You may have figured out by now that the photos in the first half of this post aren't all of the same man. Can you guess who's mixed in with Valentin? If you stirred them all together, might you have something like his character in The Artist?

(Sorry, I threw Ernie Kovacs in there because he had nice teeth and a moustache.)

This is just one of those cases where I don't get it. The thing may well get Best Picture this year, and then even more people will flock to see it and declare it a masterpiece.

But why not rent The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection and see some real silent classics? And if not Harold, get hold of some Douglas Fairbanks or (OK, I won't give the last one away, but he sure did know how to dance).

The Artist is a gimmicky thing without much substance to it. Yes, it looks good, but why not watch Top Hat and see some real choreography (by Hermes Pan!), some glorious costuming and splendid art deco sets?

Don't people know the difference any more?

And since silent film is so frickin' hot right now, when is Hollywood going to take a serious look at The Glass Character and make a real movie out of it?

I'm just sayin'.