Monday, February 6, 2012

Caitlin's Review of The Artist

“A Boy Falling out of the Sky”
a review by Caitlin Murphy

In Neil Postman’s brilliant book Technopoly, he argues that throughout history societies have had very different kinds of relationships to their technologies.  To conveniently reduce it all:  once upon a time we just used our tools, and at some point they started using us.  Transforming us.  Defining us.  America, Postman offers, after the introduction of television, was not simply America plus television; it was a wholly different America.  Similarly, we are not living in a world that offers the capability of tweeting, we are living in a tweeting world.  None of this is really news, of course, but that’s perhaps exactly why it bears repeating.  The Artist, written and directed by Michael Hazanavicius, elegantly, compellingly, heart-breakingly does just that.

The clever conceit of The Artist is that it’s a silent film about the death of silent film.  George Valentin (played sumptuously by Jean duJardin) is a renowned actor who gets caught in the undertow of the advent of sound, and is unable to transition to talkies, or accept the need to; as a result, he watches his star quickly fade, and (like in a quicksand scene from his last film) is swallowed up, wholly and unapologetically, by a rapidly changing world. 

When George’s producer first exposes him to the new technology of sound recording, George laughs it off.  ‘If this is the future, you can have it,’ he scoffs.  And despite the dramatic irony, we surely relate to his mis-guided arrogance.  No matter how well-rehearsed or scathing your critique of facebook, for instance, the social network’s strangle hold and staying power are indisputable.  Basically, facebook doesn’t need you to get on board, and neither, in The Artist, does sound need George.  Talkies were there to stay and no amount of foot-stomping, hissy-fit throwing or desperate ‘yeah, butting’ were gonna change that. 

So, like a widow in mourning, George wafts through his deflated existence;  unknowingly though, he is watched over by Peppy (Berenice Bejo) – an extra he met and fell for working on a film, whose star is just being born around the same time that his dies.  Though giddy with new-found fame, Peppy realizes that success is largely an accident of timing; she has deep affection and concern for George, and also knows that she is in his debt.  He was the one who suggested she needed something to make her stand out, and pencilled in a beauty mark for her, thus creating her signature look.  But he is also part of what went before Peppy, and thus what created the way for her.  The match up between the two perfectly articulates the conflict between young and old.  The young can never quite appreciate the hard-won world they have waltzed into, say the old, and the old can never let go of their passing glory, say the young.  Peppy’s rising star and George’s plummeting one still land us all squarely in the same predicament of time.

Early on in the film, Hazanavicius establishes the convention that not all spoken lines will actually be followed by title cards.  As a result, and rather unusually, the audience is put quite on its toes; the film asks you to lean in, to follow, to concentrate.  And in a time when attention and focus are such quickly diminishing resources, I think it’s a flash of genius that Hazanavicius is working in a genre that simply forces these out of us.  He reminds us that we have important muscles that we’ve not been flexing, and ultimately that we are stronger and smarter as audiences than we’ve been told. 

Another thing I love about the conceit of silent film is that it emphasises how much of life takes place in the realm of gesture, expression and intention.  We forget the articulateness of the body, the face, the eyes, and we forget how little spoken language is actually necessary.  I admire how the limiting of verbal exchange reveals an interest in economy, in elegance – the ability to convey as much as possible with as little possible.  In a gorgeous example of this, Peppy, after clearly falling for George, sneaks into his dressing room; she slips her arm into the sleeve of his hanging tuxedo, and begins to embrace herself with it, pretending it is his.  It’s a well-known little trick, of course, but so seductive in its simplicity, and so lovely in its comment on the human wish to surrender to our own vulnerability.  The gesture, and George’s reaction upon discovering it, convey all we need to know about what has transpired between these two people.  That The Artist’s resolution (though I won’t specifically give it away) involves dance is perfectly fitting for a film that is not only silent, but so celebratory of the art and beauty of gesture.

In one of the film’s most striking scenes, and brilliant uses of its own conceit, George is suddenly able to hear sounds – as are we.  He puts down his glass, and is shocked by the thud it makes hitting the table.  He repeats the gesture, unable to comprehend it, and is quickly overwhelmed by the cacophony of noises around him – the telephone ringing, his dog barking, the chatter outside – but he is unable to make any sound himself.  He screams, or tries to, in horror into the mirror.  It’s a harrowing metaphor for the brave new world, and its paralyzed old inhabitant, and created an eerily familiar feeling in this viewer.  In another brilliant sequence in which Peppy and George’s relationship first forms, we see them go through several takes of a scene where he is to bump into her and they briefly dance together.  Each take becomes more intimate, joyful, indulgent, as we get to delight in how much of life is repetition, discovery and re-discovery, the gradual deepening of what we already suspect.  Needless to say, on top of everything else it accomplishes, The Artist is a love letter to its medium.

For some reason, I’m a sucker for stories of difficult births, or – more specifically –  difficult re-births.  I guess in some respect these can be reduced to stories of triumph, or happy endings, but it’s actually the difficult part that most attracts me:  the head-on admission and embracing of the fact that life is unfair, that aging is devastating, that mortality is inconceivable and yet everything keeps rolling on despite our protestations.  The advent of the talkies serves as a compelling metaphor for any major, blind-siding change that leaves you reeling, seemingly stripped of identity, and forced to re-imagine all that you thought you knew.  It galvanizes so succinctly what it feels like to be kicked out of one world, and have to discover or build another.   

I can’t remember the last film I watched that felt like an experience.  And not in the way that were told 3-D is an experience – but an actual experience.  In the cliches of review writing, indeed I laughed and indeed I cried.  And I thought a lot too.  For all of these reasons, The Artist doesn’t strike me only an important film right now, but a necessary one.

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