Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Artist

Year 7, Day 269 - 9/26/15 - Movie #2,161

BEFORE: Any time I get to cross a Best Picture winner off my list, it's a big deal around here.  But if that film is also on the list of "1,001 Movies to See Before You Die", it's an especially big deal.  And after watching "12 Years a Slave" and tonight's film, I'll have seen every Best Picture winner dating back to 1953, and several before that, for a total of 74 out of 87.  Not shabby at all.  

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies for airing this film in February, as part of their "30 Days of Oscar" programming.  I'd been waiting 4 years for some channel to air it, and I can't imagine what the hold-up was.  Jean DuJardin carries over from "The Wolf of Wall Street", and to give you an idea how quickly my list changes around, for a long while this film was serving as the link between "The Monuments Men" (which I watched in May) and "Eraserhead" (with Hal Landon, Jr., coming up in October).  After tearing my list apart and re-building it several times, about 5 months worth of films ended up getting sandwiched between those two.

THE PLOT: A silent movie star meets a young dancer, but the arrival of talking pictures sends their careers in opposite directions.

AFTER: It's a great time for me to watch an Oscar-winning film, as I'm filling out forms at work to submit an animated short for Oscar consideration.  There's an awful lot of paperwork involved with that, but if you don't get it done, a film has no chance of being nominated.  Sure, it's usually just a formality, but it makes me wonder how many films could get nominations but don't because someone made some kind of clerical error, or missed the filing deadline.  

I can also now review the award year of 2011, there were 9 films nominated that year for Best Picture, and with "The Artist", I've now seen 8 of them. (Sorry, "The Tree of Life".)  I'm not so sure that this film should have won Best Picture, at least according to my completely unscientific rating system.  If I review my ratings on all the nominees, I gave the best score to "Moneyball", with a 7, and this film would have come in 2nd - everything else got either a 4 or a 5 from me.  

There's nothing blatantly offensive here, in a film about a silent film actor having difficulties converting to talkies, except that I've seen that plot used before, most notably in "Singin' in the Rain".  The central character here, George Valentin, even reminds me of Gene Kelly with his slicked-back hair, and the fact that he's seen appearing in a "Three Musketeers"-like silent film.  The other part of the story, which concerns an actress whose career is taking off just as his is waning, is also something seen many times before, like in "A Star Is Born", for example.  

But what the film lacks in originality, it makes up for in style.  Everything is beautiful, glitzy, reminiscent of old Hollywood, and the first part of the film is silent, except for a music track, with a few key dialogue cards, the way the films of the 1920's presented their tales.  It turns out most dialogue isn't even necessary, and actors can say more with a gesture or a look than they can say with words.  The language of film has many dialects, and just because this one is so rarely used any more doesn't mean that it can't be used again, with the audience being able to understand it.  It's a bit like Latin, it's a mostly-dead language but there will always be people made to study it, because it's the foundation for so many other ways of speaking.  

In the second part of the film, taking place after synchronized sound is introduced in Hollywood, "The Artist" dispenses with the dialogue cards, but allows in sound effects to help tell the story.  It's a little too self-reflexive, however, that the main character notices the change, which temporarily might remind the audience that they are watching a film.  Finally, in the closing scene, there are some spoken lines, because there's just no real way to end this except to pull back from a movie set, reminding us that we have been, in fact, watching something that was being shot on a movie set.  And we hear the director call "Cut" along with the bustle of the production personnel and technicians.  

Normally, I'm against Hollywood films about making Hollywood films, or the problems of the cast and crew making them, because it's too much like Hollywood licking itself for fun.  And it often seems like the last refuge for filmmakers who don't have any other ideas about what to film.  "Uh, why don't we make a film about people who don't know what to make a film about?"  Nice try, guys, we all made that same movie in film school.  

But, since this was made by a French director and filmed (more or less) outside the Hollywood studio system, I can try to make allowances, especially since the filmmakers within the film never had any problems with writer's block (or director's block) - they were filled with ideas, the only problems came from the technical aspects of making films.  And the films they were making never turned into the film I was watching, so that's another plus.  

As another nice accidental tie-in with last night's film, both "The Artist" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" feature stock market crashes as plot points, just in different years - the 1929 crash and the Black Monday one in 1987.

Also starring Bérénice Bejo (last seen in "A Knight's Tale"), John Goodman (last seen in "The Internship"), James Cromwell (last seen in "The Cheap Detective"), Penelope Ann Miller (last seen in "Biloxi Blues"), Missi Pyle, Joel Murray, Bill Fagerbakke, Uggie the dog (last seen in "The Campaign"), with cameos from Malcolm McDowell (last seen in "Hidalgo"), Ken Davitian, Nina Siemaszko (last seen in "Jakob the Liar"), Hal Landon, Jr. (last seen in "Pacific Heights")

RATING: 6 out of 10 Variety headlines

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