20 February 2012

The Artist

I went to see The Artist yesterday, and since a friend this morning asked me some questions about it, I thought I'd take a moment here to record a few thoughts, and, more importantly, link to people who have more interesting things to say about it than I do.

It's a nice little movie.

I really have trouble coming up with more than that. Its clear frontrunner status in many categories going into the Oscars is a bit baffling, but not inexplicable. I can think of three major reasons it's such awards bait, and I'm sure there are more: 1.) it's different enough from other movies released last year to stand out from the crowd, but not different enough to alienate any crowd; 2.) if you know things about movies and you like movies, it makes you feel good for being you; 3.) Harvey Weinstein is distributing it, and Harvey Weinstein is one of the most successful people in the history of the motion picture industry at getting awards attention for his movies.

Also, it's a hard movie to hate. You could, like me, find it a pleasant enough entertainment that isn't a lot more, but it's perfectly inoffensive. Certainly, the hype and awards are annoying, especially if you step back and realize what a good year 2011 was for interesting films, but the hype and awards aren't the movie's fault. And there are good things in The Artist that can get obscured by frustration with the huge acclaim.

(What would I say are the best of the year? you ask. I haven't seen tons of 2011 films, so I wouldn't make an absolute Top 10 list, but here are 2011 features I got more from than The Artist, in alphabetical order:  Albert Nobbs; Attack the Block; Beginners; A Dangerous Method; Incendies; In Darkness; Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Tree of LifeWe Need to Talk About KevinWeekend -- and I'm probably forgetting a few. Oh, Hugo, which I actually wasn't very enthusiastic about, but definitely enjoyed more than The Artist. And Le Havre, which, again, I had problems with, but think is certainly more substantial than The Artist in lots of different ways.)

Ultimately, I'm with Jon at Films Worth Watching, who said, "its uniqueness, as I see it, is the fact that it’s a silent film in a non-silent era." His entire post is well worth reading. (And a commenter notes that the movie's charms are more apparent on a second viewing. Perhaps.)

In contrast to that negative opinion, there is the thoughtful, extremely positive view of the film offered by James Clark at Wonders in the Dark.

Richard Brody at The New Yorker has an interesting post on the Oscar contenders, with some insightful comments on The Artist.

Glenn Kenny and Glenn Whipp have a pro-and-con discussion of the movie at MSN.

Chuck Tryon's post at The Chutry Experiment on "Navigating Nostalgia" has some useful thoughts when considering why it is that Oscar voters so love movies like The Artist and Hugo.

Finally, don't forget that Oscar voters are primarily old, white, and male.


  1. Intrigued by the final comment. Do you think someone old, white and male would be more likely to love THE ARTIST than not? I'd love to hear more analysis of this. I was hoping for some interesting commentary from you on the deeper and more playful aspects of the film -- the idea of sound, the idea of silence, the discovery of the main character's 'voice' and his final acceptance of sound (by tap and not vocal)... probably one of your links leads to a page that does that but I want to hear the Matt Cheney version of this filmy analysis!

    1. I'm humbled by your faith in me! James Clark's post about the film is the best one on the details of what makes it special (in his view -- I don't actually disagree with much of his analysis overall, I just didn't find the movie as compelling and special as he did, but that's so often the way of it with matters of taste. Some people don't find Jean-Claude van Damme movies as compelling and special as I do, and, well, all I can say is: their loss.)

      The last link I added a few minutes after first posting this, having discovered it suddenly, so it's not at all integrated into my thinking about The Artist so much as a useful set of facts to keep in mind regarding the Oscars. I think it's dangerous to draw too many x-leads-to-y-leads-to-z conclusions about the demography of the Academy with regard to taste, because we all know that individuals differ hugely, and there are plenty of white men over the median Academy age of 62 who have vastly more progressive, edgy, and eclectic taste than plenty of non-white non-men under the median Academy age of 62.

      When it comes to voting blocks, though, which is really what matters when thinking about the Oscars, that demographic, I think, makes some tendencies in the nominations and, especially, the winners make more sense, just as the fact that most Academy members are wealthy and yet also have a streak of social-conscience liberalism in them helps make some other nominations and winners make some sense (e.g., Driving Miss Daisy over Do the Right Thing, Crash winning Best Picture, the tendency of softly liberal movies to get nominations, etc.). I was surprised at the demographics, because though I would have guessed the Academy was definitely skewed toward the older, maler, and whiter realm, given the realities of Hollywood and of how you get to be an Academy member, I didn't expect it to be so breathtakingly monolithic. Suddenly, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close doesn't seem like such an outlier for that group, whereas when it was first announced among the Best Picture nominees there was a collective double-take from everybody watching. Similarly, some commentators suggested that if the Academy wanted to signal that it cares about racial issues, it should have nominated Pariah rather than The Help, but even if Pariah had had the same publicity campaign as The Help, it's less surprising that a group -- and group is a key word here -- of primarily white men over a certain age would be more fond of that than a more challenging movie about teenagers and their family in contemporary Brooklyn. (I haven't seen either film, so am not offering this as an opinion of one's superiority over the other.) (And yes, the idea of having one slot for a movie about "racial issues" is noxious. There's very little that's not noxious when thinking about Hollywood, race, class, and gender.)

      Eventually, I'll perhaps write more on this, because it's clearly got me stewing. In some ways, I'm surprised that I'm surprised. But still. 94% white. 77% male. Median age of 62. Wow. Just... Wow.

  2. Hm, I have to disagree with the older white males liking The Artist. For everyone one of those, their is a young 20 something woman who was exposed to silent movies for the first time.And out of all the people in the theatre where I watched it, I saw two people asleep-both men. I think it's a bit more deep. George's downfall was George's alone. He didn't want to make talkies even when the tides turned-even when Peppy was able to give him a script at the end he still refused it. It was his pride and his vanity-adversion to new technology. I also loved the use of light and shadows and sound. The dream sequence was expertly filmed and jolting to both George and the audience. It's a feel good movie in the style that the 1920-30s movies were-happy endings all around.

    Have to disagree with the Tree of Life. Thought that was the most pretentious movie I've seen.

    1. Anecdotal evidence can be marshalled for all sorts of views, so, "I saw two men asleep" doesn't really prove anything. As I said in the previous comment (I think we were posting at the same time), individuals vary widely and unpredictably. Groups are less varied and more predictable, especially when they're groups of people within a specific industry chosen to be members of an extremely exclusive club like the Academy.

      My greatest hope with the popularity of The Artist is that it might send people back to old movies. I hope you're right about that. In the town where I live, a local theatre does monthly showings of silents accompanied by live music, and if more people start attending those because they were intrigued by The Artist, I'll be thrilled.

      Tree of Life was clearly the most polarizing movie of the year, and it's no surprise that it won't win Best Picture, since such voting relies on there being a middle ground. It's not a movie that one can be argued into loving or hating; either you respond to it and more or less "get" it, or you're bored stiff or annoyed and resent it. Nonetheless, it's obviously unique in a way that few films are, regardless of whether you love it for its uniqueness or hate it for it.

  3. Yes, a nice little movie: I had a similar response.

    Was I wrong in expecting, and then being disappointed by the inexplicable lack of, "Stompin'At The Savoy" at the end?

  4. I think the main point why Artist is so successful is the originality. Sure, other movies you mention might be better in the terms of the story per se, but Artists' uniqueness is hard to doubt. But whether that should be enough to win an Oscar is a completely different story.

    1. The originality and uniqueness of The Artist depends on the context. It is certainly unique for a film that has some relatively major actors in it and is released by a major Hollywood distributor this year. In a context that included, say, films from the silent era, or films by Guy Maddin, or even Mel Brooks's Silent Movie ... not unique, and not so original.

  5. I'm a bit late to this one Matt, but I had somewhat of a mixed reaction to The Artist myself. The film is charming (both Jean and the lovable Uggie) and certainly looks good, but the experience in whole left me with somewhat of a bad taste in my mouth. The pace, narrative techniques, and style have very little in common with actual silent cinema. Dujardin's performance, for which he ironically won an Oscar, is much more in line with the performances of the Golden Age (epitomised best by the strange inclusion of the Singin' in the Rain tribute). The anachronistic use of the Vertigo score, much publicized, felt like an attempt to borrow emotion from somewhere else, which rubbed me the wrong way, and the less said about the schmaltzy Hollywood ending, the better.

    I suppose I sound very harsh, and like I said, I found the film for the most part inoffensive, but I also found it completely lacking in authenticity. Silent film as a period including so many greats, from Eistenstein and Dovzhenko to Lang and Murnau, Griffith, von Stroheim, (the master) Ozu, early Renoir and Ford, and so on. And as you rightly pointed out, it isn't even that original an idea. Tati did it in the vastly superior Les Vacances de M. Hulot, Maddin has done it a few times, Aki Kaurismäki did it in Jura, as did Hou Hsiao-Hsien is the middle section of Three Times (albeit with the use of colour). The problem with Hazanavicius' film is the only real thing that qualifies it as a silent film is the lack of sound. If it is, as claimed, a love letter to the silent era, it is a silent era that personally I am unable to recognize.