the better truth

the better truth

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Artist (2011)

Silence is Golden for the Artist

It would be accurate to describe “The Artist” as a simple, sentimental black and white film that idolizes the silent film era. It would also be accurate to describe bread as a mixture of flour and yeast. The fact of the matter is that things are often more than the sum of their parts. “The Artist” is a masterpiece. The credit goes to the writer/director Michel Hazanavicius. A good measure of ‘an artist’ is the mastery of their craft. The best prism with which to judge skill is to view their execution of rudimentary tasks. How does the master-chef tackle an omelet? How does the prima ballerina approach the bar? How does a fist violinist play a C scale? In these simple exercises one views a life-blood of being a master. In “The Artist” an audience has a the rare chance of experiencing the work of someone who, in an almost religious sense, “understands” film.

The film centers around a vain film star who is challenged by the motion picture business’ transition to sound feature films. Truth be told many performers managed the change seamlessly but the film “Singing in the Rain”, whose plot revolved around a star failing to make the vocal grade, seem to immortalize this legend. Hazanavicius grabs this fable and runs with all his might. No need to know film history. No need to be familiar with Chaplin, Arbuckle, Keaton et al. Let scholars talk about “Modern Times” or “Sherlock Jr.”, audiences for “The Artist” need to simply sit back and react. An old film professor once told me “films are about reaction not action”. This axiom is at the heart of the success of “The Artist”. The opening sequence brilliantly shows a movie audience watching a feature while simulations illustrating the movie stars’ impression of that same audience, in addition to his cynical take on his co-star and producer. We’re watching them watch the film while he’s watching them watch the film while simultaneously watching his co-star and producer. In this stew observations everything is shown, not told, and a primordial reaction is generated: the audience is captivated on an almost biological level. The tropes are as old as the human experience. We see ambition, vanity, lust, love, fear, hate, jealously... without tiresome dialogue indicating action. The seamlessness of the sequences can be attributed to a keen mastery of technique. We all a have an innate sense of the human emotional experience but so few films can touch at the heart-chords due to lack of rigorous attention to the details of story telling. Modern audiences are continually subjected to the laborious “action” sequences or detailed dialogue- narration whereas what everyone desires is to merely react to the situation. The director is there to MAKE you feel; not TELL you what to feel.

In an amateur’s hands the “cute” little dog-companion is a cheap sugar pill that illicitness a passing burp of sweetness. Note Hazanavicius’ use of this animal: The canine is a genuine co-star whose endless routines with the master give the audience boundless love of the protagonist and his companion. The “gags” are as old as Lassie’s great- great- great grandfather and yet this man and dog break out of the low earth orbit of side-show cleverness. Their banter is a building block in the seemingly simplistic storyline. Ditto for the interaction between the protagonist and the ingenue. The “blind” dance behind the screen in their second encounter which beautifully foretells the climax of the film. The actor standing up for the young woman against the pompous producer. Once again a subtle mirror to the second half of the film. The truly magical “failed” dance sequence which the downfallen star clings to as the token of his life’s work. All these “simple” sequences pull the audience into the over-arching flow of the narrative on a glandular level. Your heart beats because your nerves were triggered automatically. You love them because all the “knee jerk” set-pieces are struck with the master-hand of a physician gauging a reflex and not the sloppy roar of a carnival barker. These people are as “real” as the theatergoers around you in the audience; ironically maybe even more so. It should be noted that the infamous gangster Bugsy Siegel took his cues on how to dress from his childhood friend George Raft - who played gangsters in the movies. Sometimes the fantasy world, when executed by masters, has more “reality” than “real” life.

One might assume producing a “silent” film would require less rigor as the technical demands are decreased. No need to worry about background noise and extensive miking and mixing. Ironically this feature pays more attention to sound than most “talking” films. Absent dialogue the score becomes exponentially more prominent. The challenge is to prevent the music from overwhelming the “foley” effects (term used for recording of incidental noises - footsteps etc). In addition this balance must be met while convincing modern film audiences that this is faithful to the early silent era - as this is the central conceit of the film. Modern audiences would have a difficult time merely having instruments and song. Hazanavicius convinces everyone of the genuineness of the “primitive” production values while employing very sophisticated visual and sound effects. The opening sequence with the large audience viewing a projected film in a large theater requires significant technical prowess. Ditto for the “dream” sequences. The sound is also masterfully employed. Although the film is essentially silent the closing moments have “talking sound”. The director cleverly plays against expectations and the focus, aside of one brief line, is the protagonists huffing for breath after a strenuous scene. This heavy breathing carries more heft than 1,000 pages of scripted dialogue.

Once again there are those who will see “The Artist” as a solid piece of work but merely good candy. They will give the director his due as a craftsman but say the work lacks gravitas as it is merely a stylized fairy tale love story. Once again this is accurate but false. What is great art? It’s one of those simple questions that could give rise to centuries of discussion. It is hard to bring any sort of consensus. It’s similar to trying to describe beauty or laughter. Justice Potter Stewart came close to a concise definition in his reflection on whether or not the film “The Lovers” was obscene:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. [Emphasis added.]
—Justice Potter Stewart

Well in the spirit of Justice Stewart “The Artist” is great. I know it when I see it.

No comments: