Editor's Note 02.22.12 -The Artist: Analyzing Its Popularity
Posted by Chad Webb on 02.22.2012
As the Oscars approach, I take a closer look at the rise of this silent comedy, why it's so popular, and if it deserves its accolades...
Plot Summary for "The Artist" - Hollywood, 1927: As silent movie star George Valentin wonders if the arrival of talking pictures will cause him to fade into oblivion, he sparks with Peppy Miller, a young dancer set for a big break.
With the 84th annual Academy Awards ceremony on the horizon, not to mention the Golden Globe and BAFTA winners under our belts, it seems clear now that The Artist possesses the most momentum going into the Academy Awards. Director Michael Hazanavicius constructed a silent film in black & white, complete with inter-titles, appropriately old-fashioned score, and cast performances that were faithful to the silent period. No doubt The Artist is a good film, funny, moving, and even tragic. But just how exemplary an effort is it? Does it deserve all the accolades it has received and will likely continue to obtain?
Though it was not the first talkie, The Jazz Singer in 1927 was one of the early watershed pics that launched films with sound as commercially viable. Since that time, it has basically been all sound all the time. A handful of filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin kept pumping out silent flicks after the talkie trend caught on, but eventually, the silents ceased and sound took over completely. There have been a few popular silent films since then. Silent Movie by Mel Brooks in 1976 is one example, but for the most part, people have relied on watching actors talk, hearing explosions, listening to gunfire, and chuckling at flatulence. From the rise of Al Jolson, fast-forward over eight decades to 2011 and The Artist sweeps the world off their feet.
The question is why moviegoers are falling in love with The Artist. Obviously it could be said that any reason people choose to love a film is valid and we should leave it at that. Perhaps, but in this case I have mixed emotions as to why The Artist is such a strong contender for cinema's most prized statue of Best Picture of the Year. I wonder if the ascension of The Artist is due more to the gimmick and its placement among sound pictures with the fury of remakes, sequels, and 3D. The fact is, Hazanavicius' film is a change of pace, "a breath of fresh air" as I have heard, in an era when ticket buyers are dealing with the same mediocre, disappointing sludge week in and week out. But does that mean it's best picture worthy, or are the standards of good and great shifting before our very eyes? Or, have they already?
A friend and fellow film buff agrees with me that The Artist is indeed an enjoyable experience, but the praise stops there. My argument is that while it easily warrants a "Thumps Up," it is not exceptional enough to take home the award for Best Picture. There are many reasons for this. For starters, it is rare to hear anyone gush about the film beyond mentioning that it is a lone silent movie released during a period where talkies still reign supreme. For all the nominations stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo have raked in, talk of how terrific their performances were is not nearly as prevalent as what type of film they were involved with. They are both wonderful, but frontrunner for Best Actor/Actress strikes me as a bit of a stretch.
I keep having flashes of Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, which took home three Oscars in 1999, one of which was for Benigni as Best Actor. His speech made for an unforgettable Oscar moment. The humorously inventive speech, not to mention the comedic aspect of his movie, parallels The Artist in many respects. Dujardin claims his Oscar speech will be totally silent if he wins. Benigni did not go on to have a lot more success in terms of awards...or box office for that matter, but that year his movie was a strong nominee in numerous categories. Where Life is Beautiful and The Artist differ is that the former revolved around a grave period in history, the Holocaust. The Artist steers clear of such serious topics and uses its light qualities as a crutch. It would have been more impressive if Hazanavicius integrated weighty subject matter. Former 411 writer Erik Luers described The Artist as "something of a meta-movie, a film which is acutely aware of what it is and pleased with itself for that fact." It has all the markings of a satisfying flash-in-the-pan, a victim of overhype. This has happened before at the Oscars and may happen again.
If my theory is wrong, and the public loves The Artist not just because it is a silent warrior in the middle of a talkie army, but more so because the storyline is engaging, the direction is top-notch, and the characters are fleshed out and intriguing, than The Artist should logically usher in a new era of silent features. It would be ridiculous to expect nothing but silents from now on, but if The Artist is indeed a masterpiece whose merits are just and deserved, why shouldn't this spur more similar offerings? In addition, for those not familiar with silent movies, their amazement to The Artist should result in them seeking out more like it right? If neither of these occurs, we should re-evaluate why it is that The Artist is receiving such a glowing response.
If studios do not greenlight more silent features, and fans do not access their Netflix queue to add classic silents from the past, it would be understandable to assume that the release date of The Artist, and how notable its gimmick is as "something different," are as much a factor to its success and acclaim (if not more so) than its actual quality. Obviously if it was downright terrible, critics and moviegoers would have noticed and reacted accordingly, but the issue appears to be that the line between good and truly great has blurred in light of an approach that acted as a welcomed diversion from the soulless blockbusters and insipid romantic comedies. I'm not trying to bury The Artist, but it is bothersome that all it takes is resurrecting a gimmick or style not utilized for a while to win over the masses.
To further illustrate my point, let's imagine for a moment if The Artist were released during the heyday of the silent film in the 1920's. Now, it stands to reason that Oscars were not a factor then, but would The Artist be considered so spectacular if it had entered the fray with the likes of Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and others? The answer has to be no, because next to them, The Artist is decidedly average. Whenever someone approaches me to discuss The Artist, I always admit I liked it, but urge them to check out The General or City Lights as classic silent alternatives. The response I generally receive is the common blank stare. This could be because a) they don't care for older movies as much as I do, b) they're award moviegoers (meaning they prefer films that are nominated for something), or c) their fondness for The Artist is not just that it's silent, but that it is a silent feature that appears strong in a year of middling efforts. It's all about perception, and the perception is that The Artist is a great film period, when in fact it is merely solid in the realm of its own peers.
"It's all subjective" might be a sharp retort to this article, but it's not that simple with The Artist because the timing of its release is crucial to how it is perceived by most cinema lovers. It can also be said that The Artist has also been embraced because it is an easily accessible and well-made piece that the majority can get behind. This fits right within the parameters of the Academy. More often than not, they will reward a film that is not necessarily four-stars, but adored by a lot of outspoken supporters rather than a great film that has a small group of detractors. The rise of titles like The Artist and especially The Help reaffirms that 2011 has been a severely disappointing year for movies, and as a result, movies that would not be deemed great in banner years receive an elevated status.
Looking at this from the other end of the spectrum, a fairly recent news article revealed that a Liverpool audience demanded a refund because they were not aware they had paid a ticket for a silent film. Not only is it asinine to ask for your money back based on that reasoning, but it also shows that some folks do not desire a change of pace. This audience has been conditioned to expect a certain type of film, and if anything they pay for diverts from that recognizable path, they get upset. Do enough people leave with a negative outlook? I can't say for sure, but most of the people I talk to have an overwhelming adoration for The Artist. If a significant group do indeed dislike the film, is that because of The Weinstein Company's promotional onslaught and the glowing reviews and quotes we come across daily, the reasons I mentioned above, the content, or the release date? And to be more specific about the release date, would The Artist have as much strength heading into the Oscars if it was released during the summer as a blockbuster alternative, such as Midnight in Paris? Perhaps if those titles' releases were switched, we could be talking about Midnight in Paris as the top contender. If not, then why?
The Artist has been labeled an homage to silent movies, a "throw back" if you will, which very well might be true. If that's a fact, my concerns about its success are disproven because an homage is not supposed to sprout a trend. After all, it's not like Grind House, the collaboration between Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez for the exploitation genre, resulted in a long period of B-movies cut from the same vein. There have been similar films since then, but for the most part, that was a one-time event. However, according director Michael Hazanavicius, he would love for The Artist to launch more silents: "We have gained some things with talkies - if we still had the silent era we would never have had Billy Wilder, never have had Woody Allen. But it's true that we also lost something. Maybe the only thing I regret is that talkies totally killed silent movies. I think we could have both. That's what is happening with The Artist - people really enjoy the format and they've discovered that it is a new way to tell a story." If we read this correctly, he didn't want to just salute silent films, he wanted to resurrect them, which is fine by me, but how would the public respond? Only time will tell.
Allow me to explain things in a different way. Imagine you had only meatloaf and Brussels sprouts for many years of your life. Eventually, you became accustomed to the taste and learned to live with it and occasionally love it. But one day someone hands you a piece of pizza, and you react with gleeful astonishment. You had never tasted a dish such as this before, but it is fantastic. In reality, the pizza you had was a regular frozen brand, but since it was your introduction to it after years of the same food, you loved it. The pizza in this circumstance is The Artist. It certainly tastes fine, but it would be silly to start handing out blue ribbons just because it was a change of pace from the normal routine.
This article began to form after the Golden Globes, not because I was upset that The Artist won and a film I liked better didn't. As a matter a fact, I loved Jean Dujardin's speech. It was more because the quality of the nominated titles was nowhere nearly as worthwhile this year. I awaited the Oscar nominations with indifference and knew there would be no momentous surprises, mainly disappointment. The Artist contains some wonderful moments and if it wins, well, I suppose it could be worse. On the other hand, for a more fulfilling experience that honors the silent era, while telling an enthralling fantasy tale, go see Hugo. The Best Picture battle will probably boil down to The Artist or The Descendants, both of which are worth seeing for sure, but are they truly representative of the best from 2011? By all means, go see The Artist. My intent was not to damn its achievements, but to make us think deeper about how we judge a film and to be mindful when a small buzz can balloon out of control.