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February 16, 2012

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Josh Z

"What do YOU think?" Are you sure you want to know? :)

The movie clearly didn't work for you. It didn't win you over, and you feel that it's too insubstantial to be considered a "Best Picture." I would disagree with your opinions, but to each their own.

However, some of your arguments about the film just don't make much sense to me, such as your repeated complaints about it being "technically slack" and poorly crafted. I don't know what you saw (or didn't see that you were expecting) in the movie, but to me those are just not factually accurate statements about the film.

Your harping about Penelope Ann Miller's character being a thankless role and a cardboard-cutout I find particularly perplexing. I mean, yes, she was, fine, but that's a very common (and clearly deliberate) character type she's playing. I know that you're well versed in silent films. I'm sure that you would happily cite movies X, Y and Z that have richly developed, three-dimensional silent characters. But why is it that you're acting like you've never seen a melodrama before? Surely you're not going to deny that characters and performances like hers existed in silent films?

Hey, you asked.

Michael Adams

I completely support our Glenn's charge of technical slackness. It doesn't look much like a silent film and is rarely visually interesting. Am I alone in finding Cromwell's the best human performance?

Oliver_C

Wait, Penelope Ann Miller is known for something OTHER than thankless, cardboard-cutout roles?!

Glenn Kenny

Yeah, wow, Josh Z, you've totally THROWN ME OFF MY GAME HERE.

No, not really. Anyway, to address your points: I admit that I saw "The Artist" at the Angelika in Manhattan, where the projectionist generally shines candles through the bottoms of old Coke bottles, but even if the picture had been properly bright with a digitally simulated nitrate sheen, it still would have visually registered as being made with a battery of more-or-less contemporary film techniques, and then had the color sucked out. The way the camera moved, the entirely ordinary sound-film grammar, etc. It's entirely competent, and ordinary. As it happens, there's more to silent film, and there's more to '30s black-and-white film style, than lack of dialogue and monochrome. That's why I cited "Young Frenkenstein" and "The Good German." While not silent, they do make some effort—some PRODUCTIVE effort—at getting the details of the style right. "The Artist" does no such thing.

As for my "harping" on the Penelope Ann Miller character, don't think I haven't considered this issue relatively carefully. Woody Allen does something similar in "Midnight In Paris" with the contrasting of the characters played by Rachel McAdams and Lea Seydoux, and I found it entirely forgivable in the Allen film. And, yeah, not only have I seen a BUNCH of melodramas, but I've also read E.M. Forster's "Aspects of the Novel" and I completely GET the concept of "flat" characters. I still stand by my harping. Even by the standards of flat or stock characters, the Miller character is disgracefully thin and shallow. She doesn't even serve an actual FUNCTION: she's irritating, and then she's gone. The film doesn't even actually NEED her character, except to give poor George one more thing to be miserable about. Inexplicably miserable, actually, since we have no idea what he's doing with such a harridan in the first place. At least in "Midnight in Paris" it's kind of plausible that Owen Wilson's character could fall in with McAdams.

That's my harping and I'm sticking to it.

David Ehrenstein

Being a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Asspciation I was one of those fast-and-furious e-mail writers as the tsunami of Harvey had led me to believe "The Artist" was in the lead in our voters minds. Comes the vote and IT DIDN'T EVEN PLACE!!!!!!

The revelance of "Singin' in the Rain" in all of this has less to do with that truly great film's overall plot than one specific scene in whihc Debbie Reynold's Cathy Seldenin explains to Gene Kelly's Don Lockwood that movies don't appeal to her because the acting "is all dumb show" whereupon she makes a series of broad mugging expressions.

THAT'S the style of "acting" in "The Artist." Everything is broader than broad -- the sole bit of subtlety being provided by Uggie.

There's no question it's going to win Best Picure -- and go on to be as fondly rememebred as "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Crash."

IOW, forgotten.

Just remember one thing: DIGNITY -- ALWAYS DIGNITY!!!!

David Ehrenstein

Lina Lamont expresses precisely how I feel about Jean Dujardin.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3OkXi5osfU

Chris O.

"She doesn't even serve an actual FUNCTION"

See, I thought the P.S. in her note to George was funny (and Looney Tunes-esque, actually) coupled with the next shot that includes -- subtly enough, thank God they didn't cut to it -- his defaced, well... face.

Josh Z

Not trying to throw you off your game, Glenn, or to be a troublemaker here. Just trying to have that "spirited but civil debate" mentioned in the post tag.

Some of this came up during an earlier post on the movie, and I'll try not to belabor my opinions too much. The Artist is designed as a pastiche of many different film eras, not just silents. Hence the references to movies like Vertigo, Double Indemnity, '30s & '40s musicals, etc. While it does use silent film techniques and grammar (and yes, it does; even you can't say that it uses NO silent film technique), it doesn't EXCLUSIVELY use silent film techniques. I don't think it's fair to accuse the movie of being "technically slack," which implies laziness or incompetence, for what seem obviously to be deliberate artistic decisions, even if you don't agree with them.

It feels to me like you didn't take the movie in the spirit it's intended. This isn't meant to be some sort of "lost" film that could have actually been produced in the era (in which case it would be little more than a gimmick or a curiosity - much like The Good German was). This is a modern film made for a modern audience that needs to be reintroduced to the format. Silent cinema hasn't been a viable form of populist entertainment in over 80 years. Aficianados aside, the majority of the audience is going to need to be hand-held through the experience of watching one again. I don't think there's anything wrong with making a movie for that audience or that purpose, even if that means it's not a "pure" silent film.

I think a comparison to Hugo is unavoidable. That movie was designed with much the same purpose and also applies modern film techniques and grammar (3D, CGI, motion-controlled camera movements and so forth) in a fashion that might be considered inappropriate to the era the story is set. Yet you loved that movie and didn't care for this one. Admittedly, they're very different movies, and it seems you consider Hugo more successful at what it attempts to do, which is fair enough if you feel that way. However, many of the arguments you make to pick apart The Artist could also be applied to Hugo, and indeed have been used by some critics.

Again, if the movie didn't work for you, then it didn't work for you. But it clearly does work for a lot of other people, myself included, and not all of us are ignorant of what a "real" silent film should be. I loved The Artist and find it worth all the acclaim it has received. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Glenn Kenny

To paraphrase W.C. Fields, I was just fooling and pretending in the "throwing off game" bit, sir.

As for your other arguments, either you're doing a lot of special pleading for the film and its mission, or I'm looking at it through too much of a puritan/parochial lens. That said, I would have to allow that I prefer the approach of "Hugo." I also rather disagree with your idea that the modern audience "needs" to be reintroduced to the "format." I love silent films very much, but I don't think anybody else "needs" them, or "needs" to love them. I've never been a "you HAVE to see this" kind of person. I've always written about my enthusiasms, and tried to constructively share them, but in terms of proselytizing, at the end of the day it doesn't make any PRACTICAL difference whether or not I've persuaded you and I've got no axe to grind about what audiences get and don't get. I reserve the right to make observations and even judgements on that sort of thing, but I have no illusions about where it all fits in the cosmic scheme. That kind of aesthetic evangelicism is what leads dolts like Dan Kois to ponder the idea of "aspirational viewing," which is, you know, ugh. Like Yoda said, there is no try. And in any event, although I pretty much deplore a filmmaker who hand-holds/coddles his or her audience into accepting/understanding a mode with which they're not familiar, I don't even think that's what Hazanavicius is doing in "The Artist" anyway. I just don't think he has the eyes or the chops to do anything approaching a enjoyable or even competent pastiche.

Kevin Brownlow liked "The Artist" too. I remain unpersuaded.

And a side note on "The Good German:" I was pretty rough on it when it first came out, but watched it again recently and found that it largely worked better than I recalled. Except for the ending, which is still a major miscalculation. Maybe what "The Artist" got so wrong is what helped me appreciate what "German" got right. However, to paraphrase Eleanor Bron in "Help!", much more I cannot say.

jbryant

I've given up trying to figure out why Hazanavicius wanted to make THE ARTIST, or what he intended the audience to take away from it. It seems like a lark that he sort of half thought out. I got excited for a minute during the nightmare scene, because it seemed as if it might be going to an interesting place, both thematically and technically. But then it resumed the pastiche, and I was lost again.

You can see something like FAR FROM HEAVEN and totally get Haynes' narrative, thematic and technical choices, even if you don't like the movie (I liked it a lot). Of course it probably helped that he was responding to a very specific genre, not all of 'the Fifties,' or all of melodrama (or even all of Sirk, for that matter). THE ARTIST straddles silent and sound, the 20s and 30s, comedy and melodrama, commercialism and art, with no clear vision or purpose that I can discern (and I grant that maybe that's just MY problem).

I still managed to like a lot of things about it, and if it ends up making some people even 10% more accepting of silent and/or B&W film, then the filmmakers have earned their place in Heaven.

D

I think the problen is that Hazanavicius did not realize what a rigourous genre pastiche actually is (see Jonathan Swift for a fine practitioner of the art). The lack of dialogue in the film comes off more as a gimmick than a well-made pastiche. Pastiche is an organzing principle out of which all other formal and content aspects of the art work are generated. When I watched THE ARTIST I saw a film that had had its dialogue removed, but there was no engagement -- dialectical or otherwise -- with earlier films which lacked dialogue as a matter of course.

David Ehrenstein

"It feels to me like you didn't take the movie in the spirit it's intended."

This bring to mind one of my all-time favorte movie lines, which you can hear at the start of THE WILD BUNCH:

"I know what you MEANT to do. It's what you DID that I don't like!"

Josh Z

@jbryant: "THE ARTIST straddles silent and sound, the 20s and 30s, comedy and melodrama, commercialism and art, with no clear vision or purpose that I can discern (and I grant that maybe that's just MY problem)."

Do you feel the same about Tarantino's pastiche films, for example? He doesn't exactly stick to one genre in any of his movies.

Josh Z

I feel that I should toss in here that I happen to side with Glenn in his distaste for Drive, which I found to be a really crappy pastiche movie that didn't work on any level for me, despite the fact that it sticks to copying and pasting elements from just the one specific genre.

Stephanie

I didn't think The Artist was quite up to all the fuss but particularly given that its chief rival for the top prize is The Descendants I don't see how it's somehow undeserving.

I also like on general principles the possibility that a light picture that charms and amuses, even if it doesn't charm and amuse to the extent I'd have wished, may go home with the top prize. And the leads were just fine. (Bejo's looks are a little too contemporary to make her a really believable flapper, but her lanky frame looks delicious in the costumes of the period.)

jbryant

ARTIST SPOILERS:

I particularly liked the light, charming parts of THE ARTIST in which the hero loses his livelihood, descends into alcoholism and contemplates suicide. :)

END SPOILERS

Stephanie: THE DESCENDANTS was one of Glenn's favorite movies last year, so I'm guessing he won't take your point.

Josh: I do indeed enjoy most of Tarantino's films a great deal. For whatever reason, his pastiches delight and amuse me -- perhaps it's because he blends things in a way that feel personal to him. Maybe if I knew Hazanavicius' other films I'd "get" what he's doing, too.

Yuval

Artist Spoiler

Isn't the last punchline of the movie when it becomes a talkie that George felt he couldn't be a talking actor cause of his french accent? Other than that it seems that he initially refuses to do talking pictures since he found them stupid, so he decided to keep making silent movies which he'll produce, direct, write and star in, like someone else did during the 30s.

ZS

Not a fan of the film either. I may have liked it, or forgiven its simplistic approach to film history (and use of Vertigo for that matter), if I thought it had any visual charm. It had none for me. Part of me thinks the film would have actually been better in color and with dialogue throughout. The Black and White and lack of dialogue were in fact aesthetic limitations because I don't think the director knew what to do with either.

Gordon Cameron

>Even by the standards of flat or stock characters, the Miller character is disgracefully thin and shallow. She doesn't even serve an actual FUNCTION: she's irritating, and then she's gone.

I think she has more depth percolating than the movie gives her room to express. She demonstrates wit and a will of her own, her needs are not unreasonable, and in her scenes with George (particularly the last) he comes across as rather cruel. I don't think the film follows through on these cross-currents particularly well, but they're there.

@Yuval: I got that sense, too. It might play better for French audiences...

jbryant

Yuval and Gordon have tossed chum in the water regarding my pet peeve about THE ARTIST, so I'll weigh in once more on it. Nothing is said in the body of the film about George having an accent until we hear that line at the end. The only possible way it works as a punchline is if we believe the filmmakers are revealing the "real" reason in contradiction to the stubborn artistic reasons George gives earlier. But Dujardin has stated in an interview that neither he nor the director intended George's accent to be a factor in his refusal to make sound films. Even if Dujardin is mistaken (or was just unaware of the director's intention), wouldn't someone in the film -- the studio head, Peppy, the chauffeur, George himself -- have brought up the accent earlier in the film, during one of the transition-to-sound scenes?

Victor Morton

Not necessarily ... while there was an inevitable dropoff from the silent era, the early sound era had plenty of actors and actresses with foreign accents (Dietrich, Chevalier, Boyer, Donat) and the biggest star of all was even a foreign-accented silent-era holdover (Garbo).

And word on the Tarantino comparison. Scrutinizing this film for violations of the Dogme 29 Code of Silent Chastity makes as much sense as scrutinizing whether Uma Thurman actually acts like Bruce Lee while wearing his suit.

jbryant

Victor: You don't think those involved in hiring and promoting the American sound careers of Dietrich, Chevalier, Garbo, et al., ever discussed or strategized about their accents? Or that the stars themselves ever worried about how this new imposition could potentially limit or alter their public image?

I just feel that the line at the end is a payoff with no set-up. It could've been addressed with one line earlier in the story. Something like, "Your accent is charming, George; people will love it." Or "I've been playing characters of all nationalities, but sound will limit me to playing Frenchmen." Anything! It should be a plot point. In real life, if an actor said "I weel not make zese talking pick-chairs becowz I am an arteest," his colleagues and employers would giggle or roll their eyes. "Yeah, sure pal. Nothing to do with your accent at all. Cough."

Yuval

Yes, the french accent doesn't have to stop him from being an actor but you can imagine how it might feel like that in the character's mind and John Goodman's mind, and how they would avoid saying it cause to them it's obvious enough without saying (since they don't actually live inside a silent movie). The movie makes a big deal about how he sees himself as a certain something and he has a hard time adjusting and seeing himself as something else. He tells her that if she wants to be an actress she needs something to make her special, but that thing is very small, not an accent.
And btw - I'm sure Lina Lamont could've taken a voice coach like Mia Farrow in Radio Days.

Yuval

ahhhhh... she did have a voice coach, forgot about that one

Stephanie

"I particularly liked the light, charming parts of THE ARTIST in which the hero loses his livelihood, descends into alcoholism and contemplates suicide. :)

END SPOILERS

Stephanie: THE DESCENDANTS was one of Glenn's favorite movies last year, so I'm guessing he won't take your point."

The Artist has a dark aspect(rather too dark given what's at stake, and too prolonged - when Valentin hits bottom it's as if he and we are going to stay there forever) but that's not what people take away from the picture.

In some respects I preferred The Descendants to The Artist, although I didn't like it nearly as much as Glenn did obviously. I just don't see a big win for The Artist as an outrage.

ZS

Regarding the "dark aspect" of The Artist was there any question that it would end with triumph? I have trouble as seeing those moments as dark. There was nothing emotionally at stake.

jbryant

Yuval: So you're basically saying it doesn't matter that the accent wasn't mentioned earlier in the film, because it was clearly "the elephant in the room"? I guess that's one way to let the writer off the hook. :)

Sarah

I'll give my thoughts, but my opinion has to be taken with a canister of salt, I'd say. I'm a 20-something sciences grad student in the uncomfortable position of being far better versed in movies than anyone I encounter on a regular basis, but a clear and pathetic novice compared with any actual aficionados. That kind of whiplash can drive a person bonkers. You're probably well familiar with the type of filmgoer I am, so I won't burden you with further autobiography.

I loved this movie. I saw it at a theater in San Francisco before it hit wide-release because I assumed it would stay obscure (I live in the middle of Ohio, so that's what counts for obscure). I was there for a science conference and snuck away for the night because someone I knew recommended it. There were a handful of people there. I'd only read one review, and it was Ebert's journal in which he praised the film's rare ability to make him care about what happened to the characters. Maybe it's just priming, but it remains my go-to description (obviously) of what got me about "The Artist". It was so sincere and charming and engrossing in a way few movies I've seen are. And I've seen some silent movies - mostly the comedy greats of Keaton and Chaplin, along with Sunrise, Metropolis, and Battleship Potemkin, maybe a couple others - so there were references that I got that some (scratch that, many) audience members probably aren't getting, but they still get the movie anyway. And there's lots more that you were sensitive to that someone like me completely misses - even having seen Vertigo twice, I didn't recognize the musical segment despite its prominence in critics' reviews. It seems like that's where the problem here is for you; this is a movie that is made for people who don't know movies that well to get a couple of easy references that heighten their experience, not so much for aficionados who will pooh-pooh those moments and scoff that the director went with the most obvious of movie allusions. Your sensitivity to elements that in my judgment were secondary to the film's primary purpose of emotional engagement distracts you from being able to enjoy it.

On the other hand, I was totally underwhelmed by several movies you did enjoy this year: 30 Minutes or Less, The Descendants, Hugo; I thought Hugo was overlong, unnecessarily melodramatic and trite, and not moving, despite its visual achievements; I thought The Descendants was hackneyed, contrived, and overwritten (I haven't particularly liked any of Payne's movies for this last tendency to make me very aware of the fact that the actors are speaking lines written for them). (For the record, though, I pretty much exactly agree with you about Arrietty.) In your reviews, the things you praise (at least in the case of Hugo) were things that I appreciated, but weighed less in the ultimate judgment compared with the characters' lacking, and I thought that their story was the ultimate purpose of the movie - unlike Tree of Life, for instance. Ultimately, the point that I'm trying to make is that not every good movie needs to have excellent film grammar. At least for my purposes, I'm a lot more interested in a movie with an involving story and truly engaging characters whose story is told with a mastery of the form such that it tells the story well; the grammar serves the story, not its own excellence.

David Ehrenstein

And I found neither sincerity nor charm in any of it.

Sarah

I realized after reflecting on what I'd written that really I'm just rationalizing the things I'm willing to forgive in an imperfect movie I fundamentally liked. I also remembered some post from whenever where Glenn showed off his Tom Servo Christmas tree ornament, clearly demonstrating an appreciation for movies with less-than-stellar production values, so my characterization was overly broad, and the notion that characters can trump sophistication hardly groundbreaking. We're fundamentally arguing: "I liked it!" "I didn't!" You can't really go anywhere from there, and you're never going to make someone like a movie by convincing them they should. So for whatever it's worth, I'm agreeing to disagree.

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