On Film: The Artist

The Artist theatrical posterThe Artist
2011 – France
Michel Hazanavicius, director
Jean Dujardin

The Artist seems an appropriate starting point for my Cinematic Treasures project: a film that touches past and present, one that comes from another country while solidly set in Hollywood, a story of both nostalgia and hope for the future.

It’s been quite a few weeks now since I actually saw The Artist. I’d been waiting since January, at least, hoping that it would play at my local independent theater. I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing a black and white mostly silent film in an impersonal cineplex. No, I needed to see it in an old theater, a theater contemporaneous to the setting of the movie, a theater still with its organ, its seats, its decoration all original. The Artist couldn’t possibly be a “true” film of the silent era, its soundtrack must accompany it—I can’t imagine too many theaters are left that could support accompanying musicians. But my theater could if needed, the organ still plays—still played old tunes before this movie, will accompany The General (Buster Keaton, 1926) in an upcoming showing.

The Artist is a throwback to the silent era, black and white, largely “silent” (that is, without spoken word), the story told by expression and intertitles and music. I’ve read that last year was a year that celebrated the movies, with entries such as Hugo and The Artist. I’m guessing—I can’t say for sure as my knowledge of silent film is so limited—but I’m guessing that there are many references, little tips of hat to acknowledge The Artist‘s ancestors. The ratio of the screen (nearly square). The circular fade out. The exaggerated expressions. Even the opening scenes, which I loved—a movie premiere, the audience dressed to the nines, the orchestra playing below—seem to long for days gone by.

I liked The Artist very much. It was charming (that seems to be one of my favorite words this year, doesn’t it?); it was witty. I actually didn’t realize how funny it would be before I saw it. (This, incidentally, is an argument for seeing a movie like The Artist in a theater, or at least with a large group of people: humor in silent films seems to play better when there are many people to laugh with—it only takes one person to get the laughter started.) The story is not unusual: A film star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), at the top of his career meets a fan, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), just starting hers. As her star rises, his falls. And so it goes. Of course, in this film, there is a third star, Jack the dog (Uggie). Whether performing in one of the movies within a movie or as part of the overall story line, he could be counted on to steal the scene.

I don’t know enough about film yet to know if Noticing the Elements (Techniques?) means a good film or a bad film or simply a viewer who is thinking too much rather than just absorbing. Regardless, I noticed some things here. It is well paced, oh so very well paced. Perhaps I am simply too restless, but I can lose focus on a movie easily, especially a silent film, but (other than noting that a nearby audience member was snoring!) I didn’t lose focus here, it didn’t drag. The use of “sound”—music, effects, and (spoiler alert) a teeny bit of talking!—was deliberate, focused. It meant something. I don’t think you can completely understand the movie, if you don’t understand how sound is used in it. (But it is not difficult to understand this.)

Thinking about sound and how it is used here, how it is used in other movies, leads to other thoughts, but they are only half-formed speculations on how we watch movies, how we understand them. Do we, in a sense, “read” silent films?—I don’t mean the intertitles, rather the film itself, the action on screen, the expressions. And for that matter, given the highly visual nature of all film, silent or not, do we also read “talkies?” Film is such a multifaceted medium, that I don’t know if I can actually say that. For instance, even in silent films, the use of sound (by the house orchestra, or the on-DVD soundtrack) can be integral to how we relate to and understand the film, so perhaps saying I “read” a film suggests a visual bias. Or perhaps this leads to the definition of good film vs. bad film, that good film successfully integrates all aspects while bad film doesn’t? I think perhaps these are questions to carry through with me while I investigate films past and present.

8 thoughts on “On Film: The Artist

  1. or simply a viewer who is thinking too much rather than just absorbing

    Or a viewer who is thinking just the right amount.

    You should notice what is going on while watching both good and bad films.

    Your quotation marks show you are aware that “read” is just a metaphor. It is a metaphor everyone understands, though, so no harm in using it. When we watch a film we have to interpret a lot of information, and a lot of different kinds of information. Some it we do instantly and unconsciously, like the way we effortlessly resolve thousands of rapidly projected still photos into the illusion of continuous motion. Some of it takes time and though. Two kinds of interpretation.

    We do the same thing when we read, but with different stimuli.

    1. I’d like to think I’m thinking “just the right amount.” If anything though, probably not enough—I’m really not used to thinking about movies the way I do about books and so I find myself bumbling through any discussion deeper than “did you like it?” Even that “read” metaphor—really, it didn’t occur to me to think about how much interpretation is involved with film watching until I started to work on this post. So much still to learn…always a good thing.

  2. I loved The Artist, and like the idea of ‘reading’ a silent film. I was surprised at how funny it was too, for some reason I was expecting it to be much simpler than it actually was.

    1. I think for some reason the advertising made me think it was strictly dramatic and not comic. Or maybe how seriously critics took it, as they generally seem to prefer dramas to comedies.

  3. I thought this was utterly charming, too! When I saw this I realized how much I allow dialogue to distract me from other elements of the film. The Artist forced me to take notice of these, and I’m so glad it did!

    Oh, and I seriously want to join an Uggie Fan Club. He’s just the cutest!

    1. That’s a good point about the distraction of dialogue. It’s really easy to focus on the speech, just trying to follow everything that’s being said. And Uggie? Yes, adorable!

  4. Charming is good. This is one we hoped to see in the theater before the Oscars but did not get around to. It is on our list to watch though, sooner rather than later if we can. The trailers themselves looked brilliant and I have no doubt we’ll really enjoy it.

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