Friday, December 30, 2011

Signal Watch Watches: The Artist

Yes, The Artist is a silent movie.  Shot in black and white.  A period piece (it takes place during and immediately following Hollywood's silent era).  You will not recognize the two leads.

It comes to Austin on the heels of Hugo, an excellent handshake of a film to The Artist, the two acting as a sort of before-and-after look at the silent era of film, one looking at the earliest days of small film producers and this movie examining life for the stars within the studios as the transition to sound became a reality.

The territory will feel at least a bit familiar to the millions of us who love Singin' in the Rain,  and, indeed, our lead reminds me a bit of a love child of Gene Kelley and Douglas Fairbanks.  To catch you up: while sound revolutionized film, it also meant the end of many careers for working actors and actresses.  In Singin' in the Rain, Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont has a terribly annoying voice that doesn't match her aristocratic screen persona.
In The Artist, our hero (George Valentin) is at the top of his game as a silent movie action star when he accidentally introduces the world to Peppy Miller.  Soon afterward, sound arrives and Valentin's pride and refusal to move his cheese seems to be his undoing as Peppy's career skyrockets with the talkies.

Its odd to say exactly how this story feels very true to the sorts of narratives one saw in many popular silent films (so I say.  I've probably only watched two or three dozen silent features).    But the concepts of awkward meet-cutes, poverty and riches, inner anguish, good-hearted women, etc...  all feels both classic and reminds you how very contemporary these kinds of stories remain.  The Artist is also not just a parlor trick of a movie, stunt-delivering a silent movie as Oscar bait.  The movie comments on the why's and wherefore's of film right up to the last shots, including the audience in the conversation.

You will see familiar faces.  John Goodman (looking slimmer) makes an appearance as a Hollywood exec, Penelope Ann Miller plays George's distant wife, Malcolm McDowell is there and gone.  James Cromwell plays George's faithful chauffeur.  Only upon reflection do you really understand why they might have been cast at all, and its smart filmmaking.  All of them handle the transition to silent performances extremely well.

Cinematography is interesting in that its a mix of classic silent-era visual precision and staged shots and modern camera movements (this is a silent movie, not a movie refusing to use any modern conveniences or narrative devices).  And, of course, editing sticks far more to modern sensibilities than what one often sees in  even latter-era silent films.  If you're concerned about how you'll deal with a silent movie in 2011, I really wouldn't be all that concerned.  Its a darn fine piece of film, and I think you'll adjust very well.

I hate to say much more, but this film was a lovely surprise.  I knew very little about it going in other than a strong recommendation from a reliable source or two.  I'd be curious to hear Nathan's comments on the movie.


cardboardbelts said...

I just watched "Pandora's Box" in anticipation of this film. I cannot wait to see it, and I am glad you enjoyed it! :)

The League said...

Excellent! I'm a fan of Pandora's Box (well, Louise Brooks, really). You can probably calibrate a bit lighter than a Pabst film, but its got some meat on the story. I think you'd dig it.

cardboardbelts said...

what? there's no female slavery or Jack the Ripper murderers in "The Artist"? :)

The League said...

Well, following my new policy of trying to just go see movies instead of reading up on them, I speak as someone who literally knew nothing about the movie going in other than that it was silent and b&w, so I didn't know what to expect. For all I knew, I was walking into an homage to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

And while I definitely knock points off every time if there are no Jack the Ripper murders, I quit mentioning it a while back in my reviews as lack of Ripper-murders is so pervasive in movies these days.

Paul Toohey said...

Finally got around to seeing this last night, great film. It really shows that you can tell a story with film with very few words which is something a lot of people forget about.

The League said...

well, its certainly not been the model the studios and especially television have embraced in the era of "have the characters explain everything that they're doing as they do it".

I don't blame them. I hear the people sitting behind me in theaters who can't follow a movie and have to discuss it (and who have to say out loud everything they observe on the screen).

But, yeah, its a moving picture, and it doesn't need to be a radio play.

Paul Toohey said...

The person I was with asked me a question, and I got up and went and sat somewhere else...I hope she got home OK...

...J/K...I didn't really.

My Mom asked me "Are you going to get up and leave when you realize that it's a silent Black&White movie?" so either my Mother doesn't know me at all, or has a dryer sense of humor then I do.