Portrait of ‘The Artist’

There’s a view from my window—snow falling through bare branches. I’ve been thinking about my encounter with Michel Hazanavicious’s French “love letter to cinema” and struggling to find my own letters of love to render its charm. I keep recalling that voice in the box office: “You know it’s a silent film [brief pause]. I mean, it’s not just black-and-white, it’s SILENT,” emphasis smacking like a cold axe on a felled tree. I was annoyed. No, I was dumbfounded. Say nothing, I thought, sometimes it’ll say more. There were only a few people in the theater. Time passed. Credits rolled, and the audience members, clapping because they were too stunned to speak, were on their feet.

You see, it’s not easy talking about the impact of silence in black-and-white. It’s doubly difficult when post-modern games come into play in the storytelling. One might better describe a meteor shower than the sounds of silence in our noise-driven culture. And while moviegoers are having their own love affairs with The Artist, I’m rushing in foolishly to see what’s behind the scenes, deconstructing to speak of the unspoken.

So here’s looking at silence, which dazzles. One can’t deny The Artist its glitzy achievements: In Hollywood it’s been nominated for ten Academy Awards. In France, ten César awards. There’s a Director’s Guild Award for Michel Hazanavicius. There are six Golden Globe nominations and awards for Best Motion Picture-Musical or Comedy, Best Original Score, Best Actor Motion Picture. There are seven British Academy Film Awards—Best Film, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Original Score. There’s also Jean Dujardin’s Cannes Film Festival win in 2011, a Best Actress nomination for Bérénice Bejo, and innumerable accolades for a dancing Jack Russell Terrier named Uggie.

For some, the film’s just another love story with a difference; for others it’s love’s labor’s lost—and found, and for still others, it’s a love affair with silent film. For me it’s both love at first sight and sheer pleasure. Peppy Miller (Bejo) stumbles (literally) out of a very public crowd of fans, into the personal space of George Valentin (Dujardin), drops her autograph album, ignites a spark, and imprints an indelible image. The images of, and relationships between, love, film, success, failure, technology, and money are not lost on us. And from here on, it’s all about love’s affairs, the film industry, and its stars, as modern technology, and Hollywood’s formulaic, commercial, and corporate funding grind their way over the tracks of the twentieth century.

Speech and technology are now money and power. To speak is to fight. To remain silent can kill. Love, in essence human emotion, is in music and dance. To dance is to live. As silent films give way to “talkies,” the silent star sees his career plummet as his admirer’s ascends. None of us who have seen the film can ever forget the dialectical image patterns, the montage at the heart of this film, the architectonics of the eternal rising and falling on an artists’ architecturally exposed stairway to stardom.

Although this is not the place to review the historical progress of artist figures, it is, nevertheless, crucial to note that The Artist, which takes place from 1927 until 1932, occurs at a unique moment in the Modernist period, a time when relations between artists and their public were especially fragile.  Withdrawing from their audiences, these artists embraced their alienation, isolation, and solipsism. In their art, they opted for experimentation, aligning themselves with primitivism and expressionism. Formalism and the abstract prevailed, along with free invention, simplicity, and austerity. Philosophically, they were pessimists, frequently latching onto existentialism and absurdity. Their flight was from the wars. Their unspoken war was with technology. They were an entire generation at odds with the universe—which is where our film, The Artist, begins.

When increasing introspection led modern artists to write their ways out of and beyond their own works, they frequently disappeared in their own creative “gaps.” Increasing technological advances and arts of the machine engendered the experience of the sublime; terror led to silence, manifest in the unspoken or unspeakable. Our film performs this. And it is this fascinating and disturbing return of the Kantian sublime—that is, overwhelming experiences that we cannot intellectually comprehend—that enables transformations in language and action—as well as new narratives for both modernity and the modern artist. So how does this work in The Artist?

The film’s an allegory of origins, the creation of a new myth, an oblique move in a postmodern language game, which changes the course of narratives, and of twenty first-century visual storytelling. The clever, albeit diagonal, move in the game is to a choreographed dance. The first sublime encounter in the film is with the vortex, when Valentin, as a silent film star directing his own silent picture, films his gradual disappearance in quicksand.

Valentin’s revelatory one-liner at the end of The Artist, however, is not only the end but also a beginning of both an individual’s renewal and the community’s dance-of-love – in this case, choreographed in the musical.  The dance is universal and makes the difference between tragedy and romance-comedy.  The film is not unlike one of Shakespeare’s “dark” comedies, in which love triumphs, lovers are reunited, wrongs are righted, and communal integrity is restored, even though, as Shakespeare writes in Twelfth Night (1601-1602), “The rain it raineth every day.”

Valentin’s suitability for talkies appears as he measures himself against a sleek, stream-lined suit in a commercial department store window. Rising film star, Miller, also Valentin’s love interest, dances with an empty suit hanging on a clothes rack in his dressing room. His decline is measured in personal losses: an empty marriage, an empty wallet, an empty theatre. His fall is allegorical. In silence he’s lost touch with what’s human, and after the loss of his valet, he’s left with only the unconditional love of his dog and a bottle of booze for company. It’s in the realm of dance where he finally rejoins the human community.

What we have here is a revision of postmodern games and a Hollywood culture industry reconsidered. What we can deduce from The Artist is that progress is not in fact linear; it’s been reversed, and this, in turn, allows for a new narrative. The “post” (as in letter) of modernism is in fact a “pre,”—for “nascent”—which implies a turn from post-modern irony to primitive myth (in essence a new-old story). It’s realized in the universal languages of music and dance, which, in turn, signify an acknowledgment of unification, a global community—an international film network—a respect for all difference, including language differences—and an understanding of the moral responsibility for giving voice to the voiceless.

The artists’ war is with technology. Their dance is a triumph over the machine. The Artist’s “aside” is both a warning against the dehumanizing power of technology and a “call back” to what is human. Above all, The Artist’s journey has been to resuscitate and reinvigorate the film community with an infusion of creative imagination—reclaimed from the past—for the future.

I continue to write my way back into the silence to find out what I am thinking. I’m gradually writing with different letters and questions now, although this time with the right words. Is silence golden? Will February 26 tell? Did Hollywood get its love letter? How did the Academy read it? “And the Oscar goes to….” Does it matter, really? Audiences received their “Valentin[es]” in February and reciprocated with spontaneous joy. Perhaps it’s the simple injection of imagination and feeling into our jaded and outworn perspectives that makes all the difference in this pleasurable love story. And that’s enough for now—there’s a certain slant of rain outside my window.

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