Monday, March 26, 2012

Silver Screen Smash

The Artist mixes old with new. . . and that is good.
Jean Dujardin stars as former silent film star George Valentin.
Who would have thought that a contemporary black and white film (let alone a silent picture) could nurture a nostalgic hankering for old-time Hollywood?  The Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Artist, offers this and much more for all you cinephiles.  Only time will tell, but I have no doubt that this movie (plus HBO's Boardwalk Empire and the upcoming The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio) has the potential to popularize the glitz and glamor of the 1920s much like Mad Men has accomplished with the 1960s.  While I am no professional film critic, I have long had a keen fascination with classic films.  Even through casual reading and research, one can easily recognize the power movies have over our collective psyche--and especially our history--shaping what we know about the past.  Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist revolves around the cinematic triumphs and tribulations of fictitious silent movie megastar George Valentin, whose appreciative but obstinate ego prevents him from embracing "the future" of "Talkies" despite the warnings of his studio boss played by John Goodman.  (Unlike today, studio execs dictated the terms of business rather than the actors.)

In the midst of this troublesome and tragic transition for Valentin, he befriends a vivacious flapper named Peppy Miller whose empathy and love for the ex-star propels her on a mission to help reignite his career.  Everything about the plot and film is delightfully melodramatic (as old Hollywood was).  The film vividly paints the jazzy mindset and styles of the 1920s but it also strikes a chord in its darker moments--times illustrating the struggles to accept "the future" and all it represented.  Although it was made eight decades following the demise of the silent film, The Artist fits well within the frameworks of prior classics.

Fears of modernity are especially present in Fritz Lang's sprawling epic Metropolis, depicting an urban dystopia in which mighty industrialists capitalize off near-slave labor from their imposing Art Deco offices.  Exemplifying class struggle and drudgery in the modern era, Metropolis was deeply rooted in biblical connotations of justice and judgement.  Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, however, used the film as a provocative tool to instill animosity toward the big business interests of German Jews.  Despite that, the film was among the last of the lengthy epic silent films.  (It was released the same year as The Jazz Singer, the first sound motion picture.)  And, like The Artist, Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times is a semi-silent movie questioning the potentials of the future against the backdrop of the Great Depression.  Made in 1936, Chaplin was as nostalgic for the quiet brilliance of silent films as the apocryphal George Valentin was.

Made in a similar style as The Artist, Modern Times mixes sound with silence to evoke signs of the times.

Rudolph Valentino
Valentin serves as a designed reincarnation of silent film star Rudolph Valentino, the ultimate blockbuster actor and romantic symbol for females of the 1920s.  Starring in hits like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, he was one of the highest paid and most desired leading men in old Hollywood.  His untimely passing at age thirty-one stirred intense public emotion where young ladies wept openly in the streets.  Unlike Valentin, he did not live to see the birth of "Talkies."  Rather than accepting the change of the film industry, Valentin descends into self-glorification before falling into a deep depression.  Like the character Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, the actor attempts to keep alive his own cinematic image.  (Hazanavicius thanked the late Billy Wilder in his Oscar acceptance speech.)  Desmond, played by actual silent star actress Gloria Swanson, notes of her Hollywood persona: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small."  Many a former star in reality agreed.  "They took the idols and smashed them, the Fairbankses, the Gilberts, the Valentinos! And who've we got now? Some nobodies!" Desmond continued.  In the views of some, anybody could remember a script.  It took a true actor to evoke emotion with only facial expressions and motions.  Many prime actors of the time failed to make the transition necessary to sustain their careers.

"I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille."
To find out whether The Artist's main character meets this fate or not, you will have to see the movie for yourself.  Regardless, the film will not disappoint.  The film offers a wistful perspective of Hollywood's bygone days and is entirely worthy of the five Academy Awards it received.  The picture is a homage to multiple cinematic classics.  (Some of Bernard Herrmann's musical score from Hitchcock's Vertigo is used most effectively in the final scenes).  Needless to say, the film stands high on its own merits, but it also a memorialization to the classics it emulates.  "The stars are ageless, aren't they?"

One of my favorite scenes from The Artist.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers anyone?

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