Last February, film critics Glenn Kenny and Richard Brody dueled on Twitter over the authenticity of director Matt Porterfield’s approach to his film Putty Hill, which Kenny found especially unlikely after Porterfield made a dig at Deborah Granik’s Ozarks-set Winter’s Bone. The tweets are no longer available, possibly due to a system upgrade that happened in March. Nevertheless, the argument is more pointed than anything concerning “cultural vegetables“, and the most intriguing takeaway was Brody’s term “cine-necrophilia”, which I interpreted as overripe dedication to classicism. (Just FYI, he was using it as a warning against undue skepticism towards the films of Joe Swanberg – a filmmaker only a Blockbuster manager would consider a colleague of Porterfield’s beyond the fact that both directors make movies inexpensively, and erstwhile.)
The term weighed heavily on my mind while watching Michel Hazanavicius’ new film The Artist. The main character is silent film star George Constantin (Jean Dujardin), who is flat-out ruined by the emergence of talkies; reciprocally, the new technology makes a star of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who ends up salvaging, in her own way, Constantin’s career/life. (The two fall in love at first blush, but the relationship isn’t emotionally consummated until her star has replaced his.) Hazanavicius, Dujardin and Bejo collaborated previously on the 60s spy spoof OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which, for whatever this is worth, yielded a packed house, your narrator included, literally sobbing with laughter at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival.
As the year winds to a close, The Artist is becoming a right proper darling of many print critics: it’s charming, frequently hilarious, and emotionally generous in all the right places – you know, like only a classic movie can be. But that said, it also cribs mightily from The Canon, and nowhere more obnoxiously than when it reappropriates Bernard Herrmann’s score from Vertigo, for chrissakes. Within the context of the film, the only logic behind such a decision appears to be laziness; Kenny called this out in his blog a few days ago, which really ratcheted up my interest in seeing it. After all, could there be a more brazen example of what Brody was talking about?
There is a strong feeling, particularly among online writers, that Hazanavicius is actually doing worse than all that – that he’s outright cashing in on the idea of silent film while rounding up, erasing the nitty-gritty of the era. As a self-avowed purist, Jonathan Rosenbaum similarly refuses to relinquish ground to the unstoppable juggernaut that is a Weinstein Company release with better-than-usual buzz. Perhaps Hazanavicius doesn’t “get” the movies, and thus can only offer a congenitally unfair portrayal of such. It’s an idea worth tussling with, if not exactly right. (For the record, Singin’ In The Rain, of which this film is an unmistakable mutation, offers an equally nuance-free opinion of the silent era’s Hollywood product.)
No, The Artist is not a factually accurate depiction of its chosen signature era in film history. But let’s be honest: is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? A lot depends on whether you consider a movie a jumping-off point, or a destination in and of itself. To me, the filmmakers demonstrated enough love, fastidiousness and sparkle to set themselves apart from the pack, the clueless reupholstering of Herrmann’s best score notwithstanding. 99.9% of movies are unintended pastiches of prior, better specimens, so for someone to consciously tackle silent film in 2011 seems an audacious – and deeply romantic – project. One of the miseries of growing older is watching specialized art forms ossify and beg, often pathetically, for cultural currency against so much new bullshit, which is a fancy way of saying: if not perfect, The Artist has probably done more for silent cinema than any other movie this year.
That unfortunately includes Martin Scorsese’s noisy, bombastic, insanely expensive Hugo, which hasn’t encountered a shred of Hazanavicius’ critical resistance. Questions of authenticity of intention, again, drive me to make these comparisons: is it better to brand your film as a pastiche, or as a righteous heir? Is it better to flatter your audience, or yourself? Hugo‘s 3D vistas and schmaltzy screenplay rather forcibly claim a lineage to the original special effects of Georges Méliès (whose life story is rewritten here to sell holiday-time tickets) and yet the film’s preservationist agenda isn’t really questioned. (Think about it: The Artist is actually a silent movie, whereas Scorsese elected to digitally insert his actors into A Trip To The Moon.)
Don’t get me wrong – both pictures more than won me over. But in light of the mini-backlash, I’d say that Hugo is an argument for a better home entertainment system, whereas Hazanavicius has gone out on the further limb artistically: attempting an knowing riff on a classic vocabulary, rather than generically grafting himself to somebody else’s established classics.
(The header is from Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight, a legit masterpiece fictionalizing the friendship between Bud Powell and Francis Paudras; astute viewers may notice the World Trade Center in the frame’s left, even though Round Midnight takes place well before the towers were but a glimmer in some developer’s eye. The movie is packed with tightly controlled medium closeups shot in smoky clubs and dingy apartments, and so this image arrives as a shock in both spacial and anachronistic terms. Nevertheless, it gently reinforces the permanence of the story, which concerns a specific time in jazz history, as well as the elasticity of great art – whatever the circumstances of its production.)