Last night, The Artist, a French movie directed by Michel Hazanavicius, won three Golden Globe awards—this on top of winning four awards at the Critics Choice Awards ceremony last Thursday. How can it be that in a time when movies come to us decked out in special effects and hyper-plastic color, and some even come to us not flat, but as 3-D, a silent movie (truth be told, it’s not completely silent; there’s music, for one thing, and a smattering of…I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’ll stop here), shot in black and white, is enthralling both movie insiders and general moviegoers alike?
Although The Artist offers comic relief, it’s more a feel-gooder, along the lines of It’s a Wonderful Life, than the comedy people are pegging it. The time is the late 1920s, when the charmingly vain silent movie star George Valentin, played by French movie star Jean Dujardin, finds he can’t make the transition to the newly invented talkies. There’s a love interest, and a melodramatic, wacko plot where we watch Valentin spiral ever downward (helped along by the 1929 stock market crash) toward collapse. The ending is a crazy surprise designed to delight all but the incorrigibly grumpy.
I’ve seen the movie twice—the second time around both for a repeat basking in its sparkle and visual wit, as well as the chance to ponder the movie a little more deeply. Without being the least bit preachy, this movie works as a fable of the artist. It’s not called “The Movie Star”; it’s called The Artist—I think for a reason. George Valentin’s story stands for the plight of all mature artists, in all media, who find themselves adrift and lost when times and tastes shift.
For an artist who achieves a mature style, a shift in the taste of the times, not to mention changes in the art form in which the artist developed that style, are always problematic. (More than one late Gothic painter found himself out of work once linear perspective caught the fancy of rich patrons.) What should a mature artist do when fashion changes? Follow the audience? Stick to his aesthetic guns, even if the audience turns its back on him? What if it’s not in his nature to change? What if his very artistic expression is wrapped up with the particular art form in which he developed his art? The Artist, then, can be seen as a happy version of the poignant, deeply sorrowful Chinese film, Farewell My Concubine (1993).
Like many painters, I’ve watched the art world that I entered when I was young morph from a place where serious abstract painting had a home into a trendoid arena dominated by sound and video installation art fused seamlessly together with the fashion and entertainment industries, all of it propped up by arcane theories such as “relational aesthetics.” We painters understand George Valentin’s plight.
Movies are always about escape from life (the tragedy of the Depression offered up screwball comedies where heiresses disguised themselves as hobos before finding true love with nobodies). In a very general sense, The Artist is a modern-day fable, delivered by means of a forgotten art form, about the failure of all our chattering to convey meaning. The movie’s silence, in leading us away from words toward understanding expression and action as standing on their own, remonstrates us for our loud and talky ways.
Because the title card in silent movies always arrives only after the action, you have to work in order to understand the characters’ actions and motivations. Silent movies trust their audience in a way talking movies do not. They count on us to connect the dots—to get what’s happening without having to spoon-feed us. Like good literature, they follow the maxim, “Show, don’t tell.”
Paul Rotha, in The Film Till Now (1930), famously argued against talking pictures. He was hardly alone in reviling them for undermining the beauty and purity of the silent film. We’re too attached to talking movies to ever give them up at this point, but it’s fun to think about how showing The Artist in Japan, for example, wouldn’t get lost in translation. All it would need would be a change in the title cards. The rest of it—the fun, the zany zest for art, the joyful love of life, the lovely, very human faces—when all is said and done, these would remain the same.