Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Artist -- passion, pride and reinvention

Director: Michel Hazanavicius, 2011. (PG-13)

Do you remember the days of silent films? Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, movie theaters filled with the strains of live orchestras playing the score that signals the emotional changes scene to scene. And audiences in rapt attention, captivated by actors mugging and posturing, with simpler plots and minimal effects. No, most of us don’t remember those days from almost a century ago. Yet bring on The Artist, the heavily Oscar-nominated silent film that is a true homage to the early golden years of Hollywood.

The year is 1927 and the film opens with footage of a silent film starring George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), Hollywood’s leading man, the George Clooney of that era. As the film cuts between the film on screen and the leading man in the actual theater back-stage, we get to experience the pride and the ego of Valentin as he savors the audience’s laughter and joy. An interesting viewpoint has us watching the footage on screen with this audience, so we are watching an audience watch the film we are watching.

This is a black and white silent film, shot in the old-fashioned 1.33:1 aspect ratio that predated the wide-screen ratio. According to director Michael Hazanavicius, this ratio is perfect for actors, giving them “a presence, a power, a strength. They occupy all the space of the screen.” And they do!

But it is more than just a black and white silent film. It is a romantic comedy (not a rom-com in the current use of the term) with a charming and endearing heart. Cue the girl.

We meet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, wife of writer-director Hazanavicius) when she literally bumps into Valentin as he mugs it up for the cameras as the premiere of his latest film concludes. Kissing him, she earns 5 minutes of fame, with everyone asking “Who’s that girl?” She turns this into a bit part dancing in one his films and before you can say Hazanavicius, she is moving up the cast list.

Back home, Valentin is in love . . . with himself. His palatial home is dominated with a lifesize painting of yours truly. Yet, his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) seems less thrilled. An early scene has Valentin putting his ever-present sidekick dog on the table so he can act dog-faced, mimicking the dog to try to make his wife laugh. But she doesn’t. Instead she doodles on his photos, giving him mustaches, glasses and black teeth! An homage to Citizen Kane shows these two eating meals together over a period with a descending relationship evidenced by their degenerating interaction, just like Kane and his wife.

As their relationship deteriorates, Valentin’s work changes too. As times march toward the Great Depression, the technology of the movies marches to talkies. Valentin’s producer (cigar-chomping John Goodman) cuts all silent-films and focuses on the new mode of sound, hiring new stars like Peppy Miller. As Miller’s star ascends, Valentin’s descends. A terrific visual scene illustrates this when Valentin descends flights of stairs at the studio and runs into Miller going up. As they talk, she stands half a flight above him on her way up. Moreover, the film reemphasizes this through the judicious use of movie posters themselves, telling the story in the titles of her new films as Miller takes center stage.

Part of the charm of the film is in the acting itself. The two main actors are unknowns in America. Dujardin has the classic good-looks of the era. With his suave charm and thin mustache, he could be Douglas Fairbanks. On the other hand, Bejo has the fresh-faced look and peppy personality of a newcomer grabbing at her opportunity. She represents the Katherine Hepburn of Hollywood, transitioning from one form to the next. Both have great presence, and use their mannerisms and facial gestures to great effect. Both display the art of acting, rather than speaking. For this, both have been nominated for acting Oscars.

In the words of Leonard Maltin, the film critic (quoted in USA Today, 2/17/12), “to paraphrase an old saying, a look can be worth a thousand words. An actor’s expressive face or the timing of a scene that leads up to dialogue can have far greater impact than the dialogue itself.” This is so true here. There is precious little sound; there is wonderful music. And it’s not until the end that we wait for and expect some form of dialog. By them we are beginning to feel uncomfortable with the silence, as the screen depicts talkies being made and characters talking together.

Alongside these two foreign actors, Goodman, Miller, James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell have strong supporting roles. Perhaps the best supporting actor, though, is Uggie the Jack Russell terrier who is simply delightful as Valentin’s pet and acting side-kick.

The core theme of this nostalgic movie is not nostalgia itself, as in Midnight in Paris (another best picture Oscar contender). That is just a sidebar. The themes that emerge are passion, pride and reinvention.

Passion does not focus on the romance between Valentin and Miller. Rather, it focuses on their joint passion for their work. It is beautiful to see them passionate for their craft and career. Miller, in particular, exudes joy and passion as she begins a career in acting.

This kind of passion is often missing today. In an era of unemployment (mirrored in the film’s depiction of the Great Depression), many are forced to take lack-luster jobs that employ their hands but not their hearts. Such work is simply trading time for money. It lacks passion. And it is often done poorly. In the context of work, Paul spoke to slaves, saying: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.” (Col. 3:22) Work is a gift from God and intended to be done for him, as an act of worship (Rom. 12:2). We can and should do it with pride.

Pride is another theme, and a characteristic that causes Valentin’s downfall. Refusing to move into talkies, Valentin’s pride stops him from seeking help from others. Even when his driver (Cromwell) calls him to account, he refuses to humble himself and swallow his pride. Pride, of course, is mentioned negatively in Scripture. “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall,” declares Proverbs 16:18, a verse that almost characterizes Valentin in the second and third acts of the film. Isaiah puts it this way, “The arrogance of man will be brought low and human pride humbled; the LORD alone will be exalted in that day” (Isa. 2:17). The apostle John labeled it most plainly as a sin: “For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 Jn. 2:16)

Indeed, the third act shows Valentin’s plummet and turns the sparkling charm of the first two acts into the gloomy gray of despair. Unemployment and loss of everything plague Valentin. Worst of all for him is the loss of identity as an artist. Not making movies, he has lost his raison d’etre.

Valentin’s problem is not just pride, though that is clearly present. It is his reluctance to reinvent himself. As technology changed his way of life, he fought this change, seeing his art in acting without words. But that form of art was ultimately destined for extinction. He could either reinvent himself in his art or find himself redundant and useless. He chose the latter.

Artists even today face this challenge. Once they have mastered an art form, the tendency is to stay there, milking it, churning out more of the same. This may be lucrative in the short-term, but is artistically suicidal in the long-term. The best artists constantly challenge themselves by moving out of their comfort zones, trying new things, embracing change.

Heck, it is not just artists that need to reinvent themselves. Most if not all workers today will find themselves facing forks in the roads of their careers. With jobs moving offshore or being outsourced to larger, cheaper companies, retaining a job means reinventing yourself multiple times in your career. Being open to change, even looking for it, is an art and a survival skill necessary in the 21st century.

Valentin was wrong. His art was not defined by a lack of words. Some of his artistic creations were defined in this way. But he had the ability and talent to move beyond this wordless boundary. He could use his talents to create different forms of beautiful art. But it took a mindset change, as it does for us even today.

With the technological changes that we are experiencing in the second decade of the 21st century, this movie is relevant for us, even clothed in a 20th century skin. How we watch movies is changing. No longer do we need to go to theaters or even buy a DVD. We can stream into our living rooms or into our iPads and iPhones. How we read books is changing (if we still read books!). The smell of paper has transformed to the feel of the Kindle as we become digital readers. Even how we do church is changing. We must not be so absorbed with the outer shell that we lose the inner being.

As Oscar Sunday approaches it is a pleasant surprise that this anachronistic tribute to the 20s has 10 nominations, only being bested by Hugo, another nostalgic film with a nod to the silent pictures. And it is strange to consider that this is the front-runner to pick up the Best Picture award. If it does, it will become only the second silent film to score that top prize, the other being the 1927 film Wings in that inaugural Oscar year. As delightful as it is, I am hoping it does!

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

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