This is the love letter "The Artist" never was.
It’s nearly a year since The Artist first screened to audiences.
And it’s nearly a year now people have been calling it a love letter to just about everything under the Sun.
While I completely understand if someone likes the film, the reasons they give for liking the film often leave me nonplussed. I saw the film for the first (and only) time in October, and this has been bothering me since then.
It has been said that The Artist plays out like a love letter to silent cinema. Well, I don’t know about you but if someone wrote me a love letter in which they called me fat, ugly, outdated and extolled the virtues of someone else while at it, I wouldn’t feel too much in love with them. And that’s precisely what The Artist does.
First of all, it doesn’t feel like a silent film. Apart from the fact that it contains no use of zoom (a conscious – and good – choice by the makers to replicate films of that era), The Artist never feels completely like a silent film – be it Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Second, it doesn’t hold any reverence or love for silent films at all. Not only The Artist itself, but even the films set inside it paint silent films as broad and irreverent, from “A Russian Affair” at the start of it to whatever production comes up later in the course of its 100min runtime. To put it simply, The Artist doesn’t make any case for why any of us should care for silent cinema or why it’s an art form, let alone one worth saving.
However, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo does successfully what many people mistakenly praised The Artist for. It makes that era feel like a joyous time; it looks up to silent cinema as a new medium which could entertain and transport audiences to experience things they had never experienced before because real life wouldn’t let them. It looks at films like Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat with all the wonder and awe they must have induced in audiences when they first saw them and – even more impressively – it manages to evoke a similar sense of awe in us because that’s infectious its earnestness is. More than anything else, it looks at the things behind films (costumes, sets, special effects) and their ability to communicate as a form of magic and hence justifies the loving reactions people had to them. The most emotional moment in the film, after all, is what a character says after hearing the sound a of a film projector.
For a film called what it’s called, The Artist doesn’t even look at any artists with a particularly loving eye, surprisingly enough. It paints its protagonist George Valentine as an obstinate and, ultimately, incorrect character. The plot kicks him to the curb at the end of the first act and he spends the entire (saggy and boring) middle portion of the film whining and wallowing in self-pity. If not as an artist then at least the film could have treated him respectfully as a person but that’s not the case either. Valentin is an alcoholic, but for the movie this is a topic of comedy fodder. Peppy Miller is in love with him because the story demands she be; it’s never clear why she would stick with him even through all this. You might say that the film’s ending redeems him in a way that’s heartwarming, uplifting and irrevocably justifies the film’s title. I would point you to this superb piece by Karina Longworth in LA Weekly, which succinctly highlights the cruelty lying beneath that ending. I am quoting a relevant paragraph from the article below -
"The Artist dramatizes the flexing of that muscle in a way that ultimately and cheerfully endorses the subservient relationship of the talent to the producer/studio. When the Goodman character fires Valentin, the star defiantly pledges to strike out on his own. “I’ll make a great movie,” he says. “And it’s not like I need you for that.” The rest of the narrative essentially proves him wrong: If Valentin wants to make a movie that anyone cares about, he needs to do it with a studio. That we’re supposed to accept his film-closing rebirth as an Astaire-esque dancing movie star — contracted by the same mogul who all but left him for dead — as a happy ending and not a humiliation, is a baffling turn of events, if we’re also supposed to sympathize with his plight as an independent artist. The Artist, then, is a film in which an iconoclast hits rock bottom by staying true to himself, and learns via near-death experience to embrace conformity."
For heaven’s sake, the only two words he says in the film are “With pleasure!” and that too after he’s literally danced his heart out for his boss, a studio executive who kicked him out earlier and says his dancing was perfect and beautiful but wants him to perform the same routine again.
If we compare Hugo and its approach it is, again, clear which entity is a lovelier love letter to artists. The second half of the film is a rapturous ode to the craftsmen and entrepreneurs working in the field in that era, turning all of them into heroes just because of what they did using film. By any standard, the techniques and sciences employed by those people would seem neophytic today but, yet again, the earnestness of the enterprise wins us all over. When we see Ben Kingsley’s Georges Méliès splice film together to create the substitution stop trick he was the pioneer of, we don’t laugh at its rudimentary nature; we smile at its ingenuity. It also shows how the experiences had while working in film become memories the people involved treasure for all their lives. When we see Georges Méliès heartbroken and trying to put the past behind him it’s extremely effective because we see and can feel just how wondrous the past was, both for him and his wife.
Hugo is the kind of film that makes me want to try to save as much of art as possible, explaining to me the cultural treasure it truly is. It’s the kind of film that makes me want to become an artist, showing me just how satisfying and thrilling it is to work in a place where dreams are made. How more potent a love letter could you ask for?