The Academy Awards are upon us. It is no surprise that in the run-up to the Oscar ceremony, numerous awards have coalesced around one movie, giving it ‘frontrunner status.’ This happens most every year. What is surprising this year, though, is the movie itself. It was filmed in black and white, not color. It’s a true silent movie with virtually no sound or dialogue, save a few key, clever moments. And the two main characters, George and Peppy, are played by actors heretofore unknown to 99.9% of Americans, those of us working in the movie business included. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Artist.
Also not a surprise is the backlash that has erupted against the movie. This happens to the frontrunner each year and it happens for a variety of reasons, from the desire to have a good horserace rather than an inevitable winner to the love for a personal favorite that has no chance in hell of winning (see Tree of Life fans). This year the backlash is intensified by the jealousy and resentment of Harvey Weinstein, a brilliant producer who was smart and passionate enough to snap up The Artist at Cannes while everyone else stood around praising a movie they didn’t have the balls to release. Go Harvey. (He’s a hero of mine, what can I say?)
While the backlash has revolved around a number of arguments, the possibility of Harvey releasing yet another Best Picture included, the main attack I keep hearing is “the movie is fluff. It isn’t about anything. Or, well, it’s about a rich actor who suddenly can’t find work. My heart is breaking.”
I’d like to take a two-pronged approach here: Bullshit. And so what.
Let’s start with the latter. Oscar history is strewn with Best Picture winners about something that are near impossible to watch. They won not because they were good movies, but because they were about something. Ok, fine. But they sure as hell don’t tell a good story, nor do they entertain. Telling an entertaining story, by which I mean holding someone’s attention in an engaging way, is ultimately what movies are about. Sure, if I learn something or am deeply moved while watching, wonderful. But ultimately a movie’s reason for being is to entertain. I’ve seen The Artist four times now and each time I’ve seen it, the audience has laughed, cheered and clapped their way through the movie, then literally danced out of the theatre, appropriate given the deliriously joyful way the movie ends. My Facebook post when I saw the movie the first time was ‘Pure. Unadulterated. Joy.’ I stand by that. When a movie is as joyous and wildly entertaining as The Artist, and is also incredibly well crafted on every level, that’s reason enough for me for it to win Best Picture.
But what about being ‘about something’?
Every person I know who has seen and loved the movie has repeated to me in their comments a variation on a theme. While certainly loving the movie for the experience it provided, each also said they found it relevant to their lives and the world today. It resonated deeply with them. When you talk to people who feel this way about The Artist, some universal emotions and themes emerge that the movie explores beautifully. The fear of losing your job and the problems that occur if you do lose your job. Not only your job but your place in society and your identity. The struggle to define or redefine yourself in a world that seems to be changing faster than is possible to keep up with. How to survive personal adversity and find a way to overcome emotional and circumstantial strife.
The Artist addresses all of this, at times in very dark, emotional fashion. The journey George takes in the movie is a journey all of us take at some point in our lives, if not repeatedly. And he survives. One of the supremely satisfying things about great movies is the chance to see characters we love triumph over adversity. The Artist allows us to experience this yet again and it does so while also veering brilliantly from the traditional Hollywood formula. Usually in such stories, a lead character like George, after a series of obstacles and revelations, pulls himself up from the gutter on his own strength and ingenuity. In The Artist, however, George is redeemed not through his own wiles but through the love of another… an extremely talented and successful woman, no less! (Hello, feminists?? Peppy is a remarkably strong female character. Smart, talented, able to stand up to a studio boss, capable of great emotion and love… she rocks.) Only by humbling himself, admitting his pride and accepting the love and care of Peppy is George able to come back from the brink and survive. This is pretty original in terms of classic Hollywood fare, which tends to celebrate the individual over community. It isn’t often that a Hollywood hero has to rely on others for help. Given the adversity many in our society are facing currently, The Artist not only entertains, it resonates.
Were there other great movies this year? Certainly. Two of the best movies of the year, Warrior and MI:4, were not even nominated. Moneyball is nominated, thankfully, and like The Artist, Moneyball is also one of the best crafted and most entertaining movies of the last few years. (That Bennet Miller’s direction is not being cheered to the sky is perhaps this year’s most egregious oversight.) But The Artist is the movie that should win. I haven’t even discussed how difficult it was to pull this off so effortlessly, and for a modern audience no less. And along with everything else, it celebrates the medium as well! The opening strains of Ludovic Bource’s brilliant score call to mind Franz Waxman and Sunset Blvd (click link below for one of the best CD’s you will ever purchase), and from that opening moment each successive shot or scene celebrates and references great movies of the past, reminding us of why we go to the movies, why we love the movies. This movie cheers, it entertains, it sweeps you off your feet with a wonderful romance, and, dammit, it instructs as well. The Artist is magical in all the ways a movie should be. And for that alone it deserves Best Picture.
There are many great composers out there. We’ll debate many of them in upcoming posts. But Waxman is amazing. If you don’t have this CD, it’s incredible:
(click on comments section to leave a comment… would love to have you join the discussion!)