Tonight marks the Turner Classic Movie Channel premiere of the 2011 multi-Oscar-winning Best Picture The Artist. Depicting the silent movie era, and filmed on location in Hollywood, the movie has many amazing connections to early Hollywood history and its biggest stars. Here are a few highlights from my series of posts about The Artist.
To begin, Jean Dujardin’s character George Valentine premiered his failed production Tears of Love at the same theater where Charlie Chaplin premiered City Lights (1931) – the Los Angeles Theater. You can read more about this amazing theater’s appearance in The ArtistHERE.
Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid
56 Fremont Place was once home to Mary Pickford. It appears in the background (left) in The Kid, and as Peppy Miller’s…
To recap really quickly, the Future Classic Movies (FCM) Blogathon involves predicting films that will still be drawing audiences on TV, or a chip in our brains, or whatever form of communication exists, 30 or 40 years from now. The vast majority of the posts involve films made during or after 2000; these will be as old then as the ones we watch on TCM now.
My FCM pick is The Artist (2011). Regular readers of this blog know that I adore this film. It is a little miracle — a silent film premiering in the 21st century. It was made by people who really love movies and stocked their film with tons of homages, tributes and shoutouts to the classics. It has romance, humor, suspense and melancholy. The acting in it is superb. It was beautifully written, art-directed, and shot. There is something about it that makes me cry every time I see it. (I’ve actually plunked money down to see this three times. Once I was actually on vacation.) It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and it won five: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Costume Design, Best Score and Best Actor. But none of these reasons are why I chose this film to endure into the middle of this unpredictable 21st century and beyond.
Every day our lives get a little more complicated and a little more technological. As recently as 2006, the vast majority people had only a vague idea of what Facebook was. No one had heard the term “social media.” Phones were decidedly dumb; they made calls, and that was about it, at least in the US, where SMS hadn’t yet caught on. Now billions of people are using social media every day. Approximately 20,000 tweets go out every 10 seconds. You can watch a movie, video-chat with someone on the other side of the world, or run a business, all from a smartphone. And the pace of new technology only seems to accelerate rapidly. Economically, the upheaval of 2008 seems to have stabilized somewhat but lots of people lost their jobs and homes, and technology is ending some jobs and creating others. Everything in life is changing so quickly that the term “radical transformation” comes to mind, although nothing is happening quite that fast. I love all the technology, but sometimes even I feel a little overwhelmed, a little bit blindsided…a little bit like George Valentin. He would understand if he was here, because this is what The Artist is at least in part about: coping with change. (It’s about love, loyalty, friendship, the creative process, paying it forward, and really great shoes as well. But I digress.)
The world the characters inhabit is completely shaken with the advent of sound, and they each provide an example of a different coping strategy, from stubborn disregard (George) to grudging acceptance and pragmatism (Al Zimmer, the director played by John Goodman) to leveraging new opportunities that open up and helping others to reconcile themselves with a new reality (Peppy). We’ll all have to adapt, and since we’ll be adapting well into the foreseeable future, this film is always going to be relatable and relevant. There’s a few people out there who didn’t like this film. To those people I say, get used to it…The Artist isn’t going anywhere, and neither are the rest of these picks, all films that I believe will persevere:
In my 2011 Year-End List, I chose The Artist as one of the 2011 movies I was dying to see but couldn’t until 2012. Well, I did get to see it — twice! — and I have to say it’s one of my favorite movies of last year…this year…any year. I even modified my banner…yeah, it’s that good.
The film offers a special thrill for fans of classic movies, because it pays tribute to them, yet it’s thoroughly modern. Without giving too much away, I noted homages to classics like Sunset Boulevard, A Star Is Born, and Singing in the Rain (see below). Director Michel Hazanavicius shot at 22 frames per second, instead of the standard 24, to give the film a little of the jumpiness so characteristic of silent movies. Music is used more centrally than in a sound film, to emphasize moods or events. But the way sound is used and the way shots are framed are thoroughly 21st century. Also, it is a rare silent that has the high contrast of the deep blacks and crisp whites that Hazanavicius and his DP, Guilllaume Schiffman, were able to produce. I don’t want to say too much because I want everyone to see this movie on the big screen if possible…but even at home, it’ll still be stunning.
I so love seeing a movie made by people who love classic movies that I decided to try to put all the references I could think of together. NB: I have a complex about spoiling things for people…I hate to do it! So: There may be spoilers below…if you haven’t seen The Artist you might want to wait until you see it…and then come back and add the movie references you find! I know I’ve missed some.
The basic idea that propels the film is familiar to viewers of all three versions of A Star Is Born: a young woman who wants to be an actress (Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo) works her way up from extra to top-billed talent, aided greatly by an established actor (George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin), whom she meets in a chance encounter. Her career skyrockets while his is fading. TCM is running the 1937 and 1954 versions of Star on Feb. 26, so if there are any more specific points in common I’ve missed, I might be able to pick them up then.
The Artist shares a thread with Sunset Boulevard: The proud (though faded) star who is disdainful of change and has a kind chauffeur. Like Norma Desmond (silent star Gloria Swanson), George Valentin has no use for talkies. Both like to relive their pre-talkie glory days by watching their old movies. I can see him nodding vigorously in agreement as she declaims, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small” or “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” Unlike the protagonists in the above-named films, thank goodness George is ultimately a more sane and hopeful figure.
The Artist takes place at around the same time Singin’ in the Rain is set, and in the same context, and there are quite a few similarities between the two films. Like Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), George has an acting partner, Constance (Missi Pyle), whose transition to talkies was rough. Her sound test reminded me a lot of the work done by Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) in Singin’ (above). Kelly as an actor seems to have been a major influence. Dujardin gives George the same athletic style of movement as Kelly. I wish I could have found a still of Dujardin in the swordfight scene; with the thin moustache. he really resembles Kelly as D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (1948) or in The Dueling Cavalier (the movie within a movie in Singin’).
Early in The Artist, the scene where George is having breakfast with his disapproving soon-to-be ex-wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) references the breakfast montage in Citizen Kane. Hazanavicius’ use of mirrors reminds me a lot of Kane. Also, when George finds a room full of belongings that he had to sell (that’s all I’m going to say), it reminded me of the shot at the end of Kane, depicting the dead man’s vast and largely meaningless collection of stuff.
In Charlie Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life, The Little Tramp’s dog is always getting his human out of a jam, as is George’s dog (played by Uggie). I know there are probably references to other silent films, especially the staircase scene where George, on his way down, meets Peppy, on her way up. I have a lot to learn about silents though, so I will have to discover them as I work through them. Many thanks to @tpjost, for his help with this post. If you want to learn or talk about silents, definitely follow him on Twitter.
UPDATE: From sharp-eyed and knowledgeable film fans @caralluch and @Kinetograph (you really should follow them :)): The dance number at the end of The Artist is a lot like Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell’s tapdance to “Begin the Beguine” in The Broadway Melody of 1940. Also, @caralluch alerted me to Hazanvicius’ use of mirrors, which recalls Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. And, though @Kinetograph wasn’t the first to notice the use of part of Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo score in the scene where Peppy drives frantically across town to save George, he did give me the heads-up on that and also similarities with 7th Heaven, which I haven’t seen. So there are more specifics in the works.