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"The Artist"
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This is a nice little comedy, a pseudo-silent film about a silent movie star (imagine Gene Kelly playing Douglas Fairbanks Sr.), that has been saddled with being a frontrunner for the Best Picture since before it ever hit the theaters. 
It would have been a fun picture to discover for yourself. If you saw “Crash” in May 2005, for example, you walked out saying, “The first hour was hilarious, and of course the second hour was eat-your-vegetables time to make up for the first half, but, overall, that was a clever low-budget movie, a lot better than I expected.” But ever since it won the Best Picture Oscar, “Crash” has had this millstone around its neck of being an obvious example whenever anybody wants to disparage Best Picture choices. (I’ve alway had the sinking feeling that it won the Oscar for the Important Statement about Our Times of the second half, rather than for the irresponsible pleasure of the first half. But that doesn’t mean that the first half wasn’t amusing or that the non-fatal shooting in the second half wasn’t bravura cornball screenwriting.) 
Other nagging problems with “The Artist” are that the title seems like an inept translation from the French. “The Star” would have been much better, since the hero loves being a movie star and pays no attention to whether he’s an artist or not. But the title “The Artist,” combined with being silent and in black and white and made by a Frenchman, makes it sound like some good-for-you ordeal, which it mostly isn’t. 
Also, more slapstick, please. Slapstick is funny, but most people worry that it’s beneath them, except when they are watching a Buster Keaton silent film classic, and then it’s part of the Grand Tradition of the Cinema, etc. So why not exploit the cultural sanctity of silent film tradition by putting in more pratfalls?
The film has been slightly sped up: it runs 24/22nd faster than real time, while authentic old silents are typically shown running 24/16th faster than they were originally filmed. (Apparently, the advent of sound forced the industry to move up from 16 frames per second to 24 frames, which has done Buster Keaton’s long term reputation a lot of good, but made it hard to take serious silents seriously.) 
But, “The Artist” still drags a little. Abstaining from spoken dialogue puts a lot of pressure on the filmmakers to come up with interesting visuals or music to fill up its 100 minutes. They come up with about 90 minutes worth of good stuff, which is impressive, but that leaves about 10 minutes where you are saying, “Yeah, okay, we get it already.” Running it at 24/20th would have made it quicker and sillier. 
Or they could have played around more with the film projection speed. The early 1980s South African slapstick comedy “The Gods Must Be Crazy” about the Bushman and the Coke bottle changed speeds whenever it felt like. Fortunately, that didn’t get a Best Picture nomination, so you could have the pleasure of seeing it because it was funny, not because it was good for you.

Finally, “The Artist” has hanging over its head another movie on the transition from silent to sound movies, “Singing in the Rain,” which is so gigantically entertaining on the subject that little more needs to be done. For example, “The Artist” barely scratches the question of why its hero refuses to try sound movies. The film could have shown the technical restrictions that made the first few years of sound movies really stilted. But, “Singing in the Rain” did those scenes so well that how could “The Artist” compete?
Anyway, “The Artist” is enjoyable.

One general point I’d add is that this year’s Oscar frontrunners are just about the worst crop to intellectualize about it in many a year. I feel sorry for the pixel-stained wretches trying to come up with their annual assignment on What This Year’s Oscar Movies Say About the World Today. This isn’t to say that they are bad movies, just that the late-season prestige releases aren’t very intellectually stimulating. Consider, say, Michelle Williams’ Best Actress nominated turn as Marilyn Monroe in “My Week with Marilyn.” Here’s what I have to say about that film: A. Not bad. B. Holy cow, what have their been, like 800 books on Marilyn Monroe? Is there anything left to say?

In contrast, there were a number of popcorn summer movies that were much more interesting to think about. 

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
 
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  1. I vaguely recall some controversy surrounding The Gods Must Be Crazy, because it was funded by the SA apartheid gov't.
    You weren't supposed to see that one at all, apparently.

  2. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    You can't really be saying that you thought "Crash" was any good, even as a guilty pleasure?!?

    Every single frame was torture.

    The ending would have been a million times better if that last shot, of the illegal alien Asian kid looking at the TV, had been scored for a theremin, with spooky 50s sci-fi music:
    "They're heeeere! And millions more on the way — you'll never get rid of them, ever! And they don't just want your TV set, they want all your places in graduate school!"

    And then maybe an old-timey title card with "The End…?" Written on it.

    Where's Kevin McCarthy when you need him?

  3. I vaguely recall some controversy surrounding The Gods Must Be Crazy, because it was funded by the SA apartheid gov't.
    You weren't supposed to see that one at all, apparently.

    Ironic considering its positive presentation of blacks and buffonish white main character. Also for the fact it's such a benign and delightful comedy. Thanks for referencing that 80's diamond in the crud, Steve.

  4. I hated 'Crash' and walked out in the middle of it. Hokey, trite liberal nonsense from the get-go.

  5. The persistence of MM movies is a pretty odd thing. I'd chalk it up to aesthetic laziness more than anything else.

  6. I feel like this about most Oscar nominees: worthy and dull pictures, no brio, no flashes of brilliance, nothing to upset the digestion of some old men in their dotage.

    I've often speculated that gay men perpetuate the iconic status of the great screen goddesses of yesterday such as Monroe, Hayworth, Harlow, Davis and of course, Garbo. Most hetero men don't care about the hot women of 50 years ago; they focus on the ones who strut catwalks right now, where the possibility of contact exists even if only in fantasy. Whereas gays have an endless fascination with the glamour of the female movie star – the bewitching power exercised over millions of men. Monroe seems to be the last of the breed. After her, I can't think of any actresses who retained interest after their short time at the peak. Did the sex revolution tear down their temples? Assisted by the acceleration & amplification of the media? Too much exposure spoils the illusion.

  7. "The Artist" barely scratches the question of why its hero refuses to try sound movies

    actually, it was very clearly shown why when he speaks in the last 10 seconds of the film; a thick accent

  8. ""The Star" would have been much better, since the hero loves being a movie star and pays no attention to whether he's an artist or not."

    Startist.

  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    "Slapstick is funny, but most people worry that it's beneath them, except when they are watching a Buster Keaton silent film classic, and then it's part of the Grand Tradition of the Cinema, etc. So why not exploit the cultural sanctity of silent film tradition by putting in more pratfalls?"

    Not so. People, even sophisticates, loved Woody Allen's slapstick in Take Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper, etc. And Mel Brooks has been a favorite among critics. And there's Jerry Lewis among the French. And though Jacques Tati's slapstick had a softer edge, it was slapstick nonetheless, and he's judged by many critics as one of the greatest. Chaplin and Marx Brothers are also in the pantheon according to most critics.
    Maybe slapstick doesn't get oscar nods, but it certainly gets critical nods. Many serious critics also admire HK slapstick comedy by Jackie Chan and etc.

  10. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    "For example, 'The Artist' barely scratches the question of why its hero refuses to try sound movies."

    My guess it doesn't need to ask that question since it was made by and for people who know the answer. It's a film for cinephiles, and cinephiles know that many silent actors couldn't make the switch to sound pictures because they didn't have the voice or different set of talents. Or, due to their sentimental/mythic attachment to silent cinema and all it stood for. To explain that would be like explaining basic physics to physics professors.

    In a way, the silent film was the true international artform. All you needed to do was change the intertitles. Thus, a German movie could do just as well in America as American movie could do in Germany. But with the coming of sound, cinema became national, and Americans wanted talkies with English, and so American market became essentially closed to foreign cinema. And foreign markets resisted American movies but American film production was visually so far ahead technologically and conceptually so pleasing in their genre formulations that they caught the foreign market–of course mostly after being dubbed. (Today, with increase in special effects and reduced dialogue in many movies, there's a new internationalism in cinema. You don't have to know a word of English to 'get' RISE OF PLANET OF APES or AVATAR. It's all wham bam thank you ma'am. Dialogues in those movies is like lyrics in a rock song: trivial or useless to the enjoyment.)

    'Artist' and 'star' both apply to cinema. Some film people really took their talents and image seriously, as artists. But stardom defined film culture, more than any other art–until advent of rock music.
    And it appears this new movie captures both the conservative/nostalgic and revolutionary/futuristic nature of cinema. Film produces strong attachments, and for some people–long into the 50s–, silent cinema was the TRUE CINEMA since image was central and unencumbered by sound and storytelling. With dialogue, characters are no longer part of the dreamy flow of images but speaking people caught in dramatic situations; thus talkies made movies more charater-centric.
    If the coming of sound initially focused on spoken dialogue, it later extended more to sound effects. Dolbies, as opposed to talkies, use sound as in rock concerts; to overwhelm and awe. Dialogue don't amount to much in STAR WARS but the sound effects sure are cool. Given that silent movies were accompanied by music, one could argue blockbusters are closer in spirit to silents in that they offer rush of images and sound effects than stories, characters, and dialogue.

  11. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Without dialogue, images could take on the texture and flow of dreams–as in Murnau's FAUST. It was like silent cinema was dream cinema whereas talkies were awakened cinema. There is something special about dreams.
    Eisenstein's silents like POTEMKIN, QUE VIVA MEXICO, and OCTOBER are far more experimental and radical than ALEXANDER NEVERSKY, a sound film that had to tell a story.

    Because silents made such a powerful impression on the first generation of filmgoers and led to strong attachments, some simply couldn't accept the new technology of talkies. Thus, though a new artform, cinema produced powerful nostalgia from the beginning. Paradoxically, it could have been the fast-changing dynamic of cinema that fed so much nostalgia. Just when a people got used to something, it was being replaced by something else.

    Still, cinema, from its inception, promised something profoundly new as art and entertainment, so change was inevitable.
    This conflict is still with us today. The coming of VCR and what it did to filmgoing. The change from b/w to color. The new 3D and CGI technology, which many people don't like even if they appreciate the technology.
    From childhood, we grow up strongly attached to the movies that filled our imagination, so when the technology changes, there is a resistance because the very shape and feeling of the dream is changed.

  12. "I've often speculated that gay men perpetuate the iconic status of the great screen goddesses of yesterday such as Monroe, Hayworth, Harlow, Davis and of course, Garbo."

    Gay men like glamour, artifice, and style. There was more of that in the past than today.

  13. Wow, talk about re-framing the issue. Here's a brief piece about marriage, parenting, and poverty in the Atlantic Wire.

    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2012/02/marriage-only-rich-and-well-educated/48927/

    Not a single mention of Charles Murray's book "Coming Apart." Yet obviously this is a response to it.

  14. I loathed the 2004 Crash for reasons to numerous to list. Just recalling it makes me ill–which is not to say I'm having a Nancy Hopkins moment right now.

    I liked the 1996 Crash, which I found disconcerting and somewhat erotic in equal measure. Spader, Unger and Hunter were all rancidly sexy. And there's something about seeing people succumb to their obsessions that's so intriguing (which is why I didn't even find the cetological parts of Moby Dick too terribly tedious–I knew we'd get back to Ahab's disintegrating character sooner or later).

    "Abstaining from spoken dialogue puts a lot of pressure on the filmmakers to come up with interesting visuals or music to fill up its 100 minutes."

    Yes, there aren't many Murnaus or Chaplins around these days.

  15. I agree that the movie is agreeable fluff that eventually overstays its welcome. It would have been much better f released as a half an hour short.

  16. Are "serious" movies going to go the way of poetry? That is, could they become a refined product for those with refined tastes that most people don't care about in the least?

  17. Ironic considering its positive presentation of blacks and buffonish white main character.

    How many black characters were there? I remember the white guy's guide, and there were the two guys who shook their heads instead of nodding (were they black? I don't remember.)

    The tribesmen, however, were not black. They were Capoids.

  18. Also, more slapstick, please. Slapstick is funny, but most people worry that it's beneath them…
    Not the Farrelly brothers! Their trailer for The Three Stooges looks pretty funny (throwing in Snooki from Jersey Shore was a stroke of genius).
    http://youtu.be/Z4IoUo_ZJkY

    actually, it was very clearly shown why when he speaks in the last 10 seconds of the film; a thick accent
    Yeah, that's why Arnold Schwarzenegger ended up running a gym in Ohio instead of finding success in Hollywood.

  19. "Most hetero men don't care about the hot women of 50 years ago; they focus on the ones who strut catwalks right now, where the possibility of contact exists even if only in fantasy."

    Heterosexual males who actually date focus on the hot enough woman in the immediate vicinity: FYI for those who don't want to waste money on game books or silly role playing activities.

  20. How many black characters were there? I remember the white guy's guide, and there were the two guys who shook their heads instead of nodding (were they black? I don't remember.)

    The tribesmen, however, were not black. They were Capoids.

    Ok, I was thinking of the tribesmen, whose lifestyle was presented as innocent and sensible in contrast to that of modern (white) society.

  21. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Are "serious" movies going to go the way of poetry? That is, could they become a refined product for those with refined tastes that most people don't care about in the least?

    Interesting speculation. I certainly hope not, but it might be the case. The fact that I like some movies from the 'New Hollywood' period has led some friends to think I'm into obscure, artsy stuff.

  22. Seeing a movie solely because it's supposed to be good for you is SWPL behavior run amok.

  23. "And there's something about seeing people succumb to their obsessions that's so intriguing (which is why I didn't even find the cetological parts of Moby Dick too terribly tedious–I knew we'd get back to Ahab's disintegrating character sooner or later)."

    I got the impression the sexy wrecks in the other Crash were a metaphor for addiction rather than obsession. I mean its kind of difficult to create an obsession out of the fear and disgust usually associated with being an accident victim. I also thought you were more a Disney fan.

    As to your inclusion of a reference to Moby Dick, do you think those cetological digressions were merely filler, that MD should've been a short story?

  24. Though I haven't seen The Artist, I can attest to the fact that much of what gets distributed as art film these days is rubbish. I've seen two recently that should have been serious films about music: one done by hacks in France, the other by incompetents in Poland. They failed as either biography or sheer entertainment as well as not achieving the intended aim of elevating the subject to a higher intellectual or spiritual level (other than inviting discussion about what makes bad vs good films).

    The art film has become a popular genre for those who make movies whether or not this is what the audience truly wants. I've also recognized a faux art film genre that utilizes the techniques common to serious films made by "artists" with a limited budget but really panders to the intellectual vanity of a mass audience. Comic book based films like V and The Crow incorporate impressive visuals while explaining the world through the lens of an unevolving adolescent mind.

  25. Artist may lead Best Picture because Hollywood has been accused of being all about new/young/cool while forgetting the rich heritage of cinema.

  26. The silent vs. talkie transition can be better understood by looking at the full sweep of movie history.

    If silent vs. talkie is the main influence, or even a large influence, on how visually arresting a movie is, then those should be clustered all within the silent era, and drop steadily afterward, never to recover.

    But during the '60s, and particularly from the mid-'70s through the late '80s, visual movies we reborn. 2001, Alien, Blade Runner, Blue Velvet, Ghostbusters, the Star Wars movies, The Terminator, Videodrome, shoot, just to name a few.

    Even in the early '30s there were still great visual movies like Dracula, M, King Kong, etc. That was the tail end of the Jazz Age, when Art Deco was still alive.

    It was the entire visual culture, not just movies, that became blander from the mid-'30s through the '50s, with film noir being the lone torch-bearer. Painting, architecture, illustration, even golf course design, all fell off a cliff, along with the visual side of movies.

    The common factor is whether the violence rate has been rising or falling. From the start of cinema through the early '30s it was rising, which is why the talkies from the late '20s and early '30s still look strikingly like the silents.

    What the mechanism is, who knows? There's something about a sense of growing danger and potential breakdown that opens up people's eyes, makes them more visually alert, and gives them visions.

  27. "But during the '60s, and particularly from the mid-'70s through the late '80s, visual movies we reborn."

    Sooner in Europe and Japan. Kurosawa made Rashomon in 1950 and Throne of Blood in 57. Bresson made Diary of Country Priest in the 50s.

  28. "Though I haven't seen The Artist, I can attest to the fact that much of what gets distributed as art film these days is rubbish."

    TASTE OF OTHERS is total shit.

  29. "Seeing a movie solely because it's supposed to be good for you is SWPL behavior run amok."

    What about all the Christians who went to see PASSION OF CHRIST or all those libertard morons who went to see ATLAS SHRUGGED(wow that sucked donkey d…)

  30. Saw it last night. Steve's review is right on the money. Enjoyable, corny, well made, not particularly deep or memorable.

  31. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    "Holy cow, what have their been, like 800 books on Marilyn Monroe? Is there anything left to say?"

    Yes. She was a terrible actress. Her breathy voice schtick was unbearable. She gives hope to every talentless hoochie hoping to make it in the biz, on their back.

    If Norman Mailer writes a book on an actress, you know she's a wreck of a human being.

  32. "But during the '60s, and particularly from the mid-'70s through the late '80s, visual movies we reborn. "

    Do you think the 70's and 80's were the golden age of special effects before all the computer generated stuff came in the 90's?

  33. Marilyn Monroe is a bit before my time but as straight white male I can see what the attraction is.

    Lots of girls still echo her style, lots of boys like girls who do that.

  34. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    That David Thomson link is quite interesting. He seems to be 180° off from everyone else but I do see some of his points. The reason "The Artist" is a shoo-in is because it's a romantic flick about the industry, right? And how can they neglect in the actress category somebody playing certified icon Marilyn… As either Tom Servo or Crow T Robot once put it, "THE OSCARS: where the stars salute themselves!" Per that link, a bit over half the voters are 60+ also. So it's no shock when a movie having fun with olde tyme show-biz (Chicago in 2003) or bitterly mocking television (Network in 1977) gets a boatload of nominations. Conversely The Player was a flawed but trenchant anti-Hollywood comedy that surprised me by getting a nomination, albeit for distinguished semi-insider Robert Altman. However, whichever film is the most traditionally "epic" and heavily visual seems to be the prohibitive favorite for Best Picture–that covers Lawrence of Arabia to Titanic to LOTR to, arguably, Crash, and continuing on today ('08 was a fallow year but Slumdog Millionaire's win was obvious a mile off). I still am scratching my head about American Beauty which in retrospect sucked on wheels.

  35. "Per that link, a bit over half the voters are 60+ also."

    That doesn't mean anything. Counterculture generation is now in their 60s and early 70s.

  36. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Anon 3:53 PM, it must be odd to view the world from your eyes. Whether they're ex-hippies or former HBD newsletter researchers the geezer class tends to display internal consistency at every turn on taste in entertainment. They are naturally going to exalt semi-shlocky sweeping cinerama fare over a Cassavetes or Jim Jarmusch flick that cost $6,000, if only because of how they, the voters, derived their livelihood.

  37. "Other nagging problems with "The Artist" are that the title seems like an inept translation from the French."

    The French title is …. "The Artist"

    Maybe a reference to "United Artists" ?

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