One nippy New York night over break, I ventured across Manhattan to see The Artist, the prohibitive favorite for the Best Picture Oscar, at the Paris Theatre in midtown. As a coursing current of wide-eyed and well-bundled tourists carried me up 5th Avenue and the Plaza Hotel blazed into view around the 58th St. corner, I had a wonderful feeling that some good old-fashioned entertainment was in store. Willfully ignoring the $13 ticket price and the glowing Apple Store cube across the street, I threw myself into the Paris’s open art-deco arms, took my velvety seat, and waited for the silent smiles of the silver screen to send me back to a simpler time.
Unfortunately, for all its nostalgia and giddy fun, “The Artist” turned out to be just as new-fangled as it was old-fashioned, the unmistakable product of a very complex time indeed. It doesn’t adopt the formal palette of silent films so much as it tinkers playfully with their conventions, and from the opening shot, which pulls back from a typically melodramatic silent-film scene to reveal a rapt theater audience, it’s not so much a movie about the past as a movie about the movies.
The story, though loosely derived from the actual decline of silent-film actor John Gilbert, draws more heavily on previous entries in the film genre of reflexive meta-fiction, especially Sunset Boulevard (1950) and the three versions of “A Star is Born” (1937, 1954, and 1976), all of which also had their movie stars enact the delusional risings and fallings of movie stars.
The Artist, as I found out, is a purposeful, gleefully postmodernist pastiche of allusions and appropriations, cribbing from Douglas Fairbanks, Busby Berkeley, Fritz Lang, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Bernard Herrmann, Billy Wilder and many more. But even on a night when I’m in the mood for something old-fashioned, I don’t walk into the theater looking for appropriation, or repossession, or rearrangement; I walk in wanting something that takes film tradition and makes it new.
“Make it new!” were the three words Ezra Pound used to sum up his take on the philosophy of modernism; he used them in 1937, and it might be regressively backward-looking of me to champion even so forward-looking an idea now. But as Woody Allen and Terrence Malick showed this year with “Midnight in Paris” and “The Tree of Life, nostalgia can be fun, instructive, redemptive, generally beneficial, as long as it isn’t all-consuming. The trend that concerns me in the prominent movies of 2011 is not one of nostalgia, exactly, but one of a deleterious unoriginality.
Michael Hazanavicius, the writer and director of “The Artist,” has called his movie a “love letter to cinema”; This is the vocabulary not of a filmmaker, but of a fanboy. Martin Scorcese, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, spent 2011 glorifying the work of others: his “Hugo” is an homage to the early years of film history and especially to the pioneering efforts of Georges Méliès. And Simon Curtis’s “My Week with Marilyn” conjures up a fanciful behind-the-scenes tale about the making of “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957) for no ostensible purpose beyond bringing Marilyn Monroe back to life. In a world where anyone can casually throw a clip up on YouTube and everyone defines themselves with Facebook lists of favorite bands and movies, I fear the line between artistry and appreciation has become tragically blurred.
What troubles me most is that as far as movies are concerned, hardly anyone is decrying this descent from production to consumption, from nourishment to regurgitation. Simon Reynolds, author of anti-nostalgic tract “Retromania,” and others are rightfully making a similar complaint in the realm of music, but in the realm of film, the likes of “The Artist” and “Hugo” are piling up accolades largely unperturbed by critical dissent. This might be attributable to their appealing preservationist sentiments; while music will always be music, film is increasingly not film, and for many in the industry and the audience, movies that honor the tangible stuff of film history deserve commendation. But homage is not art; love letters are not art. So here’s one voice in the wilderness, hoping that in 2012, some artist out there can do better than “The Artist.”