“The Artist” Showcases a Bygone Era

Hollywood’s witnessed many changes in its history: the advent of ‘talkies’, the invasion of television, and the emergence of the internet, piracy, and streaming technology. In each instance, technology has been both a threat (and an opportunity) to Hollywood and its players.

Michel Hazanavicius’ film, “The Artist,” explores how the introduction of sound film affects two artists’ personal and professional lives. Although, it’s a silent, black-and-white film– a fact that may turn away even the most open-minded audiences– I say, look beyond the facts. To truly appreciate the film, one has to submit to being transported into a different era entirely: An era when people went to the movies as often as they could for both escapism and entertainment. In the late ’20s, individuals and families struggled to make ends meet as the stock market crashed and the Great Depression got underway. Hollywood was their escape, the place where dreams were made.

As the story unfolds, it’s 1927 and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is hamming it up as a famed silent film star. Audiences love him and it’s rather obvious that he adores being adored. Simultaneously, a young starlet, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), starts strutting her stuff in the trenches of Hollywood. She’s got a sparkle and a spunk that set her apart from the competition. She and Valentin cross paths and sooner than anyone thought possible, she rises from being an extra to a contract player to a full-fledged star. This puts her at the forefront of Hollywood as silent films are phased out. Talking pictures are the future.

By 1930, Hollywood stops making silent films entirely. Cinema orchestras, once an integral part of a silent film’s presentation, are eliminated. Silent film stars are considered passe. George Valentin gets the dire news from the studio and soon finds himself unemployable. No one wants to hear a silent film star talk. They want fresh faces, new blood. He’s shunned from the studio as a relic from the past.

Meanwhile, Peppy’s rise to unfathomable stardom occurs just as Valentin begins a downward spiral. From their first chance encounter, Peppy and George keep tabs on each other, albeit secretly. George sees her rise to fame as a stark contrast to the momentous changes in his own life. Likewise, she feels guilty and somewhat responsible for his downfall as he forced to auction off his possessions.

One of my favorite sequences between Peppy and George was shot at the Bradbury building in Downtown L.A. Hazanavicius utilizes the grand series of staircases at that location as a metaphor for Peppy and George’s relationship to each other and to Hollywood. Peppy is always ascending the stairs with her career on the up-and-up. George is always shown going down the stairs, further and further, until he disappears from view. It’s a simple visual technique but showing the two characters in that way, speaks more than any words ever could.

I came to see “The Artist” with no expectations beyond curiosity and longing to see Old Hollywood lit up on the big screen once again. Hazanavicius’ uses several techniques ( showing a film-within-a-film, angled shots of the stage and audience reaction shots) to make film audiences feel right at home, as though 1927, is just an arm’s length away from where we are. A cinema orchestra accompanies the film presentation, as we’re introduced to George Valentin. Music is primary for the remainder of the film, just as it was for all silent films. Within moments, I’d forgotten the black-and-white and the “silent” lack of dialogue. I was riveted to the antics on the screen.

It’s surprising how funny “The Artist” is, without seemingly trying. All it takes is a gesture, a look, a stupid dog trick, a shimmy, and an occasional title card, and we know what’s going on. But “The Artist” is also a tragedy, as experienced by George Valentin. It’s ultimately his story. As such, we are limited to his silent world, even though there is “talking” all around us. When it finally hits him, that sound is the wave of the future, he’s shocked to HEAR the CLANK of his own water glass on the table. Suddenly there is LAUGHING , WIND BLOWING, CLINKS and CLANKS, a world happening just beyond the reach of our senses. It’s all too much for him. And then, the SOUND of SILENCE as George’s world collapses around him.

Ultimately, however, “The Artist” is a love story about two artists. Entertaining is their passion; it’s in their blood. Peppy and George recognize a bit of themselves in each other. Can only one of them be a star? Is there a way for the past and the future to co-exist, meet in the middle somehow? As a contemporary film, “The Artist” captures the Golden Age Of Hollywood with more success than any other movie I can recall. My grandmother lived during that era. She remembers Hollywoodland. She’d tell me stories about the old time movie stars. I’d flip through her vintage glamour and movie books and try to visualize what it must’ve been like… to experience Hollywood, be a part of Hollywood, during that era. “The Artist,” in some small way, gave me that experience. It’s pure entertainment, beautifully crafted.

“The Artist” was shot in 35 days in Los Angeles with an American crew for an estimated budget of $12 million [Imdb.com] Ever since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, the film has been gaining awards buzz. As we head into Oscar season, it just may become the film to beat.

Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller
Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius

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