I am not sure it does do this, but it shows us how people first experienced the movies—the projection of moving pictures on a screen.
What it could not do—nor could any film now do—is get us to feel what those first viewers felt, the excitement, the thrill, the wonderment, the magic. It takes a lot to thrill us at the movies anymore. In fact, I am not sure we can be thrilled by anything on-screen once we pass the age of. . . maybe three. We are too sophisticated.
So, instead of thrilling, films now seek to chill, excite or startle us; they appeal to our prurient interests with nudity and thinly-veiled sex acts while cute actresses use words which used to be the exclusive province sailors and longshoremen.
The Artist has none of these. It did capture the feel of the Hays Code, which cleaned up the industry after it had gotten almost as racy as it is now. Watching it is taking a trip into the mythical post-Prohibition sanitized culture made possible because the Supreme Court had ruled that free speech did not extend to motion pictures (an unimaginable situation today). It is ersatz nostalgia, experiencing something from the past we never knew, and that makes it fun.
[Plots Spoilers Below]
The movie is about the discarding of silent movie stars when talkies came to be, the replacement of the old with the new. And while the transition did end many careers, many made the transition. In this case, George Valentin is set on the shelf while Peppy Miller, who was an extra in George’s last studio film, becomes the hottest star in the country.
The story is nothing new. It has been told many times before. The aging star replaced by the young ingénue. The fall into despair of the one cast aside. The act of kindness from new to former star. The shift of fortunes from old to young. It’s the basic storyline of A Star is Born, from the 1937 release with Fredric March, to the Academy Award winning performances of Judy Garland and James Mason in the 1952 remake to Kristofferson and Streisand in 1976 and the planned Clint Eastwood version starring Beyonce. It’s a story we do not get tired of.
And movies about the transition from Silent to Talkie have been very popular. Stanwick’s Sunset Boulevard has a dark proud tone and one of the best lines in movie history; Singin’ in the Rain captures the joy at the end of The Artist.
When I walked out of the movie, I felt good. It is that kind of a movie. And for this reason alone it is worth the price of admission. If you wait and try to watch it on the flat-screen in the house, it will lose its effect and probably you will not stay with it. It needs to be seen in the theater.
I always do, I deconstructed the movie some on the way to the car. This movie told the story the best way it could have been: Better than A Star is Born, better than Singin’ in the Rain and as well as Sunset Boulevard. These almost sacrilegious opinions are because the makers used every-thing they had to make it, including the courage to turn off the dialogue and take us back and feel with George Valentin and Pepe Miller. Dialogue throughout the movie would have rendered the result enjoyable but not really noteworthy.
The genius is that the story needed to have been made the way it was. It would have lost the magic with words. With words, Valentin’s struggles would have been less visceral, less poignant. We have gotten used to dialogue, of being able to “follow” a movie (or television show) while doing something else. (I was playing around with Angry Birds last night while keeping track of Alcatraz on the tube.) Yeah, we do it, and are often proud that we can do it, but what do we lose in so doing, what is the cost?
Without the dialogue, we focus more on what is on screen. The filming was different. There were less scene cuts than is typical now. The picture draws us in, makes us feel what Valentin and Miller felt and this was accomplished better without words.
But the movie is not totally silent. There is a dream sequence where we hear sounds and that is a marvelous piece of art. And at the end, the joy overflows with sound and we hear why Valentin was cast aside—no one wants to hear me speak he said—his heavy French accent.