The Sunday Intertitle: The Shock of the Old

So, we finally got around to THE ARTIST, crowding into Cameo 2 with a bunch of other elderly people — I do think it’s nice when a movie attracts an audience that doesn’t normally venture into the dark. Immediately a commercial for Red Bull got a big laugh, so we knew we were surrounded by people who hadn’t seen a film at the cinema for at least a year.

NOBODY knows how to behave at the cinema — the old have forgotten and the young never knew, and things were complicated for this crowd by virtue of the movie being chiefly wordless. Audiences like to talk, but because they don’t want to be the centre of embarrassing attention, they usually time it to coincide with the speech of the actors. That’s not possible here, where dialogue is limited to one scene, song lyrics to another, and apart from that only a few sound effects occur in a dream sequence. When the music quietened, people really didn’t know what to do…

Ah, the polite laughter of the middle-class! The laughter that says, “I understood that, and I approve of the sentiment.” I don’t mean to be harsh: I value politeness, understanding and approval. I don’t think of them as a form of humour, though. THE ARTIST has some cute jokes, and some clever moments, but felt awfully thin to me.

Michel Hazanavicius may talk about CITY LIGHTS (which is also not a silent film) as an influence, but as David Ehrenstein points out, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is a far greater influence than any 20s or 30s film, on the structure, the central performance and the whole perception of the subject. There’s also the ghost of A STAR IS BORN, and a conscious lifting from ANCHORMAN (arrogant successful man falls from grace — he has a dog so we’ll care), and that controversial VERTIGO borrowing (as incomprehensible to me now I’ve seen the film as it was when I heard about it).

I wasn’t moved (and I ought to be an absolute sucker for this story), I only laughed a little, and the much-vaunted “charm” was authentic but only got me so far. Leading man Jean Dujardin is handsome and appealing and funny, and it’s nice to see him and his director stretch themselves beyond the repeating set-up/joke structure of the jolly OSS:117 films, but long passages of up to twenty minutes seemed devoid of any real dramatic or cinematic ideas, a problem when your story is as simplistic and one-track as this. This is a shame since the ideas-rich bits are often very good. When the protag becomes his own writer, producer and director, a multi-exposure montage causes a circular camera part to overlap his face, forming a Von Stroheim monocle. Anyone who can come up with that ought to be able to dish up a few more dog gags. But he does do a good ambiguous BANG! (above) — the intertitular equivalent of THE APARTMENT’s false alarm Act III champagne cork.

The rest of the cast: Uggy is great (if outclassed by Skippy, the terrier who played Asta) and Berenice Bejo does well, despite not really looking like a 20s starlet. There’s not a lot of depth there, but I blame the script, not the actors or the constraints of pantomime. What’s weird is that James Cromwell and John Goodman, two very capable actors with strong physical characteristics, count for almost nothing — Goodman immediately peps up when he gets to speak, and shows signs of his skill in the scene where Bejo blackmails him, which again leads me to think that it’s the lack of business and lack of drama which hinder them. But maybe they’re just not silent actors. Imagining Doug Jones or Pierre Etaix in the Cromwell role immediately unlocks possibilities untapped here.

And thinking of Etaix leads one to YOYO, which did it all first and better —

26 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The Shock of the Old”

  1. Oh, please post the clip with the flappers!

  2. I will, later in the week. Yoyo deserves his own post.

  3. I had much the same response, lovely, warm and moments of brilliance but ultimately somehow lacked bite

  4. It mostly lost us along the way, but the Vertigo music really killed it for me, and my wife was appalled by the dancing that forms the finale. “They’re not going to give him a job if that’s the best he can do.”

    I did love the dream sequence though.

  5. The dream sequence is the best bit. As for George and Peppy’s musical, I would totally watch that. In fact I demand that that should be Hazanavicius’s next film. They could easily work round the fact they’re not great dancers, or just chuck them into intensive training. The difficulty that they’re French doesn’t matter a jot. Look at Maurice Chevalier’s Hollywood career.

  6. And Uggie “can go a skateboard”, as David’s mum puts it. Put the mutt on rollerskates. Or at least one big rollerskate doubling as a board. The possibilities are endless.

  7. He films dance pretty well, although that sequence is in some strange midpoint between RKO art deco and the MGM of twenty years later. I don’t think you should make a musical with people who aren’t brilliant performers in that mode — it’s been tried. The real novelty these days would be for some genius to get the idea of making a musical with actual singers and dancers.

    But I like watching those guys dance… surround them with good co-stars and you might have a deal.

  8. I haven’t seen The Artist yet, but I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll feel the same way about it as you do. I don’t really see the point of recreating a bygone style when we can just watch genuine films of that era, but if it must done, anachronistic influences should be avoided ruthlessly. Personally I’d be more excited about a “silent” film for the modern age, the way Jacques Tati was simultaneously nostalgic and pioneering.

  9. I don’t mean to imply that being French is a ‘difficulty’, like having one leg. Being French is a completely legitimate state of being. ‘Vive la France!”

  10. Hazanavicius has just won the DGA award. This may mean that Marty isn’t getting the Oscar — and it may not. But The Sampler. is definitely in for Best Picture.

    Meanwhile Uggie has announced his retirement. Knowing how to quit while ahead is the sign of a genuine talent and he’s the only thing I like about the film.

    So glad you brought up Yoyo which is virtually unknown stateside. Etaix appeared this year (looking quite chipper) in Karusmaki’s lovely Le Havre. Jean-Pierre Leaud (looking quite alarming) also played a role in it.

    Comparasions to Tati do not work as he was a sound filmmaker.

    a fortiori, Tati was THE sound filmmaker!

  11. When people ask me what I thought of it I’ve decided to say “Go and see Midnight in Paris”. It’s not that it didn’t charm me, but yes my socks stayed on. I’m with those who prefer the Jack Russel in “Beginners” and, crucially, I had to take it on trust that (spoiler warning) – a) those were his goods under the sheets because I hardly recognised any of them, and b) this was a dreadful discovery rather than a quite sweet one. It bothered me a little too that Bejo didn’t look the part, even though it shouldn’t, but then she sits down next to a wing-collared and entirely wrinkled Malcom McDowell collar and Good God, the man’s stepped directly out of the nineteenth century.
    It’s a love letter from the director to the leads, really. I think that *is* charming. And I’m very surprised your experience of cinema audiences is so chatty. That’s not mine at all and I’ve got a Cineworld pass!

  12. Yes, the mementos thing doesn’t work at all. If he’d been down-and-out for years and a stranger took him in and turned out to have all his old stuff, that might be shocking/creepy/strange. But this woman knows him, so while the Vertigo music is insisting on one set of emotions (and not even the one the director is after, I think) the sequence provokes something else.

    Similarly, we never learn what, exactly, his objection to talkies is, or why it vanishes. So the central conflict doesn’t really work,

    I got very excited by the dream sequence — had they made the rest of the film like that, with a silent actor trapped in a sound world, that would have been a compelling metaphor…

    Etaix seems rejuvenated by the fact that his films, locked in a copyright dispute for decades, are finally back. But I do wonder what he thinks of The Artist, which owes a huge and unacknowledged debt to Yoyo.

    In the Tati/Etaix school of visual comedy, sound takes on a heightened significance, both to replace dialogue and to create a stylised world where the comedy can breathe. In particular, background atmos is minimized and perspective distorted to give the same crisp clarity to the action that a mime gives to body language.

  13. Yoyo is also related to . . .

  14. Yes go and seeMidnight in Paris

    And then go to Paris!

  15. Hope to be in Paris within the month… on Top Secret Shadowplay Business…

    Love the Rivette. More traveling circus movies please!

  16. His objection should be that he’s French, and doesn’t speak English “real good.” Plus, using David’s suggestion, you could also have him bumping into other mute actors who’ve yet to find their voice in talkies. A Clara Bow or Chaplin-alike.

  17. Chaplin’s objection was to the dominance of dialogue — he had no problems with his voice… John Gilbert seems more like the model, but he TRIED. Chaplin is just about the only artist who actively resisted speaking.

  18. And then when he spoke he had something to say — which is of course what got him into trouble with American fascists.

  19. David, thanks for bringing Yoyo to my attention. That’s a lovely and very funny clip!

  20. More Yoyo later this week!

  21. Two interesting things happened during the screening David didn’t mention. (These are a bit spoilerish so look away now if you’re so inclined)

    The audience became VERY UNCOMFORTABLE the moment the screen started shrinking to Academy ratio, (lots of mumbling) but they settled down. Then, at the end, when George speaks, they actually gasped. It was rather sweet and in one way, I’m glad we saw it with actual human beings. In another way the actual human beings were a constant source of irritation with their popcorn-munching, chatting, snoring and coughing activities.

    Still, at least they weren’t having sex, as overheard by us during a showing of Insidious, (We had them thrown out) and given that the average age of the audience member for this movie screening would’ve been about 120, we were probably spared a great many deaths.

  22. Christopher Says:

    THis would a been much better if it had been more about James Cromwell and Malcom McDowell (what became of him in the film all the sudden?)..They were MADE for the silent screen ..Hated the dancing buisness at the end,it didn’t ring true..Penelope Ann Miller as the “WIFE”was good I thought….The opening montage of paris in Midnight In Paris is worth the price of admission alone.Wilson is the perfect choice to carry on the “WOODY” character,but you may have the same mixed feelings for it as for The Artist.

  23. Fiona enjoyed Midnight in Paris. I will catch up with it soon. I wasn’t sure who McDowell’s character even was, but I enjoyed him while he lasted.

  24. I really enjoyed your very acute and apparently effortless observation of the audience, and the breadth of your references, so you don’t need to be more savant than the film – what I thought was surprising was how intense it was for a supposedly ‘feelgood’ film. Your ‘BANG’ brought me here – the crux, an intertitle signifying clashing visual/literary/audio modalities. Sez me, attempting further savant-tude … I see it as a contemporary fable of non-adjustment to digital cultures, that the past really can teach the present something if the present will listen, and that turning the past into a museum or church isn’t enough either. This is true of the digital age, of our relationships too. I was impressed by this film.

  25. Thanks!

    I always like dramatic intensity and the presence of tragedy in purportedly happy films. I kind of felt it was trumped up in this film, partly by the Vertigo music, but the idea is fine, and I’d welcome more entertainment films going into darker places.

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