Sunday, February 12, 2012

Review: The Artist: a self responding question

It's 2012, why go and see a silent movie? Try this: a man who looks like a cross  between Douglas Fairbanks and Sean Connery escapes torture at a military prison and flees by foot, car and plane until suddenly he runs in behind a screen showing the movie we've just seen. A group of nervous Hollywood types glare at him. Behind them, the end credits start rolling. Tension. Our hero takes a peep around the screen. The audience is applauding rapturously. He thumbs up to his cohorts. Suddenly they too are in rapture as though they hadn't heard for themselves. Why go and see a silent movie in 2012? Because the jokes in silent movies are grouse.

This is a tale of a movie star in Hollywood's golden years. George Valentin, having allowed his applause to take weight, skips out in front of it, taking as many bows as he can. His costar gives him a resentful finger as he introduces his "real" costar, Jack Russell, Uggie who walks from the other wing toward the star on his hind legs before doing his part in a play dead trick. Life is a walking paradise for this man. But then we've already seen the title card that tells anyone who knows a smidge of cinema history something important: it's 1927, the talkies are coming to town. To town? To the known Milky Way Constellation. George's days of stardom are numbered.

Cue the new breed. Plucky young hopeful, Peppy Miller (a kind of young Natalie Wood), literally stumbles into stardom, falling into the arms of George on the red carpet. The cameras flash and a star is born. A rapid montage of her rise from chorus girl to dramatic bit part later and the pair are reunited on the set of one of George's spy actioners and he gives her a break. Not long after, George's self financed darkest Africa adventure opens on the same night as Peppy's star debut, a talkie. As she's already seen it and has never stopped worshiping George she is in tears watching him sink into the quicksand in the final reel as the near empty cinema wakes up for the end credits. Reversal of fortune guessable almost to the last detail.

 But the tale is only part of what The Artist is about. Silent cinema took its pantomime seriously and worked hard to deliver its extra payloads of theme and commentary, developing its own grammar and symbology.A whole mini-cosmos of significance in gesture, editing, lighting etc etc was created. But The Artist isn't really about cinema history even to the light extent that Singing in the Rain was, unless you consider that history to include 2012.

The Artist is resolutely a contemporary film and it's because of its monochrome palette, use of music and occasional foley sound and initially jarring restraint to the 1.37.3333....:1 aspect ratio (my younger readers need only look a the next example of one of the saddening old tvs left out on the nature strip to experience a 4X3 frame). The Artist knows it's a silent film. It loves the fact. From the extraordinary sequence where George can hear every sound except his own voice to misdirection joke towards the end that was so good that it was met with two waves of laughter.

But even the fun had with the characters variously knowing or not that they are part of a silent movie the film delivers emotionally as the plot demands deeper emotion from them. The climactic scenes are genuinely fraught and build to a high tension. If there be gimmicks in this movie they are cast aside by this point. We sit on the edge of our seats and ride along with it.

And that's why you go to a silent movie in 2012: it brings you slamboombang back to the potential of cinema not just to entertain but to grab you, your friends and everyone else in the room whether you know them or not and keep you in its grip until the credits start rolling. Here's a tip: see this at as full a session as you can, this film needs to be shared. When the end title came up at my screening I experienced an odd but satisfying tribute for a silent movie. It came from the centre of the crowd and spread quickly until everyone was joining in, giving a very loud round of applause, just like the one we couldn't hear at the start of the movie.

Quite simply, a must.

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