Wednesday, December 14, 2011

DB takes a stab at explaining why he doesn't feel The Artist is a great film

This piece is in response to some incredulous reactions to my not absolutely loving the film. It’s an over blown explanation of why, at least as far as I can tell, I’m not passionately in love with The Artist. It’s a lengthy piece laying out the reasons why I’m not a huge fan of the film, so I want to say right now that in the interest of keeping this reasonably brief I have intentionally not illustrated it nor gone into the detail film descriptions of silent films from the period for each point. You don’t want it; I don’t want to do it; and besides the film isn’t bad so it does not deserve to have it ripped apart. I’m simply trying to explain that I really do have reasons for not loving it beyond I just don’t, which some people refuse to accept as being a good enough reason.

I find myself in an odd position of having to defend my position of not loving The Artist. It’s a film I like, but I don’t love. It’s a film that is truly enjoyable but isn’t even remotely close to being on my list of best films of the year.

What is odd is that most of the people who are questioning my feelings for the film haven’t seen it. They want to know how I can’t love the film when everyone seems to love it. They seem to think that since I'm a movie guy, and this is a movie movie, that I should instantly be in love with it (actually the reverse is true). When people ask me why I don't LOVE the film I am forced to ask them how can they seem to love a film they’ve never seen?

Ultimately it’s a no win situation, those who have seen the film and love it, will love it no matter what I say and those that haven’t seen it will simply take what they have heard as gospel truth until they do see it. Me, I take the position that they are splitting hairs since I do like the film, I just can’t gush at it.

Unfortunately the questions of “How can you not love it?” persist and to that end I’m going to take this time to explain why I don’t LOVE the film.

As you read what follows keep in mind two things, first, I do like the film. I don’t hate it. I do recommend that you see it.

Secondly my reasons for not LOVING the film are my own reasons, which as you will no doubt realize include lots of small things that you probably would never notice, and even after I tell you what they are odds are you’re not going to notice them, or most importantly, care about them.

That said onward to the reason behind why I'm not the uber fan of The Artist.

Let me begin with a minor minor point, I don’t understand why they have cameos from people like Ed Lauter and Malcolm McDowell. Their inclusions seem to imply that they would have more than a walk on, especially McDowell who’s knowing presence in a scene as an extra waiting to be used implies way more than we get from the film. His brief moment carries a hell of a lot of weight, more so than many other bigger characters in the film.

This lack of characters extends through out the film. There are no real characters in this film other than the Artist (George), the Girl (Peppy), the studio head (zimmer) and the chauffeur (Clifton)... and yes, the dog.

I dare you explain to me who anyone is or where the characters are beyond that, they are all non-presences. Most glaring is Penelope Ann Miller, as the wife of George. Outside of the early scene on stage and the constant drawing of faces on his picture can you tell me anything about the character? Can you tell me anything about the relationship between husband and wife? I don’t think so, because there simply isn’t anything there. It’s a pattern that’s repeated through out, basically if it’s not one of the main characters they are window dressing.

Taking things further, I dislike the construction of the relationship between the two leads. I dislike how they effectively are apart, never connecting until They have to. How many times are they together, really? The moment where they meet, the scene where they dance and fall in love but other than that it's only where Peppy has to save him, first by buying all his worldly goods (which makes no sense at the moment it occurs) then by saving his life by taking him in and giving him a place to stay, then by giving him a career (Yes I know they meet two other times but they are fleeting moment on two different sets of stairs). How can they not interact, especially while they are both at the studio? How can we buy that they are meant to be together when they stay so far apart until the script has them crash together at an appropriate moment? You tell me whats is the basis of attraction when years pass and and they are never together? It’s a nice idea but it doesn’t feel real nor does it have any emotion. To me any emotion, other than the odd moment (say Peppy seeing what film is that he clutched in the fire) comes from what we bring to the film and impart to it. (Oddly in this way the film is very much like the also over praise Shame).

The lack of a real defined relationship forces me ponder Peppy as a character as well since other than spunky, we know little about her other than she loves George…and her boy toys- but nothing else. Perhaps she isn't all that clearly defined either.

From there shall we dismantle the story construction? It’s a film that jumps in time from the advent of sound through the early days of sound films. I’ll wreck the film historically in a minute, but for now lets just talk about the plot. Leaping through time, the film is arbitrary with how it moves through the years. We’re here, were there, we’re all over the place. He’s thrown out of his big house by his wife and the depression, then he’s living in a small house…only later does he sell all of his possessions, where did he keep them? As the film leaps through time things simply aren’t handled or mentioned because the fact that minor details would have been handled in the intervening time isn’t convenient to the plot. Ultimately the time passage is totally arbitrary.

Historically the film is a complete and utter mess.(and yes I know it’s a movie but I was asked what’s wrong with the film so I’m going to tell you) The sound era is generally considered to have started when the Jazz Singer came out in 1927. The trouble was that here had been sound films going back the better part of a decade (as had color films and widescreen). That the advent of sound was both a surprise and an occasion for the complete dumping of silent films is simply not true. Silent films actually lasted into the early 30’s, especially in places other than Hollywood. The notion that big budget productions would be shut down or a film such as our hero’s jungle epic would have been a complete bomb just because it wasn’t a sound film is ludicrous. Few studios could have afforded to do an epic like that in sound, and they wouldn’t have dumped any sure fire silent hit in the cross over years just because it wasn’t sound (at the least they would have added sound effects).

What the film doesn’t take into account is that changing over to sound cost money and neither the studios nor the theaters just dropped everything to change over because of the money involved. The move to sound was set in motion by the Jazz Singer, it wasn’t over night as one can see by the number of partial sound films as well as the number of films that were released as both sound AND silent. (And despite how the film slants, it some people were like George and thought sound was going to just be a fad).

One of the bigger things that stick in my craw about the film is that it doesn’t feel like any of the Hollywood films it’s aping. Sure its set in the town, and yes, it was filmed there, but it doesn’t feel like a film of the period (as some people have said). Yes, it’s a modern movie, but at the same time it doesn’t feel period. Let me explain my reasons.

One of the things that everyone talks about is how the film looks like a silent film. I don’t know how many silent films people have seen, but other than being black and white and silent the film doesn’t look like a silent film. Look at how it’s shot. Look at how the images are composed and the camera moves. They may, on occasion echo how a silent film was shot, but for the most part they don’t get it as anything more than an echo. For example there is a bigger use of space here than ever seemed to really exist in many silents, at least in the small intimate sequences. What I mean is that there is typically too much empty space in rooms, say the house George moves into after being thrown out of his mansion. I know that part of this spacial oddness is due to The Artist not being shot in places that are and seem like real rooms, we see all four walls of rooms (in many silent films and early Hollywood films you don't), but it makes the rooms in the film seem awfully big and empty.

The feeling of being too big carries over to the sequences shot on the back lot, say the sequences that occur around the auction, which are much more spacious than a film of the time period would have been. Think about how the streets in a 1930's film and you'll see what I mean. I won’t go into the nagging feeling that the street scenes don’t feel real. They seem to be more like a back lot than any film of the period, probably because they really haven’t dressed them up enough to make you realize that these are the same locations that are used in numerous TV series and movies (Several streets remind me of streets in NCIS).

Another of the things that bothers me is that a good number of the silent film recreations aren’t particularly good.

Yes, the opening sequence that we watch from behind the screen has moments, (the car racing, the plane flying off), that capture what a silent film looks and feels like. The trouble is many of the other film sequences don’t seem right. George is almost always playing things way more knowing than any decent Hollywood actor ever did, they were never that aware of the audience and purely focused on the characters in the films. Silent films, hell, most films period didn't have the lead effectively nodding and winking at the audience.

The repeated dance sequence where our leads fall for each other looks good, but it’s not how a silent film of the period would have been shot. (Okay I’m nitpicking in the extreme here. This is simply one take from what would be a long sequence so I don’t know how it would cut into the film it was being shot for but it doesn’t seem right to me.)

Now I need to pause here to reflect on one thing that isn’t made clear in the film, but which is kind of key to some of this is what sort of studio does George work for? I would assume that it was one of the majors, in which case how the films he was making would look a certain way. You have to match that up with when the films in film we are seeing are made. For example by the mid 20’s, and certainly by the time the film starts the heavy pancake make up, over acting, and mannered performances were largely a thing of the past. The jungle film that George produces on his own is done in a style that was out of date by at least half a decade. If you want to see what I mean watch the sequence where George is playing a Zorro like character. All of the shots not of George are from Fairbanks Zorro. Look at how that film in the film looks and then look at every other one. They are very different.(Do yourself a favor and look at photos from films from various productions from say 1920 through 1935 from a variety of different films, look at at the evolution of staging and composition and you’ll see how The Artist gets it wrong, or misplaced)

From there you can look at the sound films we see. They don’t look like sound films from the period, or rather they look like sequences that would have been in the second level feature or more likely Poverty Row film. Why do I say this? The sequences look anemic and lacking the background detail of the films from the majors.

Yes, I’m picking nits. I know that, but when I read reviews and hear people talking about how the film recreates the period, I have to wonder what they are referring to?

Actually I think they are thinking of are the referencing Hollywood send ups of the silent days like Betty Hutton in The Perils of Pauline or more likely the classic Singing in the Rain which managed to get away with their loosely connected to reality films by adding color, sound and knowing comedy. I think most people are also thinking of the now clichéd clips lifted from the Keystone and other comedies from the late teens where many characters were made up two or three degrees to the normal side of clowns.

Lastly the reason I don’t love is the score which is wildly uneven and painfully repetitive. Well, not so much the score, but it’s use. It is for the most part a nice score with some nice sweeping themes and motifs. The problem with the film is that it uses and reuses the same pieces of music over and over again. Yes, I know the nature of film scoring is to repeat the same themes and phrases to highlight the action and reinforce the action. I understand that the themes come and go, but there is usually some variation to how its played and how it’s used from sequence to sequence. One need only listen to say the scores for the Star Wars Film or The Lord of The Rings films to see how it’s done.

There is a jovial theme that plays through many of the lighter moments that, was by the end more like a jab in the ear. It was the same thing over and over again, why was there no variation?

I suppose that it could be argued that the music maybe similar to the way some people will play along with a silent film, say on a piano, but anyone who is good at accompanying a silent film knows you don’t just play the same riffs again and again. I’ve seen enough silent films to know that’s not how it’s done.

Its clear that the filmmakers either couldn’t afford a full blown score or didn’t understand how to score a silent film. If they didn’t know they all they need to is either look at the Internet for notes on a film like Fairbanks Thief of Baghdad or on DVD where the Criterion Collection notes how DeMille’s King of Kings explain how a silent score was put together. Better yet, just listen to any of Criterions scores for things like People on Sunday, or The Phantom Carriage with their multiple score options.

The score is deadly to The Artist and it makes watching the film a chore.

So those are my reasons for not LOVING the film. As I said at the start, they are my reasons and they are based on things you probably don't care about, but at least now you know why I'm not a fan.

And remember, as I said I don't hate the film, I just find that it's not what people are making it out to be.

Do yourself a favor, go see it and decide for yourself.

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