Why Every Journalist Should Go and See 'The Artist'

January 30, 2012

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo in Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist. Photo courtesy of Entertainment Film Distributors 

It's not exactly groundbreaking to hail The Artist as a great film. With three Golden Globes already in the bag and ten Oscar nominations to go with almost universal critical acclaim, saying you think it's pretty good isn't exactly controversial. I expected to be impressed, but was shocked by how profoundly moving I found the film when I went to see it at the weekend. In large part this is down to how immaculately crafted a piece of cinema it is, but what sealed the deal was that, in what seemed to be an unavoidably obvious subtext, The Artist turned out to be a film about me.

Clearly I don't mean that I toddle around 1920s Los Angeles with a faithful chauffeur/manservant and live the life of a matinee idol; I certainly can't dance, nor do I consider what I do to be art, per se (although, that said, my most constant companion has four legs and a tail). But while The Artist seems at first to be a film about films and filmmaking, it's actually a commentary on what happens to people who get caught up in the winds of technological change - which is certainly a subject to which I can relate.

As you'll know if you've seen the film or read anything about it, the plot of The Artist concerns a silent movie star who struggles to adapt in the dawning of the age of the talkies. But it was clear to me from about 15 minutes in that Hazanavicius, who wrote as well as directed, very obviously intends his film to address some rather more contemporary themes. George Valentin (the utterly superb Dujardin) stands for anyone who has found the certainties of life upended: that's a common enough subject for drama, but the specifics of the story mean The Artist will ring deafeningly loud bells for anyone who makes a living from making artistic or creative works.

Just as musicians and, yes, filmmakers have spent the last decade coming to terms with what digital distribution is doing to their business model, so journalists and writers are having to adapt to a world in which words in printed or on-screen form are no longer enough. For Valentin, the obstacle was an audience that lost interest in films without dialogue: for today's writers, our audiences want links, commentary, interactivity; audio, video and social media feeds - and they've been conditioned to expect the lot without having to pay. That's not the audience's fault, but nor is it the writers'. And so, just like Valentin, we're going through the painful and difficult process of trying to find a way of staying relevant in a changing landscape we're not all best equipped to navigate. 

That all might sound like willful self-absorption - who doesn't see themselves and their lives mirrored in the art that they take in? That's what cinema, music, any art, is for - were it not for the film's striking and inspiring message. I don't have to give away anything in the plot to explain what that message is, either, because by the very act of making his film in the way he did, Hazanavicius turns the entire thing into a 100-minute-long letter of upliftment to anyone struggling to make sense of their place in a changing world.

By shooting his silent movie in the smaller, squarer aspect ratio, and by using black-and-white film and interstitial captions instead of spoken dialogue, Hazanavicius isn't just paying homage to a byegone era of filmmaking: he's proving that a great story, told beautifully by a gifted filmmaker and a tremendously talented cast, doesn't actually need all the bells and whistles contemporary Hollywood has led us all to believe we depend on. I've only seen it the once, and it'll probably not be until the fourth or fifth time through that I can view it in sufficiently analytical a manner, but I don't think there's a single frame of The Artist that uses any kind of special effect or movemaking fakery - the camera simply films what happens in front of it. None of this should work for today's sophisticated audiences, weaned on Pixar and Industrial Light & Magic, on Imax and Dolby Surround Sound - but it doesn't matter, because a team of master storytellers is at work. By stripping away all the flam and flash and unnecessary surface-level sheen, The Artist shows that effective and affecting communication doesn't depend on any of that stuff. 

Which is why I found this beautiful, magical piece of cinema - easily one of the best films I've ever seen, whatever that may be worth - so deeply inspiring. It reminds me that what matters most is not what I can't do and what I can't control, but that I should keep on concentrating on my strengths. It reinforces my belief that people need stories, and will continue to need storytellers. And it gives me hope that even when the certainties that had surrounded the business of telling those stories are crumbling, there is still room for skilled people to find their niche in the new order that emerges.

Clearly I don't expect the film to herald a new wave of silent movies, nor do I imagine Hazanavicius would ever make another film in the same way: but his wordless work spoke more loudly to me than anything I can remember in years, at a point when I particularly needed to hear its message. Now is not the time to listen to the doom-mongers and give up and go home: now is the time to refocus on the stuff that I know I'm good at, and to carry on hoping and believing that the future can be at least the equal of the past. I realise this sounds more like faith than science, but that's art: and The Artist is as good as it gets.


So, a film entirely without words helps a writer of them bear the vagaries of technological change....interesting......+:)

posted by: mewsician: 10 Feb, 2012 20:59:30

Yup - alchemy, of a sort, innit? I suppose you could call it the magic of Hollywood.



posted by: Angus: 12 Feb, 2012 10:45:31

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