The hallmark of this year’s big Oscar winners was nostalgia for Old Hollywood: Martin Scorcese’s “Hugo,” where a boy bonds with his widowed father through movies, and Best Picture winner “The Artist,” a French-made silent film about the Silent Era. In this light, the ceremony’s set pieces felt like desperate pleas to rekindle “Hollywood Magic!” With falling attendance coinciding with the rise of episodic television, Hollywood is in crisis, unable to manufacture “magic” that makes movies into events. Still, “The Artist” is a rather current film, using the rapid onset of talkies to speak not only to Hollywood’s current crisis, but also the universal human reaction to technological change.
“The Artist” isn’t just about the Silent Era–it’s a silent movie. Director Michel Hazanavicius mimics all the hallmarks of the era: high-contrast black and white cinematography, pantomimic actors, Chaplin-style strategic sound effects, and a virtually continuous musical score. If you’ve never seen a silent film, “The Artist” is a terrific crash course in the style, down to the plot.
“The Artist” opens at the debut of silent star George Valentin’s (Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin) swashbuckler “A Russian Affair.” Valentin is the charming narcissist, keeping his co-stars in the wings while he soft-shoes for an adoring crowd, then performs tricks with his dog (Uggie, who accompanied Dujardin on the Oscars stage). Outside the theater, a cute nobody named Pepe Miller (Berenice Bejo) works her way through a throng of cute nobodies. She drops her kerchief at Valentin’s feet and stumbles under the velvet rope to his side. Everyone freezes, but Valentin, the graceful star, diffuses the situation with his smile. Bulbs pop, Miller hams it up, kisses Valentin, and the next morning everybody’s asking: who’s that girl?
Some critics complained Hazanavicius’ work feels “gimmicky,” that the film is all concept and no substance. Admittedly, the plot is rather predictable. Valentin’s fame reaches its height just as sound reaches Hollywood. Suddenly, Valentin is worthless to the studio, and he vows to get revenge by making an “artistic” film. All the while, Pepe Miller becomes Hollywood’s new “It Girl,” maintaining a bond with Valentin, the man who gave her a break. Valentin hits proverbial rock-bottom, and the rest is left for the dramatic conclusion.
Hazanvicius swifts us through the story, as in the silent epics George Valentin would have made. But this is where critics confuse swiftness with lightness. Talkies take over Hollywood so quickly stubborn skeptics like Valentin instantly become unemployable. Turns out, silent films were a bubble; when it burst, investors had to to swallow their pride or get shut out completely. His wife screams, “Why won’t you just talk?!” before packing her stuff, and he collapses into shame and resentment.
Here, “The Artist” speaks directly to the times. Generation X went from widespread use of typewriters to Commodore 64s to word processors to the internet in five years. Many thought “email” was a fad, the internet was a bunch of chat rooms, and cell phones were annoying. In a few years, the entire economy changed. Google and Yahoo went from search engines to global powers. Steve Jobs transitioned Apple from IIEs to the Ipods.
This economic principle applies to artists: You must have a second act. What if Picasso hadn’t followed the Blue Period with Cubism? Would Shakespeare be the greatest writer in the English language without his mid-career comedies? Without his solo career, John Lennon would just be Paul McCartney’s writing partner.
No matter the field, reinvention is the key to lasting greatness. The Hollywood factory can turn any fresh face into a star for a few movies, but artists have careers. To wit, Valentin sinks his fortune into a “great movie,” the overwrought silent epic “Tears of Love,” to prove his worth, but plunges himself further into bankruptcy. Valentin’s miscalculation: He tried to prove his artistry by doing the same thing that made him a star. The end of “Tears of Love” shows Valentin drowning in quicksand–a metaphor for those who refuse to adapt change.
Using Hollywood as an allegory, Hazanivicius weaves the theme of adaptation through business cycles, technological change, and artistic evolution. The result isn’t just a cliche about an artist’s wounded pride, but how pride blinds the powerful. The fear of change is really the fear of our own limitations: What if this is all I’ve got? Then we convince ourselves this is the dawn of a new era! This time it’s different!
“The Artist” reminds us that, no, it’s not. Technological change is universal: Valentin’s nightmare about talking pictures is the same nightmare cinematographers had about technicolor is the same nightmare hand animators had about “Toy Story” is the same nightmare Roger Ebert is having about 3-D movies. Valentin’s story is Portugal’s or Kodak’s or Netscape’s or Adam Sandler’s: the losing strategy is trying to protect your turf by resisting change. Valentin leaves the theater on opening night, only to be dwarfed by the marquee for Pepe Miller’s newest star vehicle. A savvier Valentin would have transformed himself into Pepe Miller’s aging mentor or something. It’s better than going broke on noble failures.
The most bewildering part of “The Artist” is the sense that George Valentin would have figured this out–after all, Hollywood is the epitome reinvention. Only in the film’s final frames do we understand why George wouldn’t speak. I won’t spoil the ending, but in the end, we find Valentin might have been the victim of prejudice, or imposed exile on himself. He finds his way back to the screen, as a version of himself. As always, the solution is figuring out how to remake yourself 2.0. Look no further than the great 70’s filmmaker who just won five Oscars with a 3-D kids movie.