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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: The Artist

Spoiler note: Mild spoilers contained herein.

The Artist is a visually lovely film, but it’s rather a hollow parable, largely because writer/director Michel Hazanavicius fills every empty frame with lovely silver images, but never fills the souls of his characters. Yes, it’s an interesting enough idea, to use black-and-white and the style of a silent-era film to tell the story of the decline of one era and the rise of the next, but I just couldn’t care about any of these people and thus, I never cared much what was going to happen to them. I was watching the clock halfway in, and ready for it to be over by the end of its hour-and-forty-minute running time.

And look, I love black-and-white films. I appreciate very much that we’ve seen some filmmakers this year going back to black-and-white over color, even when it doesn’t quite work, because challenging yourself creatively, making a statement, taking a risk, is part of what artists should do. The question for me whether a choice to film in black-and-white has artistic merit besides the desire to stand out from the pack. Does the choice to use shades of silver rather than the full spectrum of color to tell a story enhance rather than detract from it? If it was shot in color rather than black and white, would the story underneath still be moving and engaging and interesting and original?

You could argue that the use of black-and-white in The Artist is so integral to its method of storytelling, so organic to what it is, that you cannot separate the two. And that may be so, but at the end of the day there still has to be a compelling story as the scaffolding for all that style, there still need to be characters rather than caricatures. While The Artist succeeds stylistically, and the story wrapped around the end of the silent film ear lends credibility to the choice to use black-and-white, at the end of the day what we have is this absolutely gorgeous film that sacrifices depth of character development for broad parable. It wants to be relevant to the current state of the film industry — and of course it is, if for no other reason than history’s tendency to repeat itself – but the characters are too thinly drawn to feel more than paper dolls acting out their parts.

At the end of the day, I just didn’t care enough about either George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) or Peppy Miller ( Bérénice Bejo, who’s married to director Michel Hazanavicius) to feel invested one way or another in what happened to either of them. So George misses the boat on the talkie tsunami that’s about to obliterate his career and render him irrelevant, loses his fancy house (it was modest, really, by today’s megastar standards), ends up in a crappy apartment with only booze and his faithful canine companion for company. But George was kind of a schmoozy, fame-glorying jerk when we first met him, and there’s really not even a satisfying moment of personal revelation out of him that made me care any more about him by the end of the story.

Peppy is very … cute and toothsome and, well, peppy, I guess. Like many enthusiastic young girls who descend on Hollywood with dreams of fame and glory. Why we’re supposed to care particularly whether Peppy makes it or not doesn’t seem to matter because as a character, she exists primarily to serve as both the contrast to George and a symbolic representation of the force that’s driving him out, and simultaneously as the force for good who helps pull him back him. And maybe I’m just feeling uncharacteristically cynical, but the film’s closing, well-danced and charming though it is, just made me think, “Well, he’ll get another few years out of that before the next thing pushes it out, then what?”

John Goodman, broadly playing the stereotypical cigar-chomping producer Al Zimmer, hams it up nicely but doesn’t make us think one way or another about his character’s actions; he’s essentially a prop, just another rich, arrogant, Hollywood white guy, making his bucks by using up other peoples’ lives and then discarding them, and he never does a single thing to counter this perception of stereotype (this isn’t Goodman’s fault, it’s a problem with the script). So when Zimmer and his gang of equally rich and arrogant old white guys unceremoniously oust George after years of hits to make way for the advent of talkies, we just mentally shrug: That’s the way it is, George; just when you think you’ve got your career path all figured out, along comes technology and change to screw everything up for you. Evolve and survive, or cling to the past and perish. As we all must.

I mean, compare The Artist to the crazy genius of Guy Maddin, especially as seen in My Winnipeg and Brand Upon the Brain! Maddin is best known for his work in black-and-white, but his work goes beyond merely creating silver-toned images; Maddin explores the darkest, dirtiest corners of psychology, pathology and screwed up familial relations. There’s some seriously brilliant, fucked-up stuff going on in Maddin’s work, even all the pieces don’t quite fit, as with this year’s Keyhole. By contrast, The Artist feels so surface: it’s like the difference between looking at a glossy studio portrait of a family versus being a fly in the wall and seeing that family with all their dirty laundry hanging out to air dry. Maddin’s lens may be a twisted, distorted one, but at least it’s always interesting, and his use of shadow, contrast and lighting in black-and-white has a distinctive feel.

The Artist was more problematic for me: a movie where I was very admiring of the production value; of the costume design and hair and makeup choices; of the many exquisitely-lit and framed shots; of a few clever bits that interweave dance seamlessly into story (a scene where George (Jean Dujardin) first “meets” Peppy by dancing on duet with her legs beneath a scrim, and a later scene where Peppy envelops herself in George’s jacket, caressing herself like a lover, are particularly imaginative and well-realized); and even, an adorable Jack Russell Terrier — and yet still, at the end of it, felt hollow and unsatisfied.

Yes, The Artist is very pretty, and it’s certainly likable, and in all likelihood, you’ll see it and fall in love with it. The stars, especially Bejo, are perfectly charming. The Artist is just different enough to stand out from the pack, and it, like its leads, has effortlessly danced its way (at least for the moment) into the collective critical heart. I wish I could get better why this film just didn’t connect with me; when a film is as generally well-liked as this one, it’s hard not to second-guess your own response to the film, but it is what it is. Maybe I should just send The Artist a bunch of flowers and a note saying, “Sorry, kid. It’s not you, it’s me.”

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6 Responses to “Review: The Artist”

  1. david rosengarten says:

    At the end of the day, don’t use the phrase “end of the day” three times when you’re trying to write a serious piece of criticism. If you’d taken the time to notice, perhaps you’d have taken the time to notice how everything falls together in this exquisite film. And how a banal quest for depth should occasionally be short-circuited by an utterly brilliant use of archetypes. What’s with Paradise Lost, anyway? Don’t these characters have any back story?

  2. Kim Voynar says:

    … Or you could just try saying politely something along the lines of: “You know, I disagree with your take, Kim, but allow me to tell you why. This is what I got out of seeing The Artist…”

    I welcome that conversation, David, because I’m genuinely interested in hearing what people took from it that I didn’t. I don’t think you’re an idiot or a sheep following the critical herd for thinking it’s an exquisite film, I just happen to disagree with you. Happy to engage in actual discussion should you have anything more to add.

    Or, you know, just keep being a dick. Because people are ever so much more interested in listening to your perspective when you bathe it in snark.

  3. david rosengarten says:

    Dear Kim: There are two things I’d never heard of before yesterday….The Artist, or Movie City News. When my daughter took me to the former last night, I was total tabula rasa…..well, skeptical, even. Ninety minutes later, we were both overwhelmed by this little jewel box, swathed in a kind of unprecedented perfection. What got us was the film’s ability to mount cliché after cliché…and make you care about these clichés, celebrate them, find affirmation of Hollywood and, yea, even life in them. Had I read about what this film does, I could not possibly have anticipated how brilliantly it does it. It feels to me a lot like what Tom Stoppard said about Arcadia, which I consider to be the greatest play of the 20th century: when asked if it’s his greatest, Stoppard said “I don’t know….but it was my luckiest play in the writing process.”

    I came home and started looking for reviews on the internet. Critics seemed almost inspired by the film, and rose to the occasion; the pieces sparkled with love and insight. Please understand how I felt when the first distaff note was sounded by a writer who used the trite expression “at the end of the day” three times in one piece. I apologize for the fact that this got my dander up…..but I’m a writer too, and I care about my product, and I would never let a triple-trite-fest escape my computer. I guess I drew some conclusions I should not have drawn about attentiveness and style.

    At the end of the day, I meant to be angry, not snarky. I love good debate, in all of my pursuits, and never get rattled by the opinions of others–unless they’re not paying attention. Again, I probably jumped to some unwarranted conclusions. Yes, I would probably cut you more slack in the cold light of day.

    But believe me, “snarky,” if that’s what it is, is a whole civilization better than name-calling. You may be disappointed in my point of view, but when it comes to rational discourse…gosh golly gee, did you ever lose this round. I am appalled.

  4. Kim Voynar says:

    David, I appreciate your perspective on the film, and thank you for sharing it. I get that this film resonates for a lot of people, both critics and folks like yourself who just enjoy going to the movies. Having worked in this industry for a good many years now, though, I’ve also seen the tendency of the critical set to either collectively moon over (or slam) a film. A lot. Sometimes I’m with the majority, sometimes not. If I’d seen this film in a theater, surrounded by an audience full of people loving it, would that energy have affected my own viewing of it? Quite possibly … I’ve certainly seen plenty of films at Sundance and Toronto, particularly, where the group love or hate seems to palpably affect the overall critical thermometer of some films.

    For whatever reason, while I appreciated the visual beauty and style of The Artist, it never connected with me emotionally, and the characters felt shallow. I welcome hearing the perspective of others who both love this film and do not. What I’m seeing a lot of on year-end lists is that either people have The Artist high up on their lists, or not at all.

    As for the name-calling … that was a reference to one of my favorite celeb-type people, Wil Wheaton, whose mantra of “Don’t be a dick” has become a bit of a saying among those who follow his blog and Twitter feed, used especially to remind people to be as nice to each other on the internet as they would if they were face-to-face. In other words, if you and I had been talking about this film over coffee, would you be likely to listen to my thoughtful perspective on the film and then dive in with “My God! I can’t believe you just said ‘at the end of the day’ three times!” or would you just counter with your own perspective? I get that my use of “at the end of the day” turned you off, and yes, I should have caught that on a final polish. I write, often, by free-forming my thoughts and then going back and reworking and moving things around until I get them how I like them, and that slipped by me. You’re absolutely right that it shouldn’t have, but it did. As I am human, so I err, at least on occasion.

    You don’t know me, or this site (no reason you would, as it’s primarily an industry site), so you find my review, read it, and promptly attack me for something that pushed your button. What you don’t know, because you don’t know me, is that in the past two weeks I’ve been dealing with my teenage daughter undergoing major surgery and recuperating at home in a wheelchair, along with Christmas for six kids, family Christmas at my house, wrapping editing on my own film, and a huge stack of awards consideration screeners to watch to get my year-end voting and top ten list done. And writing reviews about some of the more important ones. I know, wah, and I agree, none of this is any of your problem as a reader. But perhaps that gives you a little perspective into why a professional writer and editor such as myself might make a mistake in editing a long piece during a very busy time of year and let such a “triple-trite-fest” escape her computer.

    So while that trite turn of phrase pushed your “good writing” button, the way in which you snarkily pounced on that rather than on the substance of the piece pushed one of my own buttons, the “Good God, yet another person who thinks it’s his job to police the internet looking for a writer to make a mistake so they can call them out for it in the comments” button. If my own response was, in turn, less civilized that it should have been, I sincerely apologize for appalling you, and thank you for the more intelligent discourse that followed.

  5. david rosengarten says:

    Dear Kim: Wow. Thank you so much for taking the time to give me a better picture of who you are, what you do, and what you’re up against. This was far and above the call of cyber-duty, and I am touched by your generosity of spirit. Once again: wow!

    More important….most important of all!…..I fervently hope that all works out well with your daughter. Thank you again for giving me the chance to wish you, her and your whole family a better 2012!

    Since you’ve been so open about yourself, and your life….I’m delighted to respond in kind. (We will repair this nasty conversation one way or another!) Because we now have an intriguing kind of engagement….I’d like to tell you who I am….and who I’m not.

    Believe me….I am not scouring the internet, looking for writers to criticize. In fact, this is, I think, the first time that I’ve ever responded on the internet (outside of things I do in my main field).

    What caused my response? A complicated nexus…..

    First of all, my interaction with the movies, with the arts in general, is not just casual. I have a doctorate in dramatic literature, taught theatre and film at several universities, and, since switching to food criticism/wine criticism, have produced/appeared in 2500 shows on television. My TV take always was (and still is!)–we should lift food TV out of the vulgar reality-show doldrums in which it festers!

    Now comes the crotchety-ass confession: I have that same proselytizing feeling about many things. (This is so embarrassing!) I try to hold the wall of civilization in these coarse times. I wear a tie on airplanes, for chrissakes, even if I’m in the back of the bus. I say “thank you” whenever possible. I hold the door for strangers in public places.

    For me, the movie about which we disagree represents one of those beautiful moments when the mores of another age find a gilded platform from which to speak to our own age.

    Now stick with me here. This gets difficult to read–even for me!
    Here’s how I saw it on the first go-round: every one of your oft-repeated “day-enders” landed on my ear like a “wat-EH-vurr.” Lord knows I shouldn’t be bashing Val Girls (some of my best friends are Val Girls!)–but in your piece, at times, it sounded like the empress of the Val Girls was raging at Beauty, suspicious of it, determined to tear it down just because its periscope looks backward, not forward.

    I know now that I was WAY OFF about you. Way off. I love your reasoned letters since. You write beautifully, with dignity. You also do what I always try to do–communicate high-level ideas without losing your soul in it. You hold out for your own identity–hence, a pomposity-deflating excursion into informal phrases occasionally. It works.

    So…once again….I apologize deeply that I swung at the “style” curveball and missed. I really do.

    But there’s a bit more.

    I do stand behind what I TRIED to do: bring style into the discussion of this movie. The Artist, to me, is all about style. That’s what makes it so wonderful. I was operating on the premise that if the critic lacks style himself or herself (which I now forcefully know you don’t), the critic is going to miss this movie.

    For a long time, I have been a proponent of various aesthetic schools of thought, sometimes lumped together as “l’art pour l’art.” That doesn’t mean that I cannot appreciate the fiercest Brechtian/Shavian social ravings, or the work of deep “psychologists” (my doctoral dissertation was on Ibsen!)
    But I do find lots of room for art that is simply about art. A piece of atonal non-program music, with no reference to the world, can move me mightily as an aesthetic creation. So can an Abstract Expressionist painting….or a work by Magritte, which refers only to other paintings. One of my favorite plays ever is The Importance of Being Earnest, which features characters that are spectacularly shallow. But Wilde brings them together on stage in the perfect parody of a nineteenth-century well-made play, polished beautifully. The structure itself speaks volumes: the absurdity of theatre, of society, maybe of life. And then there’s the overarching “theme,” perhaps: a little more attention to surface, and a little less to “earnestness,” might make the world more bearable. It’s kind of “empty,” to use your word….but it is deeply radical, and it brings huge tears of aesthetic appreciation to my eyes.

    It is in this tradition that I place The Artist. I could go on and on about its breathtaking cleverness (e.g. in the opening film-within-the-film he’s being tortured because he refuses to SPEAK!!!), about its clichéd metaphors that support all the clichéd actions (Jesus! staircases everywhere in a career and a world economy going up and down!), about its narrative playfulness (“Bang” ends up referring to a car crashing, not a pistol going off as everyone thinks!). I could swoon further about what I see as structural genius–the glories of cliché finally revealed, because they’re set against even cheesier clichés in the films-within-the-film; it’s like getting permission to applaud a dog sprinting towards a cop to save a man in a fire!

    But….I’ll perhaps leave most of that subjective wonder for another conversation, when you can tell me why it’s not so wondrous for you.

    There will be a New York Film Festival. You will probably be attending.

    There is little I would welcome as much in 2012 than that hypothetical cup of coffee you discussed turned actual.

    Warmest wishes for better times with your daughter….and for managing your complicated life with less stress (I know so well the drill!)


  6. Archie Leach says:

    I’ll be less complex:

    From what I read from Kim is that she(he) doesn’t like the *story*…. the problem being the story isn’t ALONE(besides) driving the love for The Artist.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon