The Movie Club

Best Movies 2011: A defense of The Artist, offered without disclaimers or shame.

A defense of The Artist, offered without disclaimers or shame.

Still of Ryan Gosling in Drive.
© 2011 FilmDistrict. All rights reserved.

Dear Dana, Dan, and Michael,

Dan, I love the way you so euphemistically referred to your “own shortcomings as a viewer” in reference to your now infamous (and, to me, captivatingly honest) New York Times Magazine riff on your struggles in watching certain slow-moving vehicles. It was the piece that launched a thousand outraged tweets, and quite a few longer retorts, most of which ran along the lines of “What?! But slow films are rewarding!” Which was part of your point, but never mind. I referred earlier to the idea of loving the experience of watching a certain movie. But one of the great things about your piece was the way it allowed that movies can take on all sorts of shapes in our minds after we’ve watched them—so often, a movie doesn’t assume its real shape until that point, anyway. (Or it assumes no shape at all.) There’s also this fallacy that embracing slow-going movies, just for their slowness, somehow makes you a better moviegoer, a better critic, a better person. My former colleague Laura Miller tangled with this issue in a different way in a marvelous piece in Salon earlier this year, arguing that reading great books doesn’t necessarily make you a better person, but more likely reflects fragments of things that are already there inside you: “Isn’t it just as likely that many people who are already empathetic and moral will be drawn to literature because they’re curious about and interested in how others think and feel?”

And how about the way Ryan Gosling kicked that guy to death in the elevator in Drive? (A movie that I, like you, Dana, pretty much loved.) I think, as just the first round of Movie Club proves—as every full year of moviegoing proves—there are an infinite number of ways for movies to reach us, to sneak in through cracks we didn’t even know existed. If you have a house with cracks, you’ve got to seal them up. But for moviegoing, don’t seal the cracks! It’s how the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen said. Which leads me to something you said, Michael, about how both Melancholia and The Tree of Life were both made by directors who think cinematically, and my lack of warmth for TOL notwithstanding, you’re right. As you said, “Directors who don’t think cinematically sadly account for most of the movies we see all year.”

Which is why I really need to talk about The Artist, allegedly the Philistine’s choice for movie of the year. Because it’s not nearly as good as the great silents—it’s not Keaton, it’s not Murnau, it’s not Griffith. Because it’s a crowd-pleaser, a trifle, a soufflé of a movie with no overarching theme or purpose. Because it’s not as great as the buildup from Cannes led us to believe. Because Harvey Weinstein saw it and immediately thought, “I can make money off this.”

I’m afraid there are lots of reasons for not liking The Artist that actually have little or nothing to do with The Artist, and though that happens with lots of movies, I still find it troublesome. I love The Artist, as Dana said, “without disclaimers or shame.” I think shame is a useless construct when it comes to movies. (Disclaimers—well, we all need those once in a while.) In terms of cinematic thinking in 2011, Michel Hazanavicius trumps Terrence Malick. For one thing, he doesn’t need any “Oh, mother! Oh, father!” voice-overs, no shots of the sun peeping through tree branches, to make sure we’re feeling what we’re supposed to be feeling. And he’s relying on the grace of his actors, their way of moving, their subtle shifts in expression, to tell a story in purely visual terms. Not only is there no dialogue; there’s no expository dialogue, no overt explanation of why the lead character, Jean Dujardin’s George Valentin, is so resistant to talking pictures, which some of the movie’s detractors see as a flaw. For me, George Valentin lives in a mirror-universe where he foresees an actor in another universe (the real one), John Gilbert, drinking himself to death in 1936: The problem wasn’t that Gilbert’s voice wasn’t good enough for talkies (it was), but that filmmakers’ awkwardness in the new medium ended up reflecting badly on him, through little or no fault of his own. In other words, the fictional George Valentin had a premonition of something that happened in real life. Why wouldn’t he be afraid?

I love the economy and discipline of The Artist. Hazanavicius finds all he needs in the faces of his actors, Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. And I’m astonished by the effect the movie has had on audiences. I’ve seen it three times now, twice with a “real” audience (the first time, at Cannes, doesn’t count), and both times I’ve been amazed at how restless the audience is at the beginning—there’s that point where you expect the talking to kick in, and it just doesn’t—and how wrapped up they are by the end. I know, I know—just because lots of people love a movie doesn’t make it good. (The Dark Knight, anyone?) But I do think Hazanavicius and his actors have helped unlock the code of silent-film acting for many people, people who have always thought it was overdone or, at least, just too weird to understand. Film critics know all about silent film and silent-film acting, but who cares about us? As the writer Eileen Whitfield observed in her wonderful biography of Mary Pickford, Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, modern audiences often view silent movies as if they’re trying to be talkies and failing, whereas they’re really much closer to dance, a symbolic re-enactment. The Artist is all about faces and movement and the emotion that can be drawn out of those things together. To me, it’s elemental.