When I screened “The Artist,” I was reminded of my Honors Project at the University of Iowa. For that assignment, I remade the final five minute scene from an episode of the 50’s series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” My purpose was to see if I could recreate the essence of that series and its era with staged sets, minimal cinematography, snappy dialogue, plot twists, etc.
Upon completion of the project, I realized that after all my effort, the piece itself seemed rather empty. After the sufficient project design, camerawork, and even actors, I had not captured the “essence” that was my goal. What was missing?
I realized immediately that the short was rather cold and nothing more than a gimmick. It was not relevant to my present time and place and was indeed heartless. It was a selfish, “look what I can do” piece that had no purpose other than to boost my confidence in my technical filmmaking skills. My nostalgia for another time period was beside the point, but it did reveal another ego-induced goal of fulfilling my need to escape the reality of the present.
I know now as I learned then, film is an artform and art must be something more than kitsch. Although film is easily corrupted by the influence of money, all art should at least reveal humanity and its existence and offer some sort of hope or solution.
And what is this new film, “The Artist,” trying to say, other than “look what we can do?” Isn’t this film nothing more than a gimmick?
Not even the film’s characters hold any reverence to the idea of art. George Valentin is nothing more than a silent era star of big spectacles that appeals to the masses. Only with the introduction of sound does the true meaninglessness of his pictures reveal themselves.
Al Zimmer, the studio head that looks for a Valentin replacement, finds Peppy Miller. She fills the void of the star Zimmer had lost, producing romantic fluff that has no significance other than bringing in hordes of cash. By the end of the film, Valentin and Miller partner up to produce dance infused musicals, a genre from the early sound era that was about spectacle and escape, avoiding the real struggles of the time (The Depression, the Rise of Fascism).
“The Artist” may very well win Best Picture of the year from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Too bad the Academy has no problem encouraging filmmakers to take the art out of the movies. If this is true, I would encourage the Academy dropped “Arts” from its full name.