February 2012 | Home
After six years, editor John Lofy is leaving Michigan Today. His goodbye column includes a list of his favorite articles.
U-M's campus zoo delighted locals with bears, skunks, a fox, a host of turtles and one very angry wolverine.
Writer and law prof William Ian Miller's bleak and hilarious exploration of aging.
Rebuilding the men's and women's basketball programs has taken a few years, but both are now poised for long term success.
Second and third thoughts on a movie about the movies' early days.
A case where it might be fine to break the grammar rules.
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'The Artist' and the afterlife of movies
February 15, 2012
Maybe you've noticed that stimulating movies often have a lingering critical afterlife. Media writers like to take an interesting, engaging film and dig deeper into the work—a phenomenon that I believe speaks to the cultural richness of the film experience.
The presence of an automaton in "Hugo" prompted a lengthy overview in The New York Times of this ancient mechanical invention that can do magical and human-like things. The article supplied details that helped explain the automaton's narrative functions in Martin Scorsese's film—how the machine was engineered to make drawings and even write poetry. When the lad Hugo gets his automaton working again, it produces a drawing that sets the final plotting arcs in motion and leads us to the work of film's first fantasist, Georges Méliès. The article reports that Méliès himself owned automatons.
One of the many follow-up articles on "War Horse" centered on the important role of landscape imagery in the film, with its compositional framings reminiscent of one of Spielberg's favorite directors, John Ford. I fully concurred. The classic Ford reference analogy would be "Stagecoach" (1939), one of my all-time favorite films, with its magnificent sky-dominated views of Monument Valley. I took a second look at "War Horse" and saw just how often the landscape compositions consisted of a sliver of horizon line with great expanses of sky commanding the remainder of the screen. The technique generated a certain visual mood that overlaid the action. You see this especially in the beautiful training scenes with the horse Joey, and those where he and his farm family struggle to survive on seemingly infertile land.
In another post-review commentary I caught a lively discussion on NPR radio about the accuracy (or lack thereof) of Marilyn Monroe's characterization in "My Week with Marilyn," a film about her affair with a novice on-set assistant while Monroe was in England in 1956 shooting "The Prince and the Showgirl." The discussion included an interview with a British professor who's written biographies of Monroe. Based on her knowledge of Monroe's personality, she questioned the authenticity of the book, written by the film assistant Colin Clark decades after Monroe's death, from which the script (by Adam Hodges) was adapted. Significant too, she said, was the fact that Clark himself was dead when the book was developed into a screenplay and that freed him from being held accountable for the claims in his story. Hearing these comments somewhat dampened my initial response to a tender little film that with its supposed first-hand "secret" revelations seemed to make Hollywood's favorite screen goddess into a more compassionate, caring human being. Oh well, maybe the film—like many another screen biopic before it—was born of imaginative fiction. But I'd still see it again just to re-experience Michelle Williams' marvelous reincarnation of la Monroe.
Now herewith is a post-review piece of my own—on "The Artist." It's about how director-screenwriter Michel Hazanavicius appropriated elements of Hollywood's "silent" filmmaking years to create an irresistible motion picture that is both nostalgic and original in its creation. (Spoiler alert: If you've yet to see the film, you might want to save the following discussion for later reading.)
Structurally, "The Artist" incorporates into the narrative flow a plethora of classic transitions from scene to scene. To name a few: the iris-in/iris-out; vertical, diagonal, and flip wipes. I haven't seen the wipe device (an optical movement that wipes out one image as another appears) used so well in a contemporary film since Richard Attenborough's "Chaplin" (1992). Passage-of-time montages condense major events central to the plot—an essential technique in a film like "The Artist," which begins in 1927 and ends in 1932. In its recounting of the demise of silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who rejects the talkies, and rising star Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who embraces them, montages are key to the fast-paced flow of story line. Quick-cut shots of the stubbornly-proud Valentin filming a final silent adventure film form a montage that contrasts with Peppy Miller's concurrent rise to stardom, encapsulated in a montage made up of movie magazine covers featuring the ascendant Peppy.
Hazanavicius weaves into "The Artist" homages to classic old films, filmmakers and actors. Much has been written about its inspiration from "Singin' in the Rain" and "A Star is Born," so I'll move beyond those to other films. The dissolution of George's marriage occurs succinctly in a breakfast table montage that owes much to Orson Welles and "Citizen Kane." A scene in which Peppy enters George's dressing room and performs a pas de deus with the silent star's jacket on a coatrack echoes the famous (Ernst) "Lubitsch touch"—indirect, discreet sexual innuendo. Through masterful body movement, Jean Dujardin conjures up a memory of silent movie greats as opposite as the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks (legs wide apart, arms akimbo, disarming, triumphant smile) and Charlie Chaplin (subtle body and facial gestures imbued with an aura of comic pathos). Fairbanks can be also recognized in Valentin's adventure-film romps and in his post-screening "live" stage appearances. His Chaplinesque qualities appear in a lovely table scene where Valentin, emotionally down-and-out, dips his head into a bowl of pudding and has it licked from his nose by his sympathetic dog. In a backlot audition scene there's a W.C. Fields look-alike; in another scene the dialogue recalls Greta Garbo when Peppy says: "Take me home; I want to be alone."
As for production design, "The Artist" brilliantly masters the favored techniques of black-and-white cinematography for a luminous silver-screen effect. Actresses' costumes are made of highly reflective materials, as are their shoes. Blonde women are especially suitable for the romanticizing, three-point light that falls upon and radiates off every character in "The Artist," male and female. Male characters appear in white shirts, suits with white collars, and satin vests, all of which halate and glow in the sparkling mise-en-scene.
What is most original about "The Artist" is its playful suggestion of a silent film that is anything but silent. A musical score with varied stylizations by Ludovic Bource expresses emotions and feelings often better than words. Think of the accompanying underscoring that occurs when George discovers the whereabouts of his auctioned possessions. It's the ultimate moment of George's humiliation, and his emotions are rendered through loud musical crescendoes that become powerful expressions of agony. When realistic sound itself is used in the film, its effect is often expressionistic and psychological. The clinking of a drinking glass on George's dressing room table initiates a sound effects sequence that ends with George watching a floating feather as it lands and explodes on a studio backlot. The sequence offers an objective correlative (in the form of a nightmare) for George's obsessive, terrorizing fear of sound motion pictures.
I'm certain that film historians and devotees can come up with many other examples of "The Artist"'s cinema allusions and its masterful aesthetic design. But I'll end with one more: the dancing. I'm always blown away watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers's dance sequences. The couple didn't depend on retakes and an editor's cutting skills. Their dance routines played out in real-time, single shot artistry. Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, guided by the film-savvy Michel Hazanavicius, cap a brilliant film by putting on an Astaire-Rogers display that leaves filmgoers applauding. It's one reason I've added "The Artist" to my list of film classics.
What did you think of "The Artist"? Were there allusions to old classics you found particularly interesting? And what about Prof. Beaver's notion that the best films linger in our memories, and spark new ideas? Are there certain films that seized your imagination and led it to new discoveries? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
is a film historian and critic, and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan.