Shockingly, last night at the Oscars, Hollywood decided to award the Best Picture prize to a film that celebrates Hollywood. Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist,” a heartfelt ode to the silent film-era, is an undeniably charming picture even if it seems unable to resist nudging the audience to constantly wink along with its own cleverness. However, I can’t help but point out that as little more than a casual fan of silent movies, “The Artist” still seems like a pale imitation of the original. It is a tribute to silents in the same way that, say, “Happy Days” was a tribute to the 1950s.
Over at The New Yorker, film critic David Denby makes a great argument as to why the year’s “Best Picture” misses the mark for what it honors. Denby’s principal complaint is that the acting in “The Artist” captures very little of the quality of acting that the original silent movie stars employed to make those films come alive in the absence of sound. He writes, “Silent film is another country. They speak another language there — a language of gestures, stares, flapping mouths, halting or skittering walks, and sometimes movements and expressions of infinite intricacy and beauty.”
Denby believes these characteristics escape the two leads of Hazanavicius’ film: “both characters, and both actors, move in a straight line in each scene; they stay within a single mood. The great silent actors did so much more.” He elaborates: “In the silents, you have to do something; you can’t just be. Silent-film acting drew on the heroic and melodramatic traditions of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century theatre… it drew as well on mime, magic shows, and vaudeville… Subtlety was not a high priority in those arts.” It was frequently not great acting, but it was always expressive.
I agree with this assessment, though in making his case Denby underrates my biggest complaint about the film: it just didn’t look like a true silent movie. Hazanavicius’ camera is surprisingly fluid in “The Artist.” It jumps back and forth, climbs high and dips low, draws in for surprisingly detailed closeups and pulls out with great agility for wide shots. To me, silents generally felt flatter, and not in a bad way. They made the most of the inflexibility of early camera equipment, using shots that seem static relative to today’s unimpeded camera technology, but they were very effectively contrasted with their stars’ outsized facial gestures, propeller-like limbs and ability to cut dynamic swaths across the screen. The camera could not be expressive, so the actors were. “The Artist” feels a lot more like a movie that might have come a few decades later, when camera equipment got lighter and more nimble; a movie from the 1940s or 1950s perhaps, except with the sound removed. This, for me, was its worst mistake: in a movie about movies, it could not convince me to suspend my disbelief.