Integrity and “The Artist”

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.



  1. The modernized cinematography is what makes the movie accessible, though. I kind of had the opposite reaction from you… I wish the movie had a story that took place in 2011. Why use the style of silent movies and try to make something that feels exactly like silent movies that already exist, and are already set in the 1920s? In this case it works, because it is a movie about movies in that era, but I would also want to see a silent movie with people dressed like they do today, with flat screen TVs in homes and computers in offices and people talking on cell phones.

  2. Hah, by coincidence I saw The Artist a few hours ago, with my better half. She was really disappointed and kept going on about Melancholia being a much, much better movie.

    She is right of course, but I found myself defending The Artist, in the sense that there was more to it than visible at first sight. I used to be quite a movie buff and The Artist appealed to that part of me — by citing old movies and techniques, paraphrasing clichжs etcetera.

    Thinking about it now, I have to concede that I am probably a mirror of the people in the Academy of Motion Arts, an older, white guy, way too full of nostalgia.

    The Artist is a nice little film, but there are too many weaknesses (e.g. the scene in the hospital where the girl runs along a corridor — that is strictly post-war, the cramped set in the final dance scene, the shabby street lots that were more London than L.A., and so on), and it will not be remembered.

    Melancholia is still in the front of my mind, even now after a couple of months. No Oscars? The Artist five? There is no justice in that.

    O, Khoi: the camera equipment in the silent age was really compact and facilitated nimble shots (e.g. Keystone Cops). Fluid camerawork was the sign of high production value: guys like Billy Bitzer were prone to dollying on coaster wheel chairs and stuff like that. In camera effects were another staple of the silent movies, e.g. the ‘iris shot’ and the ‘fade out’.
    Sound necessitated soundproofed cameras, with huge enclosures, and the cinematography became more static as a result.

  3. I’m am not a fan of silent movies. I focus too much on the dialog, I won’t event like a song is the lyrics don’t make sense. Debated to my self if this movie could live up to it’s fan fair. I trust these comments and will pass. Maybe I’ll rent it one day if it’s the last one at Red box.

  4. I agree completely. I’ve sat through a lot of silent movies. This just doesn’t capture the look and feel of a silent film at all. I was not at all surprised to find out this thing was shot in color and converted to black and white later. It lacks a certain richness of tone that movies of the period had, and I found it distracting.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.