We shouldn't reward a film that substitutes style for substance.
Someday, we'll look back at 2011 and fondly dub it the "Year of Nostalgia." It was a 12-month period during which pop culture focused its energy on romanticizing the past, and ignored much of the present and the future in the process. As Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out in Salon, many of 2011's most talked-about films revolved around the theme of idealizing days past. Last summer there was a brief revival of early 1990s grunge culture, as major publications insisted that Nirvana's album Nevermind was still relevant and MTV reintroduced Beavis and Butthead to the airways. At the Grammys, the award for 2011's album of the year went to Adele, a singer who has reignited America's passion for soul music.
Given society's fixation on its rearview mirror, it seems only fitting that The Weinstein Company's The Artist is the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for Best Picture at the 84th Academy Awards. The film is soaked in nostalgia. Its plot revolves around a character trapped by reverence for the recent past, and its style—black and white, silent—stirs up memories of a time when Hollywood relied on actors and actresses, not computer graphics and special effects, to conjure silver-screen magic. So rarely does a possible Best-Picture winner perfectly sync up with a culture's predominant narrative.
And yet awarding the Best-Picture statuette to The Artist would be a mistake. It is a fine film in many respects, but, as plenty of critics have pointed out, somewhat slight. More importantly, the film mimics past styles to a fault and eschews developing anything resembling an original voice. By bestowing the ultimate prize upon it, the Academy would be tacitly endorsing the idea that recreating the past has more merit than striving for originality and present relevance. If The Artist does win Best Picture, there is a good chance that years from now we will look back, laugh, and list the win as one of those memorable gaffes committed by Oscar voters.
When I saw the film, one question kept popping into my mind: What's the point? Director Michel Hazanavicius seems intent on paying homage to the days of silent cinema, but his motivations for doing so are never clear. The narrative appropriates elements from the 1937 film A Star Is Born and the 1952 film Singin' in the Rain by juxtaposing a silent movie star's slow slide into oblivion once the advent of talkies renders his soundless epics obsolete with the meteoric rise of an actress whose career he helped launch. Hazanavicius also goes to great lengths to mimic the style of era in which part of his story is set; in addition to shooting the film in black and white at 22 per frames per second, he employs a 1:33:1 aspect ratio and transitions between scenes by using the same types of dissolves and intertitles that were prevalent during cinema's silent era.
The fruits of Hazanavicius's labors are technically and artistically impressive. The film has the look and feel of a classic silent movie, and lead actors Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo give performances that suggest the pair could have thrived in Hollywood during the 1920s. But the film also borrows some of the lesser appealing aspects of silent cinema. The plot is straightforward to the point of predictability—every twist can be foreseen two reels before it happens—and given the lack of surprise, its 100 minute running time feels much longer than it actually is.
This brings me back to the question of why. Why put forth the effort to make a silent movie in the year 2012? Hazanavicius is no Quentin Tarentino; his film is not a pastiche that melds stylistic tendencies from several genres or various epochs in cinema history. And The Artist is certainly not a parody or satire. Its narrative is strikingly earnest and devoid of irony or commentary. There is one slightly entertaining dream sequence in which the director employs the use of sound, but it merely functions to provide comedic relief rather than comment on the evolution of cinema from the silent era to the talkie period.
In an interview that appears in the film's press guide, Hazanavicius says he wanted to make a silent movie because "it makes you tell the story in a very special way. It's not up to the screenwriter nor the actors to tell the story—it really is up to the director." While I don't disagree with that statement—a lack of sound does force a director to utilize the composition of each shot in order to propel the narrative forward—that's not to say a director working on a sound picture is somehow prevented from ensuring that his or her films use visual cues, in addition to conversations, to convey story. Some of the best directors working today, such as Steven Soderbergh, create sound films that are also visually compelling. Hazanavicius's justification for making The Artist sounds more like an assignment an aspiring filmmaker might receive at film school than a good reason for making a feature film.
MORE ON THE OSCARS
I'm not trying to tell Michel Hazanavicius what types of films he should and should not make, but The Artist is unoriginal to the point of boring. Awards shows are an opportunity for industries to celebrate artists who try to push their respective fields forward by creating original works of art, and this year there are several such films worthy of recognition. Take Moneyball, for instance, a captivating film about a time in the recent past when a marriage between the modern world's fascination with statistics and America's pastime created a baseball team that for a fleeting moment was an unstoppable underdog. Moneyball is not nostalgic, since the sports world's love affair with sabermetrics continues to this day, and it is filmed in a startlingly straightforward manner that prevents it from devolving into another sappy sports movie. The fearless family drama The Descendants is another worthy candidate for the Best Actor statuette. This bizarre yet compelling film from the under-appreciated Alexander Payne tackles issues we all face: death, family, betrayal, forgiveness.
I hope that The Artist catalyzes an interest in the silent era of cinema. Films such as King Vidor's The Crowd and F.W. Murnau's Sunrise should be required viewing for any film buff or casual viewer interested in understanding the evolution of the art form, and I have sat in screenings of Buster Keaton comedies and listened to men and women of my own age laugh louder than audiences did during The Hangover Part II. But evoking nostalgia for a bygone era, even when done with incredible skill, does not warrant an Academy Award for Best Picture, and Oscar voters would be wise to take a chance on another film. Hopefully, the Academy has the foresight to celebrate a film that is less concerned with imitating the past and more concerned with working in the present.