When someone asks me if I like dogs, my answer is always the same. “It depends on the dog.”
I feel the same way about art, which is why I try not to categorize artworks in my own mind according to genre, but rather according to my own notions of good and bad. A piece of art has to stand on its own, without an author to explain it or a celebrated school to give it stature.
Having said that, I must admit to a fondness for golden retrievers, Impressionist paintings and hard-boiled detective novels. Are they all good? Of course not, but there is something about them that strikes a chord with me.
The same is true for movies. I will watch any type of film if there’s a chance that it might be good, but I have always been fascinated by the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s and 40s. It just seems as though there are certain magic eras in which the culture flourishes, and that was certainly one of them.
It’s always easier to make such judgments in hindsight, of course, and very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff as it falls on you. One of the things I try to do each year is to get to all of the movies nominated by the Academy for best film. It’s gotten to be a little challenging in the past few years, because they increased the nominees from five to as many as nine.
One that got past me in 2012, and then went on to win the award for best picture, was entitled “The Artist.” It got by a lot of other people as well, and I’m guessing that many of you have not seen it.
It was the first primarily silent movie to win the award since “Wings” won the very first Academy Award for best motion picture in 1927. It was the first entirely black and white film to win since ”The Apartment” in 1960 (“Schindler’s List” was mostly black and white), and it was the first-ever French film to win.
All those elements may have contributed to the film’s lackluster performance at the box office, and if so that would amount to the type of genre-bias that I have endeavored to avoid. Since I saw all the other nominated films that year, the circumstantial evidence against me is pretty convincing.
At any rate, I was on vacation last month when “The Artist” was shown one night by Turner Classic Movies. We didn’t have anything else going on that evening, so I thought, “Why not?”
It’s the story of a fictional silent film star named George Valentin, who is reminiscent of ’20’s icons such as Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert and Valentino. The advent of sound puts an abrupt end to his career, and he begins a long spiral into failure, poverty and depression, accompanied only by his dog.
Through it all, a chorus girl called Peppy carries a torch for George, even as her own star rises to the top of the new talking-picture business. She eventually becomes determined to find a way to resurrect George’s life.
In other words, it’s a movie about the movies, kind of a combination of two great backstage musicals from the 1950s, “A Star is Born” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” The background music played during the climax of the film is the haunting refrain from another ’50’s classic, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” I’m still scratching my head over that one.
The movies being made during the movie, if that makes sense, were clearly from the escapist catalog that was so popular at the time, and became even more so as the Great Depression sank its teeth into almost everyone. That is a dynamic that has always intrigued me.
There is nothing wrong with escapism. Some of my favorite movies have no real purpose other than entertainment, but I’ve often wondered how a Depression era audience felt after spending a couple of hours with Fred and Ginger, amid the formalwear and the art deco soundstages, only to be dumped back out into the bleak landscape of the 1930s.
“The Artist” may look like those movies, and it is definitely evocative of them, but it is not escapist fare. I generally watch movies at night, and I can always tell the next morning whether or not the movie had something to say to me, because I find myself trying to figure out what it was.
In this case, my first thought the next morning was that the film was called “The Artist” for a reason. We don’t really know anything about George Valentin in a biographical sense, we know him as an artist, and the story is driven by a fundamental change in the medium itself. The antagonist in the film is not a person, but an art form.
If George is to survive as a man, he must survive as an artist, which means that he must find a form of expression that transcends the changing medium. Those of you who haven’t seen the film can go to Netflix or your download vendor of choice to learn the resolution of that dilemma, and I think you will find it worthwhile.
The story works on that level, but I think the movie is about something a lot bigger, and more relevant, than a silent-film star. I don’t know much about silent films, but I am very interested in the transition from silent to sound.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the motion-picture business to the culture of this country in 1927. Every tiny town in America had a movie theater, and big cities had hundreds of them. The average American went to the movies several times a week, and the phenomenon was not confined to the U.S. Silent films had no language barriers, so Hollywood stars were world famous.
Sound changed everything, from the way actors performed through the elimination of live music in the theaters, and the changes in technology were enormous and rapidly-evolving. Ironically, the places where movies were made, and the places where they were presented, had to become wired and quiet at the same time.
As George Valentin would learn the hard way, the changes in technology resulted in huge disruptions to the workforce as some occupations flourished while others became obsolete. Everyone in the industry had to adapt to the new reality or perish, and the revolution was followed promptly by an economic collapse.
I don’t think the producers of this film were worried about the careers of Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. I think they were worried about us.
There are some eerie parallels between the thirties and our own times. (Let’s hope we’re not headed toward the rise of fascism and world war.) Like George, we need to find the elements of our skillset that cannot be replaced by electronics, and figure out how to apply them in a world that is very different from the one we used to know.
As my late father would have put it, “you have to go with what you’ve got left.”
You can e-mail Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org