I like/hate The Artist: How the Academy Awards slant our views of movies
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I hate The Artist.
This is a lie. But people who have had conversations with me about The Artist over the last couple of months might have come away with that conclusion. Because they’ve probably heard me say some variation on one or more of the following statements:
It’s minor—“dinky,” as Alison Willmore called it in our year-end film piece. The only reason it’s getting more serious attention than the OSS 117 spoofs that director Michel Hazanavicius previously helmed is that the era being referenced is far more revered than ’60s international spy-fluff films.
As an homage to early 20th-century filmmaking, it’s both less coherent and less enchanting than Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which marries children’s fantasy to a history lesson that captures the excitement and possibility of film at its infancy.
Hazanavicius’ appropriation of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score is criminal, like drafting off another movie’s emotion. (As Milhouse’s dad might put it, “Can I borrow a feeling?”)
I won’t back down from the third statement, but there’s another side to the first two: Yes, The Artist is minor, but it’s appropriately scaled, sharing with the OSS movies a deftness of touch, an evident love of period bric-a-brac, and the considerable charms of leading man Jean Dujardin. Why does it need to be more substantial than the OSS spoofs? And no, it may not be as rich an evocation of film history as Hugo, but how is it fair to ask Hazanavicius to compete with our most scholarly director? And can he even be said to be doing the same thing? Bottom line: What kind of twisted pathology would lead a person to take shots at a perfectly decent film?
Such is the tyranny of Oscar season, an all-consuming three-or-four-month siege—and yearlong cottage industry—that frames the discussion in ways that can be perverse and often unjust to the films in that discussion, to say nothing of the future classics peering in from the cold. Take The Artist: I would guess Hazanavicius, in his wildest flights of fancy, could not have imagined his happy little soufflé as the presumptive favorite to win Best Picture. Even its most vocal detractors—who would likely not be vocal at all about it under normal circumstances—would have to confess that the film is not some bloated sop to the Academy, like so many other major studio productions crafted specifically for year-end consideration. Its goals are modest, its pleasures refined—not a whiff of self-importance or middlebrow grandeur, no issues more pressing than a general appreciation of love and the cinema, and certainly no ambition to heal a nation a decade after 9/11 or credit white audiences with a behind-the-back, Ricky Rubio-style assist in ending black oppression.
And yet the resentment is there. Late last year, in a tribute to the absurdity of cinematic riches in 2011, I expanded my Top 10 list to 20 and added another 30 Honorable Mentions. Though even I’m not quite nerdy enough to keep ranking, The Artist would likely fall somewhere toward the back half of the next 50, so quickly did it slip like sand through my fingers. (I can recall precisely where I started forgetting about it—the elevated train two blocks away from the screening room, in conversation with Keith Phipps and Tasha Robinson—more vividly than I can recall any specific detail in the movie.) But then, the Oscars—and to varying degrees, all awards—are not about greatness, but about consensus. And The Artist is a point of agreement, much like a bill that’s been haggled over, kicked around by powerful special interests, watered down in committee, and passed to the majority’s tempered contentment.
This has nothing to do with exalting the best films have to offer in a given year—and worse, it’s unfair to a movie like The Artist, which deserves better than to be batted around by oddsmakers or petty little twits like myself who are reacting more to its promotion than its substance. Every year, we let the Weinsteins dictate what is and isn’t important, and every year, from the Toronto Film Festival all the way through December and January, that dictation informs what people watch and what’s deemed “important”—a set of criteria that falls within the narrow parameters of “Oscar-worthiness,” outside of which nothing matters. The horse race takes over: The Tree Of Life is “dead” because it polarized critics and audiences too sharply; Drive is “dead” because it’s a violent genre film; Young Adult is “dead” because the lead character is too “unlikeable”; and on and on and on. We become stakeholders instead of advocates, accepting the calculations of major studios with still more calculation on the other end.
But ultimately, complaining about all this is quixotic and hypocritical, because there are columns (like this one) and lists and Oscar pools that need filling, and there’s no ignoring the rampaging elephant in the room. As Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello can tell you, you can rage against the machine all you want, but you’re still working for Sony. What’s important is perspective: Accept that the Oscars have a casual relationship with excellence, cheer for the times when consensus and greatness intersect, boo the egregiously unworthy, and above all, find some other context to think about what’s great and what’s terrible without awards talk poisoning your conscience. In the end, film history has a way of sorting things out anyway: Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture the same year Do The Right Thing wasn’t nominated, but the “dead” film is the one with the statuette. Now it’s just the answer to a trivia question.
All of which is to say, I like you pretty well, The Artist, in spite of all the mean things I’ve said about you lately. And I like you too, The King’s Speech, in spite of your distractingly fussy compositions. And though your action scenes were cut to hash, Gladiator, there’s no denying the fundamental allure of a classic hero’s journey.
But sorry, Crash. I still hate you.