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The Artist

 

 

I’ve been watching a lot of great silent movies lately, so I can attest that “The Artist” gets most everything right. The flavor of the acting, the visual gags, the rhythms all show that the director and actors paid close attention to their source material.  But this raises the question for me: why not just watch the source material?  A decade (or so) ago that would’ve been difficult; twenty years ago it would’ve been nearly impossible.  But in these days, when Netflix makes almost every movie that matters available through the mail  and Hulu has made the entire Criterion Collection available instantly, why would I watch “The Artist” instead of “City Lights” or “Our Hospitality” or “Sunrise” or “Pandora’s Box” or any of the other movies “The Artist” is emulating and paying tribute to?   In this age of nostalgia, the existence of “The Artist” just highlights how unnecessary it is.

Not that there’s anything wrong with it.  It’s a perfectly pleasant little film, and, like I said, it gets everything right.  It’s basically “Singin’ in the Rain” meets “A Star is Born.”  One of the premier stars of the silent movie era befriends a struggling young actress right before the introduction of sound to the movies.  He suddenly finds himself out of work, and her star rises as suddenly as his falls. But she doesn’t forget her friends, so she does everything she can to keep him afloat– though she has to do it in secret, to preserve his pride.  The film ends happily, and she finds a way for him to return to the screen at her side and find success again.

The director and the actors have clearly paid attention to their source material, and aren’t trying to make a 21st century update of an old film, but rather a film that brings together everything great about an old era of film.  (And even then, it’s not quite true to its source; a lot of the fun stuff in “The Artist” is borrowed form the era of screwball comedy right after the silent era, from “talkies” like “It Happened One Night” (1934) and “Trouble in Paradise” (1932) and the “Thin Man” series.  Indeed, Jean Dujardin’s character reminds me of no one so much as William Powell, who didn’t get famous until the movies could talk.)  So I guess it functions best as a sort of all-in-one package, like those sampler trays you can get at sushi restaurants.  Everything in one place, but really, not enough of anything to be really satisfying.

But I got interested in watching old movies by watching new ones, and my hope is that “The Artist” will open that door for more moviegoers.  There are a ton of great, mostly forgotten silent films out there.  “The Artist” is worth watching because it’s like them.  Not the same, really not as good, but if it whets your appetite for the films of Ernst Lubitsch, Charlie Chaplin, William Powerll, the great Buster Keaton, or anything you wouldn’t have previously been interested, then I’m glad it exists.  And I’m glad you watched it.  Now – go watch a great movie.

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