The Artist dies childless, mark my (Baudelairian) words

March 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Not for Flycz to cross swords with the great Joseph Natoli, especially as I agree with lots of points he makes about The Artist (Hazanavicius, 2011) in his recent musings on the film’s popular success at Senses of Cinema, notably:

  1. it is NOT, by a long shot, the best silent film you’ll ever see; in fact, it’s not even in the conversation. It’s an odd mix, this Artist is, of technically brilliant black-and-white photography and irregular shooting rhythm (which gives a jerky feeling to the image) that actually serves a zero of a story, such as would not even pass 1st-draft scenario conference in any given year in the 1920s : brilliant star becomes obsolete and spends 3/4ths of film time wallowing in self-pity. Melodrama means action, not waiting around. It’s a far cry, indeed, from the psychotic complexities of Norma Desmond in Sunset Bld (Billy Wilder, 1950).
  2. The popular success of The Artist is due to its being an “anomaly”:

All this only serves to indicate that the artistry ofThe Artist has no exceptional claim on our attention. Its claim lies in our reactions to its very existence as a silent movie in the age of Twitter. I mean thatThe Artist shouldn’t be here; it’s a shadow of the fading of our own senses, emotions and imagination in a new Millennial world in which they have been steadily “outsourced” to new technology.

I’d push that point a bit more than Natoli does, concerned as he is with Baudrillard-like problems of mystifying technologies and the “outsourcing” of our imagination to our technological helpers (more on that later), as the “high concept” of the film is this very “anomaly”, namely its projection of its own nostalgic take on film as its selling point. The Artist (like all other Hazanavicius OSS films, by the way) is a self-conscious “derivative” (yes, I too can handle the capitalistic metaphors :-)). It trades in nostalgia, it uses the silent medium as a conscious throwback to another (read: better) era of Hollywood filmmaking — making it a shoe-in, indeed, for Oscar celebrations, which are anyway about Hollywood celebrating itself. “Films,” this film suggests, “were better before” (even though that film is not better than the films that were made before). Its claim to originality is to present itself as a self-consciously obsolete product into today’s color, high-octane, video game-induced, teenage-oriented action Hollywood spectaculars, a product that’s a mishmash of derived influences and self-proclaimed “homages” — plagiarism’s most advanced trick (“it’s not copying, it’s quoting without quotes!”). And you’ve got to hand it to Hazanavicius and his team, they have managed to frame the reception of their film, for most people, and for the time being, in their own terms: vide the Oscar for (for crying out loud!) “best original score” (yep, the angels did weep on that one, I’m pretty certain).

This ignores, as Natoli does, too, that there are lots of other people using the silent film medium today to original purposes, that it’s been done at least since Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie — surprisingly, very few reviews of The Artist seem to reference Brooks’ much more original, and funnier, film set in today’s color world of Hollywood. Everyone talks about The Artist as if Hazanavicius had single-handedly reinvented the silent medium, when lots of other artists have been asking much more difficult questions to the medium recently (I have a post where I try to list all modern attempts to breathe life once more into the silent medium, with The Artist maybe the only one so dependent on the crutch of nostalgia).

And so I’m rather dubious about the claim advanced by Natoli that somehow The Artist pleases as it evokes a more naive, “natural”, return to our imaginary –unmediated, as it were.

And yet, why be drawn to The Artist, reversionary and primordial as it is, unless its very presence reminds us of the real pleasure of bumping into the world with our own imaginations.

A walk, for Natoli, in a wordsworthian park — the point being that we, unlike Wordsworth, fail to celebrate Nature for its sake as we are at the same time glued to our multiple screens and glued to the profit motive that now governs (tsk tsk! pooh pooh! the bogey man he returnth) our capitalistically-alienated lives (down, down, shades of Debord!). Wordsworth, somehow,

wrote a brilliant poem a few miles from Tintern Abbey. To do this, he relied on a fusion of all his own faculties without the crutch of technology. No profit is made; the walk into Nature was free, the imagining was his, and his consciousness roamed beyond a 140-character tweet.

I have not read enough in wordsworthian studies, but I’d be ready to bet the house that Wordsworth, too, needed to eat. That he, too, needed to turn poetry into cash. That Wordsworth minus the publishing industry of his day equals Wordsworth a schoolteacher, not a poet–that, in other words, a profit was made — and that there was a technology mediating the walk in Nature (the technology of writing, the medium of words, the schemata of literature, the myths of culture, and so on). In other words, there is no Eden, and there is no Hell — there is no “purity” of “free” imagination to which The Artist (or silent movies in general) returns us. And I hasten to add that because a profit was made does not mean that profit was the only motive, or because Wordsworth, walking in Nature, is mediating the walk through his technology of poetry does not impugn the freedom of his imagination. What I am reacting to, indeed, is the misguided notion that there ever was a media Eden that we mysteriously would have fallen out of, an age of innocence and purity that our “over-stimulated” age has ended (when, exactly?) — the age-old conservative and condescending battle-cry (for the record, ever since the invention of movies, critics in our societies have screamed bloody murder about it, and claimed that youth was being corrupted, over-stimulated — sexually — and so on. Somehow, we’ve survived though. Most recently, Facebook is now accused of turning our youth into narcissistic monsters–because teenagers before were not narcissistic ? Then they were not teenagers, methinks). Media, indeed, is media: an inscription of technique into societies, an encounter of work with public(s). And what The Artist offers is not a “primordial” return so much as the marketing of the primordial.

The role of the imagination in transforming the world reaches a level of over-stimulation that overwhelms. The Artist has drawn back and gone in the opposite direction.

Yes, that film underwhelms — not because it is technology-light (the work on the film tone, color, jerkiness, and so on is very advanced reverse-engineered technology usually put to good use in the restoration of films), or unmediated (by now it should be clear that my point is that, if anything, it adds an extra layer of mediation with its nostalgic screen), but just because it’s a rather average film (mostly, it’s inconsistent. It does not follow on its own occasional flashes of brilliance, and it does not showcase skills either — Dujardin’s hoofing is, frankly, an embarrassment). Inconsistent, unoriginal, unsure of itself, sure only of the one-off banking commodity of nostalgia, it will therefore die childless — but there is just so much money that can be made trading the pining for the good ol’ days.


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