"The Artist"
February 21, 2012, 08:19 AM
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This is a nice little comedy, a pseudo-silent film about a silent movie star (imagine Gene Kelly playing Douglas Fairbanks Sr.), that has been saddled with being a frontrunner for the Best Picture since before it ever hit the theaters. 

It would have been a fun picture to discover for yourself. If you saw "Crash" in May 2005, for example, you walked out saying, "The first hour was hilarious, and of course the second hour was eat-your-vegetables time to make up for the first half, but, overall, that was a clever low-budget movie, a lot better than I expected." But ever since it won the Best Picture Oscar, "Crash" has had this millstone around its neck of being an obvious example whenever anybody wants to disparage Best Picture choices. (I`ve alway had the sinking feeling that it won the Oscar for the Important Statement about Our Times of the second half, rather than for the irresponsible pleasure of the first half. But that doesn`t mean that the first half wasn`t amusing or that the non-fatal shooting in the second half wasn`t bravura cornball screenwriting.) 

Other nagging problems with "The Artist" are that the title seems like an inept translation from the French. "The Star" would have been much better, since the hero loves being a movie star and pays no attention to whether he`s an artist or not. But the title "The Artist," combined with being silent and in black and white and made by a Frenchman, makes it sound like some good-for-you ordeal, which it mostly isn`t. 

Also, more slapstick, please. Slapstick is funny, but most people worry that it`s beneath them, except when they are watching a Buster Keaton silent film classic, and then it`s part of the Grand Tradition of the Cinema, etc. So why not exploit the cultural sanctity of silent film tradition by putting in more pratfalls?

The film has been slightly sped up: it runs 24/22nd faster than real time, while authentic old silents are typically shown running 24/16th faster than they were originally filmed. (Apparently, the advent of sound forced the industry to move up from 16 frames per second to 24 frames, which has done Buster Keaton`s long term reputation a lot of good, but made it hard to take serious silents seriously.) 

But, "The Artist" still drags a little. Abstaining from spoken dialogue puts a lot of pressure on the filmmakers to come up with interesting visuals or music to fill up its 100 minutes. They come up with about 90 minutes worth of good stuff, which is impressive, but that leaves about 10 minutes where you are saying, "Yeah, okay, we get it already." Running it at 24/20th would have made it quicker and sillier. 

Or they could have played around more with the film projection speed. The early 1980s South African slapstick comedy "The Gods Must Be Crazy" about the Bushman and the Coke bottle changed speeds whenever it felt like. Fortunately, that didn`t get a Best Picture nomination, so you could have the pleasure of seeing it because it was funny, not because it was good for you.

Finally, "The Artist" has hanging over its head another movie on the transition from silent to sound movies, "Singing in the Rain," which is so gigantically entertaining on the subject that little more needs to be done. For example, "The Artist" barely scratches the question of why its hero refuses to try sound movies. The film could have shown the technical restrictions that made the first few years of sound movies really stilted. But, "Singing in the Rain" did those scenes so well that how could "The Artist" compete?

Anyway, "The Artist" is enjoyable.

One general point I`d add is that this year`s Oscar frontrunners are just about the worst crop to intellectualize about it in many a year. I feel sorry for the pixel-stained wretches trying to come up with their annual assignment on What This Year`s Oscar Movies Say About the World Today. This isn`t to say that they are bad movies, just that the late-season prestige releases aren`t very intellectually stimulating. Consider, say, Michelle Williams` Best Actress nominated turn as Marilyn Monroe in "My Week with Marilyn." Here`s what I have to say about that film: A. Not bad. B. Holy cow, what have their been, like 800 books on Marilyn Monroe? Is there anything left to say?

In contrast, there were a number of popcorn summer movies that were much more interesting to think about.