Tuesday, January 24, 2012

BANG! The Artist & the New Agenda In Film

What is it about Michel Hazanavicius' 2011 The Artist that has won every major film award so far thus and has positioned itself to win the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director? What's the big deal? It is not only an extremely complex film (in terms of the rich layers of meaning and discourse it offers the audience) but The Artist is as much a part of the future of film making as the "talkie" films of 1927.
Jean Dujardin is a cross between the great Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelly; when George Valentin (the last name references Rudolph Valentino, obviously the great great great silent film "lover" of all time) wakes up in Peppy's house, that's Hancock Manor, the mansion of Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and when he wakes up in bed, that was Mary Pickford's actual bed.
Let's begin with an historical analysis.
1927 in Hollywood.
The Roaring Twenties are about to come to an end in the Stock Market Crash (1929). When Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) drops her purse while watching George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) pose with his muscles for the crowd, this foreshadows for us the illusion of economic strength the United States economy had (George posing with muscles he doesn't have) and the millions of dollars that would be lost by millions of people (Peppy dropping her purse).
George putting on a show of strength as Peppy clutches her purse. The stock market crashes in the film just before George's big independent film venture, Tears of Love, will be released, and since he has lost everything in the crash his only hope is to regain the money he has invested in his film with a big success. True to capitalism, the old silent film can't compete with the new talkie film opening on the same day, Beauty Spot, starring Peppy. The most basic fundamentals of the free market are discussed in what will determine the films that are going to be made and that mirrors our day and age exactly.
As Peppy reaches down to retrieve her purse, she is pushed by the crowd "across the line" into "George's space" (the area of the celebrity the cop has created by keeping his arms held up to keep the crowd back) and this, too, foreshadows not only Peppy and the young generation of the "talkie" film stars taking over the space of the older silent stars, but also the class shifts which would take place as a result of the changing dynamics of the free market and Roosevelt's New Deal program over the Great Depression.
This is one of the ways we can see The Artist being a thoroughly contemporary film: our own stock market crash that we still haven't recovered from that films such as Margin Call and In Time have dealt with (and I foresee more class oriented films being released this year).  What's really being set up in this scenario is, how economics will drive a "new artistry" in Hollywood. When George drives onto the lot of Kinograph Studios and sees that everything has been closed because Kinograph is only going to make talking pictures from now on, that truly reflects the kind of films that are going to be made today.
George's car arriving at the Kinograph Studio where he has his contract. Like Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, The Artist harkens back to the Twenties, but in Hollywood, not Paris, however, just as the car is a creative vehicle for Gil in Midnight in Paris, so cars are important symbolic vehicles in The Artist, because they transfer for the audience what is "driving" the characters, the creative process and the story line.
When I first became aware of The Artist back in September, I predicted that it would be about the debate in Hollywood over films being purely entertainment or films that say something, and The Artist, like all the other great films released this year, is saying something: films must say something! Entertainment is not sacrificed when films say something (take, for example, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, most enjoyable and saying so much that I could easily post two more essays on it!). To me, films are most enjoyable when they are saying something because when they try to be purely entertaining, they fail (The Thing, Darkest Hour, Conan the Barbarian, etc).
After being fired because the audience wants "something new," George decides that he will finance his own silent film, Tears of Love, that he wrote, produced, directs and stars in which takes place in a jungle atmosphere. In spite of it being a silent film, George can't help but "say something" with the film because, as I have often pointed out in this, my little corner of cyberspace, every single second of film is a decision that has been made, a choosing of this over that, and that over this. Those decisions are based on morals, ethics, fashion, politics, the economy, history, and personal experience, i.e., everything is reflected in even just one second of film.
Personally, when I think of an agenda for Hollywood, I tend to think of films such as Brokeback Mountain or Alexander, films that definitely do not coincide with my personal beliefs and moral codes; however, this is the year that we have seen films such as The Help, The Descendants, The Debt, Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, Warrior, Take Shelter, The Tree of Life, Shame, Moneyball and so many others I could go on and on. Films have always said something, but now the stakes are raised, partially because, like the Great Depression of the 1930s, there is a global economic crisis and some people see that there is also a crisis in political leadership (myself included) and the direction the country will take, who we have been and what it is we want to become and how we will achieve that, is all going to be a part of the new agenda in Hollywood, and saying something isn't the only important thing, but how to say it.
"Free Georgia!" the hero yells from the escape plane as he and the heroine make their getaway. What does that refer to? The "August Uprising" to free the country of Georgia from Bolshevik Rule that happened just three years before A Russian Affair (the silent film in The Artist) was made. Thousands of Georgians were executed in the purging led by a native Georgian, Joseph Stalin, who firmly established the rule of the early Soviet government, ruthlessly. While A Russian Affair seems to be a silent film, it speaks loud and clear about the political landscape of the Twenties, what was at risk on the international stage of politics and the influence that film could play in drawing people's awareness to issues such as the August Uprising and the  catastrophic events that would result.
The first rule of language is that there are rules but there are very interesting ways to break rules. For example, when George has a gun in his mouth and is ready to commit suicide, the title card reads "BANG!" as if George pulled the trigger, but actually outside is Peppy who crashed her car into a tree and the noise makes George stop so he doesn't pull the trigger. "BANG!" in this instance has an ambiguous, double meaning: we expect the noise from a gun going off to sound like "BANG!" in a silent world where only words convey to the sense (hearing) what we are supposed to gather as information from the story line. But the ambiguity allows the "BANG!" to also accurately denote the noise of Peppy outside crashing. Just as there is ambiguity in the source of the "BANG!", so there are numerous ways of communicating that the film explores.
George watching himself in some of his old films in a run-down apartment that he's about to burn. An old silent screen star watching their old films invokes the mega-hit Sunset Boulevard, but it also reflects what Hollywood is doing today: watching its old films and deciding where to go from here. Hugo, The Artist and My Week With Marilyn are some of the obvious films about Hollywood examining how it makes films, and that is what George is doing above. As you know, where we have been is necessary to know where we are going, and the explosiveness of this year's film crop is taking us to new places this year and beyond.
We could say that the reason The Artist is a silent film is to highlight all the ways communication takes place without speech: the dog, Jack, successfully communicates to a policeman that George is in danger and saves George's life; Jack and George mimic each other's reactions in front of Doris, George's wife; Peppy writes on George's dressing room mirror "Thank you" for the help he has given her, a sign behind the theater reads "PLEASE REMAIN SILENT," and all these seem like little things when speech is the dominant force of communication, but quarantining speech and noise dramatizes the importance of these modes of communication that, in our daily lives, we tend to silence and it brings us to another possible mode of communication: dancing.
The prop men have a backdrop that separates George from the unknown female dancer's legs on the opposite side; as she rehearses her dance steps, George tries to outdo her, and they have a "dance duel" until the prop men life up the back drop completely and George recognizes Peppy from the day before.
Can dancing be a form of communication?
In other words, can the dance numbers of George and Peppy communicate to us the way a title card reading "Free Georgia!" communicates?
 The Artist obviously references the great 1952 classic Singin' In the Rain which is a musical/dance film; anyone who says that Gene Kelly's dancing doesn't communicate has never seen Gene Kelly, but it is more difficult to get at the communication of dancing and I think that's one of the reasons why a conscious decision was made to sacrifice sound (up until the end with the tapping of the dance number) so additional methods of communication could be introduced and the audience could learn new ways of enjoying film and educate us about all the wonderful things film can do when we let it.
George and Peppy dancing for director Al Zimmer (John Goodman). This scene really reminds me of Yankee Doodle Dandy, which is very much about the relationship of money and art, and how the two work together for ultimate profit.
So what does the dancing communicate?
Dancing is done with the feet (and other parts of the body and objects) but the feet is always symbolic of the will and the type of dance that is being done communicates to us about the dancer's will. For the most part, Peppy's and George's dance number at the end is in unison with each other, they are dancing the same dance, their wills are united (compare this, for example, when they are having the "dancing duel" with Peppy behind the backdrop and they compete; you can watch a full clip of Peppy and George dancing in Al's office and the full dress tap dancing here). The dance is fast-paced because energy is comparable to industry and productivity, compared to the dance they do for the taping of A German Affair, when they have several takes and can't get it right. That dance is in unison, however, it's a slow and a more bland, romantic dance, no choreography hence no creativity. (Like A Russian Affair about the political woes of a country most Americans probably didn't even know existed, A German Affair, used George changing partners in the dance to explore how the United States would "change partners" from neutrality to Allied status in the upcoming German affair called World War II).
Peppy & George in their final dance routine for the cameras.
In The Iron Lady and Margin Call, music is used as a parable for the economy and the fast-paced dance number George and Peppy do communicates that the music will start again and the old will be in step with the new as a parable of the Great Depression ending and economic recovery being a reality (The Artist is taking place during the Great Depression). In the office scene when George and Peppy dance for Al, he stands and makes a fist, shaking it in the air, then during their full-dress take for the tap dancing towards the end of the film  (pictured below) he does it again. The fist in the gripping/shaking gesture emphasizes the hand which is symbolic of power, specifically, the power that comes with a "strong" economy (and it's only because Al thinks the routine is good and they can make money off it--because audiences will love it--that he gets excited to begin with).
Notice, please, the fist he's making.
There is gracefulness and harmony in the dances, and when the economy was spiraling out of control in the Great Depression (as it seems to be doing today) seeing the order that harmony communicates would be a welcomed message indeed. The backdrop, the art deco cityscape, is glamorous and meant to remind people of the success of the big cities and not their bread lines or unemployment centers. But dancing in The Artist does more than this, because the use of sound right here is extremely controlled and it is a deliberate reference to today's film making and what it is doing.
In the moment above, towards the end, George and Peppy have finished their exhausting dance routine and we hear them breathing heavily, out of breath. The director asks if they can do it one more time, and George replies, in a heavy French accent, "With pleasure," and (of many possibilities) the French accent (the only time in the film we hear George's voice) references the French voice, i.e.,  the French New Wave of cinema, one of the leading films of that time being Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless of 1960 (hence why George and Peppy are "out of breath" and breathing so hard at that moment). French New Wave was influenced by classical Hollywood, just as films today are, but the films today are also taking amazing chances and risks just as the French New Wave films were doing, and the films of today are going to be remembered as opening up new possibilities in film making just as the New Wave did.
George has a nightmare that everything has sound and he alone is unable to speak/make sound. The dream ends when a feather falls to the asphalt of a street and makes a loud boom sound, obviously exaggerated. He is also in the gesture of the three wise monkeys.
The use of sound in very controlled circumstances in the film brings us to the what sound does mean. 
What is the meaning of George's nightmare?
He sits down a glass on his dressing room table and we hear the sound of it being sat on the hard surface. This is a very legitimate aspect of film "talking" and saying something, because every little thing in a film has meaning, and the smallest things become "exaggerated" in importance. For example, a Coke can that in daily life wouldn't be noticed by anyone, has had hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars invested to get it placed in that moment of the film, whereas in daily life we would throw it away without noticing. It's not just the team of sound mixing and editors as well as the music and soundtrack team that work on the sound until it's perfect, but decisions have been made by dozens of people about every word and second of silence, so every second of film is not only invested with decisions, but money.

Placing the glass on the table, then, suddenly "talks" in a film where everything is invested with meaning (it's placed there instead of dropped, it's placed there instead of over there, of being held onto to; it does or does not have liquid in it, or something else for that matter). Even a feather from out of nowhere, falling onto the asphalt has meaning that it wouldn't have in daily life (if I saw a feather right now falling onto the street outside the window, I would assume it was just a bird in one of the many trees nesting and wouldn't give it a second thought). We know that sound can communicate, but can silence communicate?

George just after Peppy has "crossed over" into his space in the beginning.
There are numerous times in the film when some one's silence is communicative, and the "breaking of silence" is breathless. First, when Peppy has crossed over into George's space in the spotlight in the beginning of the film, and she waits to see his reaction; George's wife Doris is silent as she reads the newspaper showing Peppy kissing George; when George and Peppy, unbeknownst to them, have a dance duel with a backdrop separating them and, when the backdrop is lifted, and Peppy is revealed, everyone is silent waiting for George's reaction; when Peppy is trying to "blackmail" director Al Zimmer over casting George in their new movie; Peppy and George have finished their dance number for Zimmer on the set and everyone waits to hear his reaction to what they have done. Silence communicates anticipation (from an audience holding their breath) and indecisiveness from the person everyone is waiting to hear from (amongst other emotions).

George's independent silent film Tears of Love plays to a nearly empty theater, and the emptiness of the theater speaks volumes: no one is talking about Tears of Love, they are talking about Peppy Miller. Silence is usually associated with negativity, that is, silence is a void where sound should be and isn't, but silence can also be fruitful, as in this scene when Peppy is in the balcony watching the quicksand scene and she doesn't say a word, but a tear, a "tear of love" falls down her face. In the classic film Singin' In the Rain, the conversion to talkie films from silent pictures was resisted and resented because actors talking was seen as vulgar: real actors, real artists, could communicate their emotions and feelings with real acting and because emotions speak louder than any dialogue that could bog down the story. When George decides to make his own film and declares himself to be an artist, and being free of the studio is the "price of freedom," it's being free of the perception of emotions enslaved to words that will never adequately approach genuine, deep emotions and states of being. We can see this in practice today in a film such as Tree of Life  which has large spans of silence and especially a film such as Gerry which is mostly silent.
Why is this important?
Because, in The Artist, we have silence within silence, a moment of silence within a silent film, which places all responsibility upon the audience to go deep within themselves to engage with the characters and their struggles. This is the basis of the art as entertainment or art that says something dichotomy: the audience doesn't interact with entertainment the way they interact with a more thought-provoking film (I hope that this blog has helped my audience to realize, again, that entertainment does not need to be sacrificed for great art, that we usually consider art to be that which we enjoy because it touches upon areas within us that maybe we haven't articulated to our selves but exist nevertheless).

One of many great shots.
There is another area of contemporary films that The Artist explores in addition to everything else discussed above: stable identity. When we first see George Valentin, he is screaming his head off, being tortured in a Frankenstein type device by Soviets trying to "get him to talk" and tell them the secrets he knows. Symbolically, this can be translated as pressure put on Hollywood producers to make films that say something, serious films, instead of films that are frivolous. But George then puts on a mask and makes his heroic getaway. The tuxedo he wears becomes a part of his facade, his celebrity identity that he wants to have and everyone expects him to have. He then gives the same kind of facade ("something the other actresses don't have") to Peppy (please click here to view the scene of George giving Peppy her beauty mark).

The window, obviously symbolizes reflection and the tailcoat was (in modern parlance of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) his "urban camouflage." The tailcoat is as much a mask to him as the mask he wears on his face, but this is just one example from the film: his wife, Doris, is fond of drawing faces on top of his face, blacking out his teeth and drawing mustaches and crazy hair, which is how she sees George, that he is different than what he appears to be. George sold his tailcoat to a pawn shop when he ran out of money to buy liquor and needed some more cash. It's up to the viewer to decide, if this is a part of the genuine self  or an illusion to keep himself thinking he is something he is not.
Ultimately, films are made for audiences, and this creates a subtle, but definite undertone to this whole discussion.
In George's house, on his radio, and shown several times (even in the trailer) are three wise monkeys: monkey see no evil, monkey hear no evil, monkey speak no evil that he finds Peppy has purchased and stores in her home later in the film. What's important about the image is the moral responsibility that film has to its audience in what it chooses to communicate to them and the evil that can be taught to us by a lack of moral integrity (of course, everyone will say that their moral integrity is superior to everyone else's, and that no one has a right to decide for everyone else) but the three wise monkeys being in the trailer and appearing at least twice in the film makes its own statement about statements that Hollywood chooses to make (The Artist is so contemporary that it's even referencing a film that hasn't been released yet, The Woman In Black starring Daniel Radcliffe, also prominently places the three wise monkeys within its trailer).

Peppy doesn't know George at this point, she had just "bumped into him" the night before and now she is a dance extra on his next film. She's in his dressing room "romancing his jacket," but, as discussed above, this is really a part of his facade, his mask, and Peppy romancing this "hollow man" is accurately reflecting her infatuation with someone she doesn't know but thinks she knows from the films, and how intricate the role of persona can be in film. This is why George gives her the beauty mark and her big hit (that opens the same day as George's Tears of Love) is Beauty Spot, for her beauty mark.
This brings me to my last comment: why is the film in black and white?It didn't have to be, they could have made the film in color and still silent, but black and white communicates just as color communicates, probably because the decision of whether films are going to be vehicles of thought, discourse and public forums for thought on all issues effecting us, is a black and white issue, and no one can ignore or choose not to decide about it.

After being fired, George is on his way down the staircase as, literally, Peppy is on her way up. Why does Peppy like to whistle and throw kisses? It shows us the different ways that we can communicate with out mouths other than with speech. The whistle, for example, isn't particularly lady-like, and that communicates to us about Peppy and her background, even her class, for example, we probably wouldn't see George's wife putting two fingers in her mouth and blowing through them.
There are nine films competing for the Best Picture Oscar this year and I have seen all but one of them (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which I will see this weekend). If it were up to me, I would hand the Oscar to The Artist, because it has done the best job of communicating what the history and the future of film making is, what the course ahead looks like and why it should be taken. It's not that other films haven't done this, but The Artist utilizes the greatest array of tools and techniques that other films will utilize as well and the reason this is important is, it will not only effect the films we will be watching (for entertainment and educational purposes) but also because films are social documents for understanding who we are now and historical documents understanding what we have been and why we have become what we choose to. The Artist fully realizes what movies mean to the modern world and it is leading the way for films to fulfill the demanding role we put on them.