by Michael Eck ALBANY – Love him or hate him, Neil Simon knows his way around a joke.[…]
Because Neil Simon is such a contentious figure. …?

I saw “The Artist” last night. Honestly, I wanted to hate it, and my first reaction (which got me booed by my friends Maeve and Steve who went with me) was “best children’s movie of the year!”

After a day to digest it and wash off the shitty mood I was in all weekend, I came around to liking it a lot more. The cinematography was gorgeous, and of course Dujardin is a masterful mime. But I couldn’t help but feel a pinge of cynicism when re-reading all the stratospheric praise the film received. Like many actors in Hollywood, it was incredibly charming and pretty, but like those same actors, that alone doesn’t make it brilliant and unique.

Part of the problem is that the film is both pretentious and self-aware, the latter of which provides a convenient and critically unfair excuse for trespasses of the former. A perfect unintentional metaphor for what I didn’t like about the film came with the cringe-inducing appearance of generic African tribesmen. In their first appearance, their context can be seen as satire or reflective of the times. In their second appearance, that context is gone and suddenly you’re left asking “was that necessary?” Not to mention the troubling racial aspect, but that’s a whole other can of worms and hardly surprising with a French director.

As a whole, though, my lack of matched enthusiasm for the film can be attributed to apprehension that extends beyond the mood it happened to catch me in. Rather, I have a longstanding predisposition against any work that serves as a love letter to its own form. You see this also in novels about writing and writers and plays about theater, and it drives me absolutely fucking bonkers. The play Title of Show is perhaps the worst example I can think of all these things, because it presents itself as a love letter to theater but instead quickly becomes a tribute the artists put on for themselves for doing theater. Rather than the form being wonderful, it is them being wonderful for being part of the form, and it descends quickly into irritating, self-conscious nonsense.

I felt this to an extent with “The Artist.” It is a very daring and unique movie if you have not seen many silent films. I don’t deign to be an enthusiast, but even I felt a bit of boredom with the concepts used, such as occasional use of sound (or lack thereof) as a metaphor for the film’s over-arching story. This seems to be a very clever device, except it was actually done with the very first big-time “talkie” film, the Al Jolson vehicle “The Jazz Singer.” In “The Artist” it is in the execution that one must find art, because in and of itself it’s nothing more than a ham-fisted send-up to prior works. Which, again, brings about a bit of disdain for it rooted in my cynicism towards our preoccupation with nostalgia and referential material as art. All art, of course, owes something to predecessors, but not all of it need be a very direct allusion to it that says “hey, remember our predecessors!”

What makes “The Artist” work, though, and why I ultimately think others are right when they tell me I’m just being too uptight is that it’s masterfully executed. It will likely, to the chagrin of many, be the belle of the ball at this year’s Academy Awards. Part of me, though, wonders what we will think in hindsight when we look back at this film five years from now and figure out that Hazanavicius, the film’s director, really isn’t capable of anything other than light comedy fair and whimsy (which is all his work thus far has constituted). It may seem preposterous to ask so much of something that is meant to be so silly and light and charming, but that’s par for the course when a film is put in the company “The Artist” is put into and especially when it calls itself “The Artist.”

But if you’re willing to postpone or overlook that context and conversation and simply marvel at a few magnificent shots and a fantastic display by Dujardin, you’re going to love it.


On a less pretentious note, did anybody catch “The Walking Dead” half-season premiere or whatever the Hell we’re calling it? I liked the episode, but oh my God, Andrew Lincoln and Jon Bernthal are over-acting the shit out of Rick and Shane. When they’re in a scene together it’s like watching theater majors performing their midterm in a 200 level acting class. I like them both and maybe part of this can be assigned to the writers, but goddamn. Let’s knock it back from like a constant 11 to a starting point of, like, 6.


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10 Responses to on French nostalgia for Western cinema and zombies

  1. Sébastien Barré says:

    “Not to mention the troubling racial aspect, but that’s a whole other can of worms and hardly surprising with a French director.”

    Oh come on now, you are baiting me here…
    So, may I say: WOOT?!

    • Anonymous says:

      I TOTES WAS! U MAD?!

      Nah, it’s rooted in some real criticism over the last couple decades, including but not limited to recent concerns about the hit Intouchables, the embargo on black VO actors performing white characters, the way they portray Africans in “The Triplets of Belleville” and “Asterix and Obelix,” etcetera and so on.

      It wasn’t meant as a dig really on the French being racist so much as that there’s what is perceived to be a real gap between American/British cinema and the French and others as it pertains to the portrayal of race, stereotypes, and the employment of racist caricatures. Ditto with Australia.

      • Sébastien Barré says:

        Yes, that’s exactly that, there is a big divide, and it’s really a cultural and historical one. Our countries come from vastly different backgrounds in terms of segregation, slavery, colonies, etc. It’s sad but true (and confusing) that what can seem blatantly racist for you guys isn’t for us, and vice versa. For example, it took me a while to understand why  blackface was such a big no-no in the US (including some more explanation in that great photo show about black history at the NYS Museum right now). Blackface and its racist connotations just didn’t “reach” us in France (a notable exception might be French chocolate maker Banania). We have other forms of racism (rooted in colonialism), I’m afraid; actually I’ll probably admit that Frenchland has definitely a lot of racism going on, we do have an official, extreme right-wing party that people vote for, and they are openly racist (well, not openly enough to be in legal trouble). Then again, we also have a communist party.

        • Anonymous says:

          Yeah, the National Front would probably have the swastika in its materials if the law allowed it. They’re about as shameless as it gets with that sort of stuff.

          • Sébastien Barré says:

            Actually the despicable Le Pen, who used to be president of the National Front, was just sentenced to 3 months in jail with probation today for saying that the German occupation in France was “not particularly inhuman” (he was not saying that for “comical” effect, needless to say). That falls under “Contesting a Crime Against Humanity” in our legal system. This is no more relevant to this post, but after 10 years here, I’ve to admit I lost faith in the US Freedom of Speech, I think it hurts more than it helps. Great in principle but compared to the few democratic countries I’ve lived in, there isn’t much here that you can’t say there, AND not allowing *everything* to be said allows you to have a legal recourse when some d-bag like Le Pen opens his mouth. I don’t think people like the Westboro Baptist Church should be allowed to talk for example; Freedom of Speech doesn’t have to be so encompassing, so black or white, it can be a shade of gray, and I think it’s obvious that this specific shade the WBC is bringing to world, could be silenced legally. But hey, Freedom of Speech is sacred here.

          • kevinmarshall says:

            It’s definitely an interesting cultural difference.
            As Americans we do have a restriction of speech in terms of using it to incite harm; for instance, restrictions against such things including but not limited to harassment, calling for the death of another person, or yelling “fire” in a crowded theater (the most famous example) is allowable. But then we don’t have laws like you stated that exist in many Western European nations.

            The cliche about free speech is apt for summing up the American approach to it: that freedom of speech is there to protect the speech you DON’T like, not what you do like. As such, we can’t and won’t make it against the law simply to express an idea or opinion, no matter how wrong or reprehensible. The easy dismissal of that approach is that it’s based on a logical fallacy of a slippery slope. The flip side of that, though, is that allowing the restriction of speech does allow for the government to allow for the restriction of speech it simply doesn’t like. Framed in one way still sounds like a slippery slope, but due to our constitutional structure, it becomes a legal reality. 

            That said, there are extenuating circumstances at play that I think would allow for something like what France has in regards to Nazi imagery, support, etcetera. You can’t, for instance, display a drawing of a minority being murdered across from said minority’s home. That’s a hate crime. So there is room and precedent for such a law. The reason we haven’t passed it is because unlike France and many other countries in Europe, we weren’t occupied. Our closest encounter with the war domestically was in Pearl Harbor. Had we been in France’s position and German tanks had rolled into our streets and taken people out of their homes, you can guarantee stuff similar to what Le Pen was jailed for would be against the law.

  2. Eric Newsom says:

    I admittedly haven’t seen The Artist yet, but I wonder how your opinions on the film had you seen Hazanavicius and Dujardin’s previous films, which were pretty funny parodies of 60s spy films, better versions of Austin Powers. I feel as though The Artist probably took its makers by surprise as much as anything else. In interviews, I haven’t seen where they thought they were making a Best Picture caliber film. I would call those OSS-117 films ham-fisted in a lot of ways too, but the fistedness works effectively for the sort of parody they’re doing, especially in dealing with issues of race (Dujardin as the hero Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath is a colonial racist and a comedically unaware anti-Semite).

    I’m not sure exactly what I’m saying here, except that the things you’re saying about The Artist seem typical of the filmmakers, and I wonder if your reaction would be different were this not a universally celebrated, Oscar-nominated film, and it were just a French exercise in style and pastiche (which is what I imagine they set out to make).

    • Anonymous says:

      Well right, and I acknowledge as such in the above post. But at the same time, it IS in that conversation whether that was the intent or not, so I think it bears discussing and considering. Know what I mean?

      I also haven’t watched a French comedy in…a long time. They usually don’t work for me. Foreign comedies in general, really.

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