Posts Tagged ‘Art’

Warning: spoilers.

Together with my husband and mother, I went to see Michel Hazanavicius’s¬†The Artist on Thursday night. Our session was completely packed out: there was no allocated seating, so half the audience had to rearrange themselves when it became apparent that every space was needed. Though this is nothing new – our local cinema is both tiny and anachronistic – it felt strangely appropriate on this occasion; as though the venue, like the film, were deliberately harking back to the earlier days of moviemaking.

Thanks to my father’s influence, I grew up watching black and white films. Most were talkies, but he showed me some silents, too, with the result that I grew up knowing all about the transition from silence to sound; how lots of old artists had lost their jobs when the change came through. Above and beyond any historical sense of nostalgia, then, The Artist was also personally nostalgic: a return to the type of film I watched in childhood, regardless of the generational difference.

From a cinematic point of view, The Artist is utterly brilliant. Having opened with scenes from protagonist George Valentin’s latest film, the camera pulls back to show us the screen on which it plays and the duplicate audience sitting beneath, so that we – the real cinema-goers – could almost be watching ourselves. ¬†It’s a gorgeous trick of perspective, and one that Hazanavicius employs several times throughout the film. The camerawork is eloquent, purposefully making up for the lack of spoken dialogue. The rare intrusion of sound is used to tremendous effect, a commentary both on Valentin’s neurosis and the significance of the talkies themselves. The music, too, is wonderful: an emotive tribute to the wordless storytelling of silent cinema, and a beautiful score in its own right. Jean Dujardin as George Valentin is perfect, the visual personification of old Hollywood’s leading men, while Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller is exactly the right mix of vivacious and coy – a real Judy Garland girl.

As a homage to silent cinema, then, The Artist is a rousing success. Undeniably, it succeeds as a form of visual nostalgia, tipping the hat to movies past while simultaneously acknowledging the importance and inevitability of change – which is exactly what it set out to do.

However.

As well as copying the visual and musical styles of silent cinema, Hazanavicius has also employed their narrative stylings, leading to the construction of a story which is both deeply cliche and boringly simplistic. From the outset, it’s obvious that the fortunes of Valentin, the beloved and happy-go-lucky son of silent cinema, must fall as the talkies rise; obvious that Peppy Miller, the bright young thing with the suggestive name, must ascend in his place; obvious that the two will fall for one another; obvious that Valentin, abandoned by his wife, will fall into ruin; obvious that Peppy will save him.

And this is where I started to get cross, because narratively, The Artist is nothing more than a bland, archetypal tale of white male hubris where old-school sexism is played for modern laughs. Valentin is cheerful and friendly, but rude and dismissive of his female co-star, giving his dog more credit than her and then, after seeing her sound test for the talkies, laughing in front of the investors. When photographed with Peppy, he condescendingly waves away his wife’s jealousy, sending his driver off to buy her jewels in appeasement for the tiff and then later dismissing her unhappiness in the marriage because he’s too busy wallowing. Only Valentin’s pride keeps him out of the talkies: offered the chance to participate, he turns it down, then later acts surprised when this results in his dismissal. Once apart from the studio, he turns passive and nostalgic, pawning his possessions instead of looking for work, and sinking into despair. At the height of his sadness, he sets fire to his old movies and nearly dies; but when Peppy not only rescues him but gives him a second chance, he still runs away and toys with committing suicide before she can convince him that he’s worth saving.

The only twist we get – and it’s not much of one, given his name – is that, when we finally hear Valentin speak, he has a French accent, which is meant to explain why he’s been so adamantly convinced that he can’t succeed in talkies. Admittedly, this is a reasonable barrier for the time, but given that Peppy finds a way around it in about three seconds flat – dancing – it doesn’t quite justify the fact that he’s spent four years moping about a problem that only existed because he was too proud to change with the times. Remove the novelty of silence, then, and The Artist becomes a cliched tale of artistic self-indulgence: the struggle of a successful man who mistreats the women in his life to overcome the consequences of stubborn pride and be redeemed by the undeserved care of a prettier, younger woman. With a funny dog added for laughs.

And that’s a problem, because this is not a nostalgic theme, or something we should feel nostalgic about. Stories of white male hubris with bonus! comedic sexism are pretty much what’s always been wrong with Hollywood, then and now, and while I can feel nostalgic for the visual conventions of an earlier age, I don’t want them tied to the type of cliched storytelling that routinely makes me shout at the internet. I don’t care that sexism was rife in the period: that’s not an excuse to duplicate it for laughs. Ditto with racism, because really: there was no excuse for the inclusion of jungle-dwelling, spear-waving tribesmen in a Valentin film except that someone, somewhere thought it was more funny than inappropriate, and, yeah, no.

Overall, then, The Artist is a disappointment. The success of shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire¬†and Deadwood¬†has proven that indulging in the visual aesthetic of a previous era doesn’t have to mean capitulating uncritically to its morals or sense of self-perception, and yet, despite being given an opportunity to both display and critique ¬†our nostalgia, Hazanavicius has instead opted to affirm it on all fronts. I can get behind the visuals, and as a piece of cinema history, The Artist is worth seeing – but as yet another example of Hollywood’s collective narrative hubris, it isn’t.

Note: The following started life as a Facebook comment, in response to this article by Susan Hill on the benefits of reading established writers over amateurs.

Beneath the ire and invective, I think there were two main points in that article, and that, while individually interesting, they contradict each other in confluence.

Hill says, “If someone writes a marvellous short story I don‚Äôt care where they come from,” and that people who have done so should be lauded. By contrast, she despises those who are elevated “just because they have put one word in front of another, or because they‚Äôre asylum seekers.” That’s not an entirely unreasonable statement, I feel: the idea that positive discrimination should not extend to the fields of creative endeavour. Rather, everyone should start from an equal footing.

But Hill begins her rant by complaining about the idea of having her name taken off a piece of writing. Sarcastically, she laments of the idea that “names…are invidious. They might indicate to people that the story was worth reading.” Which, for me, given the fairly obvious fact that not everything a person ever writes is brilliant – even a professional writer, even a genius – this entirely negates the idea that she’s after a level playing field. It’s not enough that her story be good, or that it be displayed alongside other good works; we must know they are hers – and that her works have a pedigree, in the form of her previous publications – as distinct from the work of the unfamous.

If the insult of anonymity comes from having good works (hers and those of established writers) displayed alongside bad (the efforts of token, unvetted enthusiasts), she has no reason to be fearful that some ignorant member of the vox populi might express preference for the latter kind, simply because of a lack of nomenclature to guide them, because the whole burden of her argument is that this cannot actually happen. She has worked hard; her work is therefore better, and reasonable people should know this to be so. Nonetheless, this is the fear that comes across – and if you consider the idea, which Hill clearly hasn’t, that the token, unfamously authored works might have been chosen as much for their quality as because their authors were asylum seekers, then this fear, expressed through the removal of her name, completely undermines any claim that she would approve of any short story that was good, regardless of where the author came from.

Because if the origins of the author don’t matter, then why should their title? Hill simply wants us to know how successful she’s been, and takes umbrage at the notion that a chance might be taken – gasp! – on some unproven newcomer whose works aren’t necessarily up to her own calibre. Yes, names are an individual guide to what is worth reading, but only subjectively: we return to authors we like, but not everyone likes the same thing. Take away the names for an instant, however, and we are forced to contemplate flying blind. If, walking through that exhibit – assuming Hill had submitted – a fan of hers was forced to try and distinguish her contribution from those of a dozen anonymous others, and confess afterwards that though they liked six pieces, they couldn’t say for certain that one in particular was hers, then I’d call that a valuable exercise. Perhaps – and this, for Hill, seems the most dangerous thought – perhaps, without that signifying name, she might not even make the fan’s list in the first place.

As Hill herself points out, “you cannot get a single reader if no reader chooses you” – but choice can be made on grounds other than a name. The arts world is nepotistic, by its nature – that won’t ever really change. But if, for a day, we can pretend otherwise by letting someone whose name we don’t know stand alongside the greats – allowing other people to judge, name-free, whether they could potentially belong there – then that really is an example of democracy in writing.

Bottom line: Hill believes in the potential talent of new writers. She just wants to have heard of them – and for them to have heard of her – first.

Dear Mr Rudd,

Since your triumphant¬†ascention to the Prime Ministership, there seems have been some confusion about who, exactly, was elected. It’s true that I (and others of like mind) voted for the Labor Party under your erstwhile helmsmanship; but that does not mean, Mr Rudd, that we voted for you. You were merely the vehicle with which we ousted the long-loathed Howard. This is not to say we don’t appreciate your governance, or rather, the governance of your party. We do. We are really ecstatic at the prospect of a Labor federal government. But¬†the honeymoon has ended, Mr Rudd – as, indeed, was¬†inevitable – and the time has come for straight talkin’.

Let me be frank. We don’t like Kevin the Man. He is not who we voted for. He might share flesh with our PM, but as far as we’re concerned, he’s a totally different entity. We are interested in his opinions only insofar as they mirror those of Kevin the Prime Minister. We are extremely uninterested – not to say unimpressed – with any effort to make Kevin the Man a spokesman for our nation. Kevin the Man is entitled to his opinions, just like any other citizen. But he is not entitled to lend them Prime Ministerial authority.¬†¬†

Which brings me, Mr Rudd, to the subject of Olympia Papapetrou.

When you tell an 11-year-old girl that her naked self constitutes an abusive image, it is you Рnot the photographer and not her subject Рwho has brought abuse to the party. Consider her portrait as a Rorschach test for your psyche. Where it is possible to see beauty, innocence, fragility, youth, childhood, art, you see only naked sexuality, adult, abusive and paedophelic. This says nothing about Olympia Papapetrou, Mr Rudd, but considerably more about you. Personal opinions aside, you did not become Prime Minister through an inability to compromise, act tactfully or otherwise shut up on cue. Such evasions are your meat and drink, Mr Rudd, just as they are for all effective politicans: and you are very effective. Shaming Olympia Papapetrou was not your only option, because whatever morality is professed by Kevin the Man, Kevin the Prime Minister holds right of veto Рor should, when it comes to public speaking.

Here is a photo a mother took of her child. Here is a photo that child loves Рcherishes as an image of herself. If it comes to hold a taint for her, that taint is your doing, Mr Rudd. Because in your capacity as Prime Minister of Australia Рwhich capacity you are in whenever the cameras are rolling Рyou told an eleven-year-old girl that her naked body is ugly, wrong, and a symbol for the most depraved act that could ever be perpetrated against it.

Child protection advocates seem curiously uninterested in Olympia’s right to defend her portrait, and for no better reason than her age. In another five or seven years, if she still loves the photo, will they listen then?¬†Perhaps such advocates are, ultimately, used to speaking¬†for children, not to them. There is condescention in the view that children cannot think for themselves, which assumption children’s rights advocates have spent the better part of a century trying to correct. To then turn around and claim the exact opposite – that Olympia cannot know her own mind, and is utterly unentitled to enjoy a photograph of herself, or to comment intelligently on it, because of her age¬†– is deeply, insultingly hypocrtical.

Mr Rudd, the office of Prime Minister means more than a right to be heard or to make political judgements: it means the responsibility to do so with intelligence, forethought and a measure of objectivity. We ordinary citizens may complain on blogs or at the pub, in the street or to friends with more freedom than you now possess: because we are ordinary. When you stepped into the top job, you did so at the expense of your right to free and public opinion, because although the Prime Minister is a person, their office is not. Australia cannot speak with the voice of Kevin the Man, but only with that of Kevin the Prime Minister, his government and their people.

In that sense, Olympia Papapetrou – naked or clothed¬†and regardless of age –¬†has more entitlement to her public opinion than you. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, Mr Rudd. And you are neither.

Sincerely,

Foz