Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "The Artist" (2011)

Scene from The Artist
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The Artist
Release Date: January 20, 2012
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Written By: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Running Time: 100 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Jean Dujardin)
-Best Costume Design
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Supporting Actress (Berenice Bejo)
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Cinematography
-Best Editing
-Best Art Direction

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Descendants
-Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
-The Help
-Midnight in Paris
-The Tree of Life
-War Horse

And the winner is...

If The Academy gets accused on one thing over and over, it's that it loves itself and the power by which movies can change the world. There's no denying that it's built into the DNA of The Oscars as a construct. However, there are few films over the 87 years to inhabit this ideal quite as blatantly or reverently as that of director Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist. While the film is a love letter to a bygone era of Hollywood film making, it is done with such an impressive craft that its novelty of being a silent film quickly wears off, paving the way for a more compelling story of a man trying to find his voice. While it helps that the protagonist is based off of The Academy's first president Douglas Fairbanks, the film is itself a wholly original and satisfying ode to cinema that shows how contemporary techniques can still make cinema that is lively and challenging in ways not afforded during the time.

Before Hazanavicius had the idea for The Artist in his head, he has the desire to make a silent movie: a concept that was so ridiculed that even director Mel Brooks' 1976 ode to the medium called Silent Movie (the last noteworthy silent film prior) insisted on constantly making fun of it. He didn't give up on the idea, however. After making a name for himself with the James Bond spy spoofs films in the O.S.S. 117 series, he began to pay more attention now that he had everyone's respect. He insisted on working with his O.S.S. 117 stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo (of whom is also his wife). During this time, he read a book on Douglas Fairbanks that was written by Jeffrey Vance. There, he found the inspiration for his protagonist, George Valentin: an actor who becomes irrelevant in the transition from silent films to talkies.

Despite being funded by Belgium and France, the film was reportedly shot entirely in and around Hollywood, California. Dujardin lived in an isolated 1930's house in Hollywood Hills during production. Various places around the city were used as sets, including The Bradbury Building and Shane Black's house. While the film is loyal to many techniques of silent film, they had to use special effects to apply "Land" to the Hollywood logo, as was keeping with the time frame that the film was set (1927-1932). The final dance sequence was shot in the same studio room where Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly had rehearsed their routines for Singin' in the Rain (another film about Hollywood's transition into talkies). Bejo and Dujardin would say that their five months of rehearsal went from fun to exhausting, but ended up being worthwhile in the end. Among other nods to other films included a breakfast scene that mirrors Citizen Kane and Bejo reciting the "I want to be alone." line, which may or may not be a reference to Greta Garbo's famous line in Grand Hotel.

Hazanavicius was keen on making the film not only accurate to the locations, but to the visual aesthetics for which the film existed in. Valentin was based off of Fairbanks, and thus had several films that mirrored the swashbuckler actor's work - including juxtaposing the actor into close-ups of an otherwise untouched Fairbanks film. Hazanavicius' research lead him to even film it in 1: 33: 1 aspect ratio, as he felt that it allowed the actors to feel bigger. There were also no camera zooms to remain time appropriate. Among the only cheats was that the film was shot entirely in color and post-converted to black and white. The other cheat was that the film's central animal actor Uggie was actually played by three dogs. While the main dog named Uggie did most of the work, two others were altered to look more similar. The art direction was supposedly inspired by F.W. Murnau films, such as Sunrise and City Girl

Composer Ludovic Bource created the score without too much educational training with help from the Brussels Philharmonic. While the film incorporates portions of Bernard Herrmann's score from Vertigo and Alberto Ginastera, the composing took place over 6 days (the film was shot in 35 days). Among the film's other cheats, the only song with lyrics ("Pennies From Heaven" by Rose "Chi-Chi" Murphy) was actually anachronistic, as it was written in 1936: four years after the end of the film. Following its release, actress Kim Novak would become offended to see Herrmann's Vertigo score in the film, even comparing it to rape and violation. Hazanavicius has gone on to claim that he secured the rights legally and that he's disappointed that Novak saw his use as offensive, as his intentions were meant to be more loving.

The film premiered at Cannes in 2011. The film managed to go from out of competition to competing, even earning Dujardin an acting prize. The film's success dwindled in from there. While it had a limited release in November, its success at The Golden Globes that year helped it to have a larger expansion. By the time that The Academy Awards came around, it received 10 nominations and was part of a wave of films featuring French culture and cinema (Hugo being the other prominent choice). The film became the first Best Picture winner in history to be funded by non-English speaking countries (France and Belgium), while the film marked the first French win in Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It was even the first black and white film to win since The Apartment (it could be Schindler's List if you consider predominantly black and white films), and the first predominantly silent film to win since Wings, the first Best Picture winner, in 1927. It was also the first film released in 4:3 aspect ratio to win since From Here to Eternity. The film's global success has suggested that the film is also the most awarded French film in the country's history.

The film's legacy has been very mixed, as audiences have since wondered if the silent film technique was a novelty. Considering that it hasn't lead to an onslaught of silent films, there's no good measure for what the film inevitably left on Hollywood. While Dujardin has probably had the most success since (starring in The Wolf of Wall Street), nobody attached to the film has really had a stellar career. Hazanavicius' next film, the drama The Search, didn't receive a warm reception at Cannes in 2014 and has yet to be released. The film's breakout star, Uggie, wrote an autobiography (with help from a ghost writer) and enjoyed life with cameo roles until his unfortunate death at the age of 13 in 2015. While it is too soon to fully dismiss the film's influence (it's only five years as of this article's publication), it does seem like the general attitudes of paying tribute to Hollywood have only existed within The Academy Awards, as every winner since has in some way encompassed the arts as a means of change.

Whether or not The Artist is a revolutionary film, it does manage to be a very successful update on the silent film era, largely thanks to Dujardin and Bejo's chemistry. The film is full of great nods to film history and is a treat for anyone who enjoys films of the era. Even if you see The Artist more as novelty, it's an impressively crafted novelty that commits to the aesthetic at every turn, producing something wholly earnest along the way. It's a film that reminds audiences the capabilities of doing narrations through action instead of dialogue, and for that it deserves some credit in showing what cinema could be. It may have not convinced everyone to invite the French into the Hollywood circles, but it definitely showed that everyone loves Hollywood, and there's no shame in making a film about it.

1 comment:

  1. I remember watching the trailer for The Artist in August or September of 2011 and just thinking to myself, "I just saw the trailer to this year's Best Picture winner." And it turned out to be perfectly true! ^_^