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Monday Movies Won’t Talk, We Won’t Say a Word

The Artist. There’s a mansion up the hill from my old apartment at 1928 Micheltorena Street called The Paramour. According to legend, its address comes from the year of its completion as a love nest for a silent film star and his wife. She died, he split, and the mansion became a convent, a girl’s school, and fell into disuse. About ten years ago a local impresario bought it, spiffed it up, and now rents it out for weddings, events and for bands to record in. (I lucked into a ticket for a fundraiser there and got to see Beck, Aimee Mann and Minnie Driver jam out.)

Why does the silent era still hold such fascination? The inability to sync image and sound lasted for the first thirty-five years of the motion picture, still more than a blip but looking more and more like an oddity. The most enduring artworks will be the physical comedy of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. The dramas look more and more like a historical phase. The real story is about the first generation of Hollywood royalty being led to the guillotine by their own voices. It’s been told before:

The Artist tells a similar story. Jean DuJardin plays George Valentin (standing in for Douglas Fairbanks), a silver screen adventurer who falls for Peppy Miller, an actress who parlays a meet-cute with George in front of his paparazzi into a film career that nimbly adjusts to talkies while George scoffs and watches his career melt away. Unlike Singin’ In The Rain, which is amazing in its own right but comparatively superficial in its relationship to the silent era, The Artist weaves form and content together in its celebration of the art and technology. Its rules are flexible. It mostly plays as a silent with intertitles and a sweeping score (about whose own pastiches see Richard Brody).  In a nightmare, Valentin (and we) hears the clink of a glass and the slam of a door, then walks outside his dressing room to hear the laughter of chorus girls. And of course, there is a final joke using a few of the actors’ spoken dialogue.

The best thing about  The Artist is the use of faces. DuJardin is a consummate ham. As Peppy Miller, Bérénice Bejo is mesmerizing–she’s got an endless mouth and sequoias for teeth, and when she pops up mugging in front of Valentin’s cameras, it’s hard to read her appearance–at first I couldn’t tell if she was being made fun of for being ugly (she’s not). Director Michel Hazanavicius has great taste in finding known actors whose faces translate to the idiom. John Goodman is the jowly and glowering director. Jamie Cromwell is the kindly, loyal chauffer. Malcom MacLarenMcDowell [thx oudemia] shows up randomly in an audition line, but he looks good.

There are lots of moments that are intelligently self-aware without being cloying, especially in an opening sequence set in a movie hall that layers shadows on projections on actors behind screens. Overall, the story is charming and clever, though not as deeply affecting as it’s gotten credit for.

  • Magic Moment: Anything between Valentin and his sidekick Jack, played by a Jack Russell terrier named Uggie.
  • Screenwriting tips: Valentin is kind of a schmuck. At times it seems as if his tragic flaw is pride, which in itself can grow tiresome to watch. The balance between internal and external obstacles was never quite dead-on; he had too many problems that could have been solved by being a little less schmucky or self-pitying.
  • Health tip: Burning a huge pile of silver nitrate film stock will take your skin off, not leave you recuperating gently from smoke inhalation.

January 23, 2012 - Posted by | Monday Movies | ,


  1. For me, this was the week of “Movies I Will Watch When I See They’re On”. AMC did a Die Hard movie three straight nights and I watched a sizable chunk of each. There’s a seen in the third one where Sam Jackson and Bruce Willis have to figure out how to get exactly four gallons of water in a jug when all they have is a three gallon jug and a five gallon jug. They need the four gallons in order to defuse a bomb in New York. It always bugged me that they rushed through the solution to the riddle because the first time I saw the movie, I spent the rest of the movie trying to figure out what the hell they did.

    The cheat the movie did was to already have two gallons in the three gallon jug. So they just had to fill the 5-gallon jug and then fill the 3-gallon jug with water from the 5-gallon jug (leaving exactly four gallons in the 5-gallon jug). But if you watch the movie, they’re arguing almost the entire time. And to get what you know to be exactly two gallons in the 3-gallon jug, you’d have to fill the 5-gallon jug and pour three gallons into the 3-gallon jug. Then empty the 3-gallon jug onto the ground and pour the remaining two gallons from the 5-gallon jug in it. That’s quite complicated and obviously not something they would’ve just lucked into while arguing.

    These kind of things don’t ruin movies for me, but I don’t like them because they make the viewer feel dumb only by way of an editing cheat. I felt similarly about the scene in Sixth Sense where they show Bruce Willis sitting in the house next to the kid’s mom when Haley Joel Osment gets home from school. M. Night Shyamalan said the trick is they never show the two talking, so it’s not a cheat to make us think Willis interacts with people other than Osment. We, the viewers, just assume they were talking. Well actually, we assume that when a psychiatrist is sitting on a couch in a home next to that home’s inhabitant a certain protocol has been followed. A protocol such as having knocked on the door and been invited in, as opposed to materializing on the sofa. So yes, it is kind of a cheat, M. Oh, and congratulations for conceiving of the universe’s stupidest aliens in Signs.

    The other “Movies I Will Watch When I See They’re On” were Bourne Idenity, The Prestige and Unforgiven. I saw pieces of the first two and all of the third. The ironic part about me always watching Unforgiven is I watch the whole thing because I love the last scene. This despite the whole film letting us know things like what happen in the final scene aren’t how things really were and when they do happen, they shouldn’t be celebrated. Whatever, man. I just wanna see crazy cowboys do crazy cowboy shit.

    Comment by Matt in Toledo | January 23, 2012

  2. 1/16/12 – Kill the Irishman – Hensleigh 2011 4/10
    1/17/12 – (Justified)
    1/18/12 – Sukedachi-ya Sukeroku – Okamoto 2001 7/10
    An old director’s lark, but it was great to see Nakadai
    1/19/12 – Scattered Clouds – Naruse 1967 9/10
    I like this much more than most Naruse fans;technically brilliant and beautiful;color;melodrama made tragic
    1/20/12 – Wanda – Barbara Loden 1970 8/10
    fascinating micro-budget; very 70s but a few years ahead of Rafaelson or Malick (Badlands)
    1/21/12 – La Commune (Paris 1871) – Peter Watkins 2000 10/10 genius
    1/22/12 – ditto; 1/23/12 – ditto

    Google “Peter Watkins La Commune” if you are interested. He has a huge website and a very long intelligent discussion of this film and his art and the market. He is very old, so read it while it is there. Too much, this needs a book.

    6 hours long, I am doing it in three parts, but I think watching it straight through would be better to share the experience of exhaustion and boredom and terror might be better. This movie is about feelings. Almost all about the streets, you are there in the alleyways with people screaming at each other, long political arguments, trying to cooperate and survive. 2/3 of the way in the actors (amateurs) break character half the time and talk current politics and feelings about making the movie and re-experiencing re-creating the Commune. Tons of Brechtian technique, lots of media criticism. Revolutionary art and art of the revolution.

    I had moments when I wondered if I will be able to watch anything else after this. They.ll pass.

    Comment by bob mcmanus | January 23, 2012

  3. I saw Jarhead. I don’t know what to make of it but it left The Kids with the feeling that war is not just bad but also boring, so I’m going to give it an 8/10.

    Next week we have scheduled Scarface and Blue Velvet. It seems that cinematographically speaking The Kids growing up is going to be great fun.

    Comment by Guido Nius | January 23, 2012

  4. MacDowell not McLaren is your Malcolm, I think. (I haven’t seen the movie yet — how’s Penelope Anne Miller?)

    Comment by oudemia | January 23, 2012

  5. Oh, right. I always do that. P.A.M. is full of rue.

    Guido, how old are The Kids?

    Comment by Josh K-sky | January 23, 2012

  6. I am so glad you ask, Josh. The Eldest is 16, The Daughter 13 and The Youngest 9 (but he is not yet allowed to see the good cinema). I am too proud of their good taste.

    Comment by Guido Nius | January 24, 2012

  7. I hope we get to hear what they make of Blue Velvet. David Lynch was very important to my teenage years. Twin Peaks, donuts, cherry pie and coffee with friends every Friday night.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | January 24, 2012

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