Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Artist: More than Just a Valentine to Old Hollywood

Leave it to the French to pen a beautiful cinematic love letter to black and white silent films in The Artist. Have you seen it yet? I've seen it twice, and I have the soundtrack in regular rotation. I'd go see it a third time. I left the theater feeling infinitely better than I did before. For two glorious hours, I forgot about my troubles and stress.

The Artist is set between 1929 and 1932 and the Stock Market crash occurs during the film, yet people still flock in droves to the movies as escapism. I'm in the midst of Amor Towles' debut novel Rules of Civility, set in 1938 in New York City, and something he said in an interview struck a chord with me as I've been very drawn to old Hollywood films in the past year.

"It was a tough time for the country, we all understand that, but one of the interesting things about the thirties was as that was playing out - in that decade - was all of the Fed Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies...If you look at the seven most important Marks Brothers movies, Night at the Opera, and Duck Soup and Day at the Races, they were all from that decade. And swing music. So here's this period where people were losing their wealth and dispossessed and unemployed - very tumultuous timing - yet some of the most glamour sort of happy go lucky aspects of American culture history were happening simultaneously. It turns out there was a great appetite for getting lost in glamour at that time and the artistic community responded in kind. It was very different in Germany where you get German expressionism came out of that crisis and you know they were in crisis. Where we came from outerspace, you'd listen to swing music and you wouldn't guess this was a tough time for the country."

It's interesting to reflect now how the artistic community is responding to the economic turbulence. Hollywood is in a sentimental mood. Michelle Williams' brilliant turn as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris which wistfully remembers the artistic creativity of Paris in the 1920s with Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter and F. Scott Fitzgerald among its players. Even Meryl Streep's role as Margaret Thatcher, who like her politics or not, broke down barriers.

Overall, though, I don't understand our tabloid reality television culture and why amidst the economic woes we've gone down that road. I'll take the glamour highway over reality road myself. How much is shock value disguised as "art?" If aliens landed from outerspace in 2012, what would our culture say about us?

Like Owen Wilson's character in Midnight in Paris, Gil who was a writer who so longed to be in the midst of a thriving arts culture, George Valentin, the silent film actor in The Artist, is overwhelmed, and often depressed, by the fast moving world around him, which is so different than the one he knew and loved. It was a world he took for granted until it so rapidly altered. I think that's why I related to it so much. When he saw what "talkies" were going to look like, he wanted no part of it. If that's the future, you can have it, he told his manager.

When I look around in our new intrusive world of socially rude and addictive behavior with handheld phones with internet, the slow death of real books and book stores, Facebook (sorry, I go with my sister's name for it: Stalkerbook!), I feel the same way: if that's the future, you can have it. I miss going out for a nice meal without everyone having a device by their glass of wine or ignoring the person they went to the movie with. When Borders existed. When having "friends" wasn't a numbers game. A friend and fellow writer said to me, "I don't like the way our society is going." I don't like it either sometimes.

Thank goodness I have films like The Artist to escape to.


  1. "Stalkerbook" I LOVE it! We call it "ButtBook" around here. I completely share your take on modern "society."

    Just found your blog and I can't wait to read more. You've certainly made "The Artist" shoot to the top of my must see list, and I think you also managed to redeem Valentine's Day as well... an impressive feat by any measure!

  2. Thanks so very much, and welcome to my humble blog! I saw a sign by Walgreens the other day, "Friend Us on Facebook!" I don't want to be friends with a drug store chain. It is truly unbelievable how quickly they’ve taken over. Most deplorable to me is getting young children and teens on their site. Thank goodness I was raised before the ludicrous notion of "social online networking" for kids.

    I've read some books lately very critical of the mass thought of the earlier decades like the 1950s, but there's plenty of mass thought and mob mentality now. Happy to stand apart from the mob and say, "Hey, wait! What's going on here?"

  3. I haven't seen "The Artist" yet (I rarely go to movies but I do like to watch them filming in my 'hood!), but I gotta say--I'm totally with you on your last paragraph. But you know this already. :)

  4. I saw Hugo last night and it was more wonderful time travel. Such beautiful imagery of Parisian train station daily life - the old couples dancing cheek to check to the French accordion music, the cafes with patrons people watching over coffee and croissants, the florist with a rainbow of flowers to please the eyes and the noise, the book store brimming with books piled high with their owner passing on stories hoping they will find a good home. No one looking glass-eyed at their devices. How I miss the world before these phones with internet, and how I worry about print books.