Published on March 20th, 2012 | by Jordan Petersen0
REVIEW: The Artist
Silent films are cool. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Well actually, that isn’t really the problem is it? Most people naturally assume that black and white movies in general — and silent ones in particular — are boring and/or dumb. For that reason, I am quite grateful for a film like The Artist.
Apparently, so was the Academy.
I didn’t watch the Oscars this year. I wanted to, even though the nominations were perhaps more upsetting this year than they have been in quite some time. But, regardless of how insufficient that award ceremony is as a rubric of great films in any given year, it’s still a significant event. Anyone who manages to nab an Academy Award will automatically find themselves in a better position in the industry. It’s gold, figuratively and literally.
And there’s only one “Best Picture” every year. That’s a pretty dramatic narrowing. Whether you agree with the winner or not, the film that gets it automatically enters a kind of canon of film history, and that’s a big deal. So it’s not a bad idea to be at least passingly familiar with what ends up being called — though it be by those irritating elitists — the “Best Picture” each year.
The Artist was, much like last year, an easy choice. A safe choice. Of the nominees, I would have strongly contended for The Tree of Life, but I’ve yet to write a full review for that yet, so I’ll spare you my reasoning for now. Until a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t even seen the winner, but people seemed to like it from what I’d heard. And what film student wouldn’t be delighted by a successful throwback to those silent days of yore? (And who wouldn’t be encouraged, when writing about it, to use words like “yore?”)
Now, finally having seen it, I understand. Not that it was a spectacular film. In fact, it was merely adequate. Adequately entertaining, adequately important, adequately crafted — adequately adequate. I realized, when it was over, that the only reason it ever had any shot at even being nominated for Best Picture was because it was such a reverent homage to film’s tender history. The story was relatively mediocre, and much of the execution was actually quite generic and bland.
It’s achievement, let me emphasize, is significant. It got regular old audiences (you know, comprised of people who have probably seen, at most, several minutes of silent film their whole lives) to laugh and care and talk later. In other words, it was fun and accessible, even though it was doggedly faithful to the antique style. So, good for it — and I mean that.
But the truth is that, against all the great films of the silent era, this one is immediately forgettable. Sit down in front of any work by Keaton or Chaplin, and it becomes obvious that The Artist is only worthwhile in consequence of the fusion of its style and era. Not that this uniqueness isn’t cool and admirable. It is, and I say props. But “Best Picture” cool? I’m not so sure. Rather than being surpassingly masterful or toweringly important (or both), it is simply a neat exercise, a loving “hats off” to a noble caste of films in the cinema history.
The Artist is a good film. It’s very watchable, and refreshingly optimistic and light-hearted. It’s sweet and funny and lovable, much like the little dog that barks silently all the way through. But I’ve already made my “Best of 2011” list, and I’m not going back to make room for a film that succeeds only by admiring better movies. ♦ ♦ ♦
Jordan Petersen is SOUND’s resident sensei of all things movie-related. Recently graduated from Brigham Young University, he is now working towards a Master’s degree in film at Boston University. Check out Jordan’s filmmaking blog at twentyoneninety.blogspot.com.