Everyone looks better in black and white. Like cats landing on their feet or Republicans demanding tax cuts, the beauty of black and white film is a universal constant. I don’t know why it isn’t used more, other than the fact that audiences demand films in color. Or to be more specific, audiences demand films that are tinted slightly orange or blue, depending on the emotion the filmmakers feel like subtly eliciting from unwitting audiences. Black and white films are the past; audiences are interested in the current and fresh. It is unfortunate that the timelessness of old Hollywood is denied our present superstars. The war between black and white or color films was lost long ago in the battle of Oz, and while Technicolor still sparkles on the screen, most of today’s run-of-the mill Hollywood films look like television shows on a giant screen.
Black and white is now a gimmick used for important subjects, like the Holocaust or the fate of independent contractors on the Death Star. If black and white is reserved for certain subjects, imagine how a silent black and white film might be received.
“The Artist” is an achievement in the adulation of film history, a decidedly deliberate break from the norm of filmmaking to glorify the glamour of pre-depression Hollywood and highlight the beauty of a different type of filmmaking. For a film like this to be successful, it has to be done exceedingly well and be noticed by the right people. The Oscar nomination indicates success on both counts. It is a fun film to watch, if you are willing to make the effort to pay attention.
This story is not unlike “Singin’ in the Rain.” Silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is on top of the world and at the height of his career. He is the consummate performer who doesn’t subscribe to W.C. Fields’ philosophy of never working with animals, as his constant companion is a Jack Russell terrier with as much charm and class as any gentleman in the industry. Everything he touches turns to gold, much to the delight of studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman). He even is able to bestow fame upon the common people, as an accidental encounter in front of press cameras leads to the slow rise of plucky young Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) to a stardom that rivals his own.
Of course, “talkies” are just around the corner and Valentin is dismissive of the relevance of speaking actors in film. But we know silent films have an expiration date and Valentin’s pride leads to his fall. The film is a romance, of course, so the fall is followed by redemption and happiness must be the end result.
Dujardin is rightfully nominated for Best Actor, as silent film requires a powerful performer to be convincing. But he is outshined by his co-star Bérénice Bejo, who is more delightful and beautiful than any woman has a right to be. She embodies the stars of the era, absolutely shining in every scene, to the point where almost all of the other characters become vague gray shapes in the background. Fun surprises like John Goodman and James Cromwell are welcome, rounding out the cast with colorful people and wonderful performances.
This is a film I want to see at the Tivoli, with the score played live by the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra. It should be an event, not a movie. I want to get dressed up to go the theater, sit with like-minded film enthusiasts, and feel like I’m part of a different crowd. What is so wonderful about this picture is the way that within the first 15 minutes the novelty of silent film disappears, leaving the audience alone to watch a real story unfold on screen.
The real question, I suppose, is whether “The Artist” will sweep the Academy Awards with multiple wins. It may, but if I am honest, some of the other movies are better. “The Artist” is wonderful, but it’s limited in its ability to affect audiences emotionally. The performances are great, but the story isn’t especially original—and it’s played for humor and lighthearted fun. I prefer “Midnight in Paris” for Best Picture, however I admit my English degree might influence my opinion. I can say this with absolute certainty, however: There aren’t many movies that couldn’t be dramatically improved by a rousing tap number.