Minutia Madness: The Artist
By Bret Dorman
(As always, SPOILERS! may apply to the movie in discussion.)
Everyone knows what makes a movie good. Blurbs like “compelling”, “powerful”, and “explosive non stop thrill ride that will leave you on the edge of your seat!” are common place on movie posters. In reviews (including my own) people point out how the direction is “great”, how the writing is “awesome”, and how the acting is “wonderful”. Every once in a while you can find a really great essay from a smart film critic (a real one) or film maker that actually explains why a movie is good and helps you as a viewer become a better film watcher.
But what about those small moments that fall in between the cracks? I understand the need to talk about a movie in the broad sense, its the easiest most SPOILER! free way of saying if you liked or didn’t like a movie. I prefer people to talk in specifics, to actually know why something is good or bad. But this goes beyond all that. This is blowing the tiniest detail way out of proportion. This is what makes me a film nerd. This is… Minutia Madness!!!
written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius
A couple weeks agp The Artist won Best Picture at The Oscars. Yippee! It’s a well deserved win and a good movie to represent film making and good story telling. It was also the least seen of the nine contenders. On the one hand its kind of sad, since the movie is really such a heart warming peppy little film. On the other… its to be expected. A Black and White, “French”, Silent film… yeah…
So the big question is what makes The Artist so great? A lot of people have labelled it a happy film, but claiming that it ultimately is a bit trite. Some people prefer Hugo more, claiming that it is a better example of praising the older magic of silent films while pushing the medium in new ways (it is often cited as having the best 3D of the year). I personally found Hugo tedious, repetitive, and even frustrating at times while The Artist fully explores its characters’ chemistry and is always looking for the best visual solution for all its silent film problems. Of my Top 5 of the year, The Artist is the most magical.
In the movie, actor George Valentin is always ‘on’, constantly seeking the spotlight and performing for anyone who will watch (which for the first half is everyone). There is a scene early on in which he sees a stunning pair of legs practicing a dance number. A piece of background scrim blocks the upper portion of the dancer, so as Valentin approaches, she has no idea he is watching. The crew looks on with delight as Valentin playfully mirrors the dancer’s moves. The dancer is not too impressed as her legs express “Oh, you think you’re so cool don’t you…?”
Instead of being insulted and storming off, the legs take this as a challenge. They tap, twirl, and twist toying with the thespian (alliteration!). But if there is one thing you can not trip our main character on, its entertaining the people. He matches the legs step for step, move for move. In fact, at the end of one particular twirl, he even flashes his hands out as if to signify the end of the routine and add some extra flair. There it is folks, the jazz hands finale as Valentin mimics his leggy dance partner. Watch this abridged version here:
A good actor can nail all the tiny mannerisms that make up a character, whether that character is a Taxi Driver, bounty hunter, or just some dude (maybe even THE Dude). Jean Dujardin here has basically one basic trait to express for the first half of this movie, delight. Delight in performing, seeing others happy, and being in the spotlight. Here he is not at a premiere or at home, he is not shooting the movie yet, he is on set but off camera while his director is trying to talk to him. But what direction do you give Valentin? Be charming? Play it up? He does that already.
The battle of the dancers takes place below waist level, for one that’s all we see. Needless to say you’re going to be paying attention to their feet most of the time. If not their feet, then probably their faces, since most people will look at an actor in the eyes when they are on screen. That’s why most conversations are shot via close up over the shoulder style and whoever is talking is the focus. So even though he is not on camera, his opponent can’t see his upper body, and everyone else looking at him isn’t looking at his hands he still caps off his twirl by flashing them out a bit.
This is one of those cases where I’m not quite sure if it is actor or character in command. The move is subtle enough to be either. Jean Dujardin may just have that instinct from doing previous dance numbers or George Valentin may have that instinct from milking every opportunity for showmanship he can. Either way, it perfectly sums up his character and what makes him so charming. Not only does he loves to entertain, he’s good at it and knows it.
The rest of the movie is just as magical. If it doesn’t win you over with its charm and earnest performances from Dujardin and Berenice Bejo it certainly will with its canine co-star. Is The Artist just a simple movie about a silent film star and the rise of the talkies? I say no. While it doesn’t have any grand themes or bold statement to make, it is anything but simple. It is carefully constructed, well thought out, and brilliantly acted. Remove the cynical critical cap, succumb to its charm, then study how it creates the charm.
So what do you think? Is that splash of hand flair worthy of my applause? Or am I just crazy for focusing on this minute detail?