Wednesday, 23 May 2012


What did the awards season tell us about the state of movies today? This year's list of Oscar nominees was perhaps the weakest I can recall; I could name a half a dozen films I liked better than any nominated by the Academy, yet none of them struck me as the kind of film I'd be comfortable calling a year's best. The critic Michael Goldfarb suggested that since the average age of Oscar voters is 62, it might reflect an inability of younger voters to respond to edgier work, but I think the reality is anchored more firmly into the idea of what Hollywood's over-sixties see as entertainment, and this year's awards reflect two connected impulses: those of self-reflection and nostalgia, as well as a certain preference for the fantasies of memory over reality. I'd be tempted to draw bigger analogies to America itself in the post-Reagan era—the belief in self-regarding fantasies rather than challenging or unpleasant reality seems to define a large part of the country-- but that's not our purpose here. What else does a farce like The Help constitute, if not a self-reflecting fantasy of the past, which rewrites history from a comfortable point of view of a present which itself is an indulgence? But the two biggest winners at the Oscars were both films about silent film, movies that put the movie industry (and the past) at the center of human experience.

Yet surely indulgence is the operative word when we consider the screenplay awards for Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris, a film which shines only in comparison to most of Allen's work in the past decade, and then mostly when he's revisiting familiar tropes from his past. It's very much like a blown-up version of an Allen short story, but given its place in Allen's canon it's theme of the idolised past not really being better (or practical) in the present, could be viewed as unfortunate. It's also lucky, in the sense that those Oscar-voting 62 year olds are probably the last generation for whom Hemingway and Fitzgerald were held up as literary gods, as well as romantic figures from history. It's an interesting conceit: Owen Wilson plays Gil, a writer making lots of money in the movies who wants to finish his novel, and comes to Paris looking for inspiration from the city of the 1920s (though not specifically for the Lost Generation—whose identity, after all, was based on having survived a savage, senseless war). His fiance thinks his career as a Hollywood hack is just fine, and is willing to indulge his dreaminess just so far. To stack the deck, Allen gives her the kind of parents who give nouveau riche a bad name, more gauche than rive-gauche, and a know-it-all professor friend with whom she's signalled early and often to have an affair—he's the kind of guy we expect Marshall McLuhan to come out of the crowd and correct.

On his own, Gil gets transported back to the 1920s and immediately meets Scott, Zelda, and Hem. He's encouraged in his writing, not least by Gertrude Stein, and he also meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard) the woman of his demi-monde dreams, especially if he'd seen Amelie before he had those dreams. And that is the lesser of the two big problems with this film. Woody's Paris is about as real as Gil's Paris of the Twenties, that is, about as real as Woody's London was in Match Point; although in that film I thought Woody might have been influenced by Hitchock's Frenzy, and the unreality was part of its charm. It's presented in a visual homage to his opening of Manhattan, which was in part about Woody himself living in the past, but rather than convey the beauty and mystery of New York's kaleidoscope world, his Paris is a stereoscopic viewer full of picture postcards, the kind of thing my ABC colleagues used to run as shorthand to identify the which part of the wide world Wide World of Sports was visiting this week. His Paris is luxury hotels, top restaurants, museums where Carla Bruni is a guide, and the odd quirky shop whose odd quirky assistant will turn out to be Gil's soul-mate. It's a construct from the past as much as the 1920s are for his alter-ego.

But those 1920s are even more of a conceit in another way. Famous faces satisfy the received opinions of them. Woody's Hemingway talks, not like Hemingway may have talked, but like he wrote. Maybe that's because he's Gil's Hemingway, not Woody's? Though his takes on Scott and Zelda are good (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill are perfect as the doomed golden couple), and Kathy Bates' Stein is a hoot, the deeper we go into Gil's fantasy world, the more historical figures assume walk-on roles, to the point where they get introduced, we appreciate the likeness to the pictures of them on Wikipedia, and they walk off. At least they walk, so they can't be called tableaux vivants.So when Gil and his period flame Adriana themselves go back to the Belle Epoque, she stays there; she also sees the past as more attractive than her present (and never considers the time paradox: she mentions Gil in a book, which she wrote presumably after meeting him but before getting stuck in the belle epoque, but somehow managed to get published in the present.) Woody's conceit is much the same thing: Hollywood loves his film because it's literary, and speaks to a culture they remember but haven't participated in years. But for him it may serve a simpler point: in Manhattan the wonderful young girl went to Paris and he lost her; this time, the younger Woody played by Wilson--California rather than Manhattan but with a similar nasal voice--goes to Paris and finds her. It's that simple.

The Artist is an even more likeable movie, whose textured black and white images also recall the past, invoking all the glamour that was Hollywood in its heyday. But as it rechurns many of our favourite cliches form silent films, it as indulges a peculiarly French sense of style over substance—that a trench coat and cigarette is all it takes to hardboil a man. It's true that this was indeed the currency of silent film, but although it shows modern audiences that contemporary emotions can be expressed in silence, there is rarely a moment in The Artist where we sense the kind of gut-wrench which the best actors of the era could wring from their theatrical techniques. This is why I was particularly puzzled by Jean Dujardin's Oscar for best actor—his is a pleasing, but hardly challenging performance. Similarly, the film itself is hardly challenging; The Artist does little to play with the uses of silent film; Mel Brooks' Silent Movie was much more creative with what it did with the limits of silence. It's also significant that Silent Movie ended with Marcel Marceau 'speaking', whereas The Artist ends with the sound of tap: ironically one of the easiest for talking films to dub (and thus make dancers seem better than they are).

In much the same way Midnight In Paris' historical figures become less and less substantial as the film picks up speed, so too The Artist's story reverts more and more to cliches as it picks up speed. French cinema has always loved Hollywood's style, and paid it hommage, that trench coat and cigarette was for decades thought enough to transform even the most unlikely French actor (Catharine Denevue, anyone?) into Bogart—but The Artist's cliches are sometimes so historical as to be unrecognised by most of its audience, even our prototypical 62-year old Oscar voter. In this sense you can understand the plaudits for Dujardins' performance, which deserves plaudits for overcoming two handicaps. One is the strident one-note beat of his leading lady Peppy (Berenice Bejo) and the other, of course, is being upstaged by the dog.

Uggie, charming as he is, may indeed be the best metaphor for the film itself—for there isnt a single thing he does that we haven't seen Asta, or Rin Tin Tin, or Lassie, or Pete (the pup with the ring around his eye in the Little Rascals) do already. When today's audiences react to Uggie's big life-saving moment, it's with brand-new glee, which is understandable. You can't criticise them for falling for it, but we can chide Oscar voters for not knowing more, or better.

In which context, it is somewhat surprising that Hugo did not do better—although what The Artist has that Hugo doesn't, besides a dog, is the ability to project a sense of wonder without bogging it down in just the sort of knowingness I'm exhibiting in this essay, so maybe I am indeed demanding the impossible. Martin Scorsese's love of movies has been demonstrated before, in documentary fashion, and here it propels a story which engages his sense of wonder at the same time it loses ours, by turning into another worthy documentary, about the rediscovery of George Melies. To put it simply, the difference between The Artist and Hugo is that the former shows us the wonder of silent film, while the latter tells us about it.

I should confess now that I saw Hugo in 2D, so I can't evaluate fully Robert Richardson's Oscar for its use of 3D (except by visual inference) but it is exceedingly fascinating even when seen in two-dimensions. The film is gorgeous to follow, and Richardson constructs his shots around Scorsese's theme of the mechanical becoming human, and the human mechanical. But sadly, it's the performances which are the most mechanical thing in the film. The children sometimes look like they've been processed in CGI-- they may well come off two-dimensional when seen in 3D, but it's hard to warm to them, especially when they are together. Paris Montparnasse station is populated entirely by English actors who seem content to go through the paces of their well-established stage presences—not totally their fault because their stories are very lightly developed almost in silent film fashion (as we watch at a distance through Hugo's eyes)--except for Sacha Cohen's hammy Inspector Gustave, who would not be out of place in a silent film, or in a Clouseau tribute band. For a comedian whose success relies solely on playing with safe ethnic stereotypes, Cohen seems an odd choice to play a damaged but sensitive character, and it's as if his performance recognises that. Matching him with Emily Mortimer creates an interesting link with Allen's Match Point.

It was the film I liked best of these three, the most involving, but in the end, Hugo seems to lose interest in its most compelling story: the boy trapped in the station, and instead loses itself in the very familiar stories of the people within the station, presented with incredible low energy, and the history of silent film, presented with high energy focused on didactic explanation. Its Paris is a thing of wonder, but to Scorsese that wonder can't compare to the movies themselves. It fully deserved its haul of five technical Oscars, and indeed Scorsese's Golden Globe for best director might have been a better reward than was his Oscar for The Departed.

For Allen, Paris is a thing of wonder which inspires love and literature, for Scorsese it is a thing of wonder that inspires cinema. For and the movies can't compare to that. For The Artist's Michel Hazanavicius, Hollywood is a thing of wonder, where all is artifice, and only more artifice can redeem those nearly destroyed by it. For the 62 year olds who vote for Oscars, those pluckings at the strings of wonder appear to be all we need expect from our movies.

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