Warning: the following discusses The Artist in detail and contains spoilers.
A few hours before The Artist was formally crowned an Oscar winner, a question popped up on Twitter: is Michel Hazanavicius’ film a conservative celebration of the studio system and a slap in the face to artistic freedom?
In the film, movie star George Valentin laughs off his bosses’ praise of talkies, and when the studio officially ceases production on all silent films in order to move into the sound era, Valentin quits and sets out to make his own movie, as writer, director, and star. The resulting work, a silent jungle adventure titled Tears of Love, costs thousands of Valentin’s own dollars and tanks at the box office, having opened the same day as young star Peppy Miller’s smash hit talkie.
We get three reasons why Tears of Love bombs: it’s silent in an age when the audience is hungry for sound; its older star is no match for its competition in terms of audience draw, since (as the studio boss has mentioned) the public is hungry for fresh faces on their screens; and, most damning, its story’s a real downer. The shot of the hero dying in quicksand is both winking symbolism for Valentin’s own sinking career and bitter commentary on the sort of moviegoers who prefer upbeat and clear cut over serious and ambiguous. (I mean, hell, the girl’s name is Peppy.)
What’s most interesting about the self-seriousness of Valentin’s film is that it’s quite unlike Valentin to make such a movie. The guy’s a ham, eager to please with some soft shoe and dog tricks. His films are audience-friendly spy yarns, not moody melodramas. (Granted, we only see two of his pictures, but we can assume from his antics in front of crowds that Valentin prefers to grab the spotlight via breezy charm; easy-going adventure flicks are most likely his bag.) Tears of Love plays not only as a rage against the sound era but as the cry of an entertainer eager to display his clout, begging to be taken seriously – hence, The Artist. It’s a vanity picture, and vanity pictures rarely succeed.
Tears of Love also has the misfortune to premiere the day before the 1929 stock market crash. Funding the movie nearly bankrupts Valentin, and Wall Street finishes the job. He could go back to the studio and make a talkie, but he’s intimidated. His pride won’t let himself admit he was wrong about talkies being a fad, his fear won’t let himself accept the idea that viewers might in fact be OK with his voice. He becomes convinced he’s yesterday’s news, no longer viable as a box office draw – and if he can’t be the star, what’s the point?
It takes years of ego-crushing depression and financial ruin before Valentin can finally allow himself to accept Peppy’s help, which he originally sees as pity but is in reality an act of kindness and love, an appreciative payback for the big break he gave her years earlier. In an effort to quell his fears of speaking on camera, she concocts a plan to make a musical, emphasizing dance over dialogue. (It’s unclear if he speaks at all on camera in their collaboration; he may stay silent throughout, or perhaps the dancing is a way to relax the actor enough to be comfortable with the talkie format.)
It’s easy to see why Oscar voters were taken by this story. It’s charming and engaging and rich in detail, but as a tale of a forgotten star, only to be not only redeemed but adored by the very youth for which the studio passed him over? That’s right up the alley for an Academy roster peppered with aging former celebrities.
Or maybe there’s more about the film that appeals to Hollywood elite than that. Last week, LA Weekly‘s Karina Longworth wrote a fascinating article about The Artist‘s role in defending the studio system. The piece details how the founding of the Academy, born just as the silent era was fading, was an effort to dodge unionization; the effort mainly worked, and while workers got their guilds, studio heads kept their power.
Midway through the article, Longworth goes one step further:
The Artist dramatizes the flexing of that muscle in a way that ultimately and cheerfully endorses the subservient relationship of the talent to the producer/studio. When the Goodman character fires Valentin, the star defiantly pledges to strike out on his own. “I’ll make a great movie,” he says. “And it’s not like I need you for that.” The rest of the narrative essentially proves him wrong: If Valentin wants to make a movie that anyone cares about, he needs to do it with a studio.
She goes on to explain how Valentin’s return to Kinograph Studios is a humiliation for an artist who failed as an independent. But is it really? That’s the conversation I had yesterday with film critics Tyler Foster (pro) and John Gholson (con).
Here are some quotes from Tyler:
The Artist somewhat troublingly depicts an artist swearing off the studio system and failing miserably.
[T]he message is still conform or die. Which is problematic.
I can’t see how he gets anything he wants artistically out of the compromises he makes. He remains relevant, that’s about it.
His compulsion is to entertain. He has to find a new outlet for that compulsion.
[I]f he wants that love, why stick with a style that’s losing love fast?
Insecurity, mostly. An aversion to change (which you see from people all the time).
And so on. Tyler’s main argument was that if Valentin was indeed an artist sticking to his guns in defense of silent film as an art form, his decision to compromise by working for a studio devoted to talkies is the very essence of selling out.
It’s a very good point, although I can’t agree. As John pointed out, Valentin’s compulsion to entertain pushes him into a comfort zone he’s unable to escape on his own. His refusal to adapt is a stubbornness fueled not by artistic reasons but selfish ones. The script even underlines the point, having the star rant to himself about his foolish pride being his downfall. His fears are personal – they won’t like me if they hear me, and if they don’t like me, I am nothing – and keep him from embracing new technology.
When he finally accepts Peppy’s offer, it’s not a matter of selling out, and it’s far from a humiliation – after all, when asked for another dance, Valentin replies, “With pleasure.” The finale is a triumph because we see him freeing himself from the bonds of his ego. He’s finally able to admit his mistake, both to himself and to the studio.
As for the studio itself? The Artist is hardly a defense of the studio system. After all, the studio head may ramble on about “fresh meat” and giving the public what it wants, but he’s also a pushover, always in service of his stars who repeatedly overrule his decisions. When discussing sound on film or the future of the company, the boss keeps inviting Valentin to the discussion. This is hardly a portrait of studio power. Indeed, it’s a portrait of star power, a point of view quite appealing to actors eager to think of themselves as the true authority in Hollywood.
And, as Longworth points out, those actors must be willing to adapt, lest they be forgotten:
The Artist has been released into a similar period of transition, as celluloid technology is being replaced by digital, and theater attendance is threatened by the habits of a new generation born into an on-demand world. If the Oscars truly are Hollywood’s way of telling us what it’s thinking about itself, then the dominance of The Artist reflects the paranoid uncertainty of a contemporary movie industry barreling toward an uncertain future, and looking to the past for reassurance.
So, no, George Valentin is not a sell out. Embracing transition and allowing compromise does not equal an abandonment of artistic ideals. And, more importantly, Valentin’s conflict is entirely internal; there’s nobody to sell out to. The Artist is ultimately the story of vanity and humility, and how a little of the latter can help you find your joy.