I had a good time watching The Artist over the weekend, but from what I could tell, I may have been one of the few in the theater who did. You can hear a lot when you’re watching a silent film and what I could hear around me in the theater were sounds of impatience, if not exasperation. My companion says she timed someone’s huffing in our row at ten-minute intervals. I didn’t stay long enough to see whether these dissatisfied customers asked for their money back as they did in Liverpool. I presume that unlike those Liverpool audiences, everybody must know by now that they’re paying $10-plus for a black-and-white movie in which people speak in title cards – especially since it’s looking more and more as though that movie’s about to own Oscar Night.
Does it deserve to? About as much as The King’s Speech did last year. Which is not to say, by any means, that they’re the best pictures of their respective years. The dedicated movie dork in me loves the audacity of conceiving and releasing a vintage-1920s movie in this Wide Wired World we live in now. But too many questions follow me out of the theater: What exactly was George Valentin’s problem with the talkies? Are we to assume he’s self-conscious about his voice? (His accent? Really? Garbo’s accent was thick as sausage gravy and she did just fine in the sound era.) Does the whole generation gap trope really jibe with what’s known or remembered about the transition to sound pictures? (Rhetorical question. Singin’ in the Rain remains your first & finest big-screen source for what that historical interlude felt like.) And, yeah, I guess the same movie dorkiness that piqued my curiosity about The Artist makes me wonder, along with small multitudes, why it was necessary to appropriate Bernard Herrmann for an emotional peak when the original score seemed to be doing just fine on its own. But not even Kim Novak’s plaints on Vertigo’s behalf will keep the Academy’s dorks and would-be dorks from embracing a movie that embraces them – or at least their most romantic ideas about themselves.
With or without Oscar’s approbation, however, I suspect The Artist will have more people huffing and puffing in their seats, Not because it’s relatively minor (which compared to a half-dozen other 2011 movies, it is) or even slow, (which it is, in patches), but because we now have at least a couple generations of moviegoers who are conditioned to expect the pictures to do all their thinking for them. People have to work a little harder to acclimate themselves to a moving picture without sound and while that process may be a thing of joy to Dorks Like Me, it’s a trial for those whose biggest accomplishment last year was getting a bigger digital sound system for the home entertainment center.
Maybe if The Artist had taken off some of its sweetness and replaced it with more cinematic magic, it would have rewired audience’s expectations for film so much that they would have been inspired to seek out the masterworks of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. (Just saw the latter’s Safety Last again. There’s a lot more to that movie than a man hanging off a clock’s arm.) An Oscar sweep may still do the job, but I doubt it. Just as I wonder whether anyone will even try to make a cerebral spy thriller after Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has collected a few Oscar nominations of its own, but from what I’ve seen and heard, bewildered and even angered audiences for its relative lack of distracting mayhem. (On its opening day in New York, I witnessed the abrupt, mid-movie departures of not one, not two, but three couples.) You want more explosions and tortures, fine. I’ll settle for that glorious moment when Gary Oldman’s George Smiley is sitting placidly in a car as its other occupants desperately try to smash a fly. All he does, impassive expression intact, is open a window and let the fly out. To me, THAT is movie magic. But then, Smiley’s a dork. And so am I.