...where distraction is the main attraction.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Artist or Singin' in the Rain? Singin' in the Rain.

My Mac's Dictionary app has this entry for "trifle":

trifle |ˈtrīfəl|
1 a thing of little value or importance : we needn't trouble the headmaster over such trifles.
[in sing. ] a small amount of something : the thousand yen he'd paid seemed the merest trifle.
2 BRIT. a cold dessert of sponge cake and fruit covered with layers of custard, jelly, and cream.

Those are separate definitions.  The British definition (#2) can be for something that is very rich, delicious, and memorable.  The first (U.S.-specific) definition has a disposable connotation.
When we popped The Artist into the DVD player, I thought the film was going to be Definition #2 Trifle.  But instead it was a Definition #1 Trifle.

Though I am a silent film fan who hates musicals, I must say if you want to watch a film about a Douglas Fairbanks-type silent film actor who struggles with the transition to sound film while the perky ingenue he bumps into seems more suited than he to the new movies, rent Singin' in the Rain.
Also, Cyd Charisse
Singin' in the Rain is funny, very smart, post-modern before post-modernism, and always entertaining.  The Artist is about a man deeply blinded by his own misery and the woman who supposedly loves him but is at best a creepy stalker and at worst a succubus.  Without the cute dog, it would have been a melodrama, not a comedy.

Jean Dujardin's George Valentin goes from Fairbanks to self-pitying alcoholic John Gilbert so fast, that I'm not sure who "the artist" is actually supposed to be.  We see so little of Valentin's actual craft and so much his life's ruination that I'm not really sure if he's the artist in question.  He's also a thoroughly passive character allowing failure's quicksand to swallow him whole.  Singin' in the Rain's Don Lockwood is an active character; he may mull his failure for a bit and need a friend to give him a push, but he works to figure out how to salvage his career.  Thus Lockwood's art becomes the focus of Rain, while Valentin's emasculation is the focus of Artist.
Is Berenice Bejo's Peppy Miller supposed to be "the artist"?  As mentioned before, she ultimately comes across as uncomfortably pathological in her relationship with Valentin.  She watches his life fall apart, up close at times, then buys up ALL of his belongings and his right-hand man, Clifton.  And we're supposed to accept that as signs of human love and devotion?  Valentin's reaction to this unnerving discovery is completely understandable (though overly melodramatic with an inappropriate Hitchcock score theft).  I won't spoil what Valentin does, but let's just say it's not an act of loving acceptance.  So we know Peppy's a psychotic stalker, but is she an artist?  Her aggressive career advances lead her to superstardom, but -- because her screen performances are brushed by in quick montage -- we don't if she's devoted to her craft or just an excellent opportunist.
Ultimately, the Artist, or rather Artists, are the craftspeople behind the film.  The camerawork shines, the sets and costumes look lovely, the old Academy Ratio is much appreciated, the editing is solid, the symbolism (though occasionally heavy-handed) is enjoyable, and the music (aside from the Vertigo steal) is great silent film stuff.  It's very difficult to make a feature-length silent film in an age of noise, it's even more difficult to get something like that distributed widely, so big kudos to The Weinstein Company for putting their considerable heft behind it.

But when it comes to story and character, The Artist isn't a luxurious pleasure.  Peppy's obsessive fanaticism and Valentin's self-destruction are never reconciled and instead get wallpapered over with a quickie final scene that tends to no loose end.  Thus it became disposable to me once it was over.

Singin' in the Rain has a quickie ending too, but amongst all of the tremendous insider humor throughout the film, Don and Kathy scramble to address their challenges thus revealing layer upon layer of complex character traits.  And because they actually care about each other, they assist one another and work together when struggles befall them.

The Artist's characters don't.  She pities him while simultaneously building a shrine around his former self.  And he just pities himself.  So the happy ending either doesn't work or it's just another step in her obsession.  It's a mystery the film doesn't attempt to solve.  If the filmmakers treat this crux as "a thing of little value or importance", then this viewer will do the same with their art.

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