A Portrait of The Artist as an undone man


Critics and reviewers have spotted umpteen references to silent films, and films about silent cinema and the coming of sound, in Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist.They certainly provide many ways to interpret the film, although it has plenty to say for itself too.

Curiously, the most striking tribute has gone almost unacknowledged – at least in any review that I’ve read. Uggie, the faithful Jack Russell terrier, who does tricks on stage and on the dinner table, and eventually rescues his master George Valentin from certain death, may be descended directly from Asta (from Bringing up Baby) and Lassie, but what shouts out loud (in this not-so-silent film) is the striking reference to Nipper, the dog in the HMV logo (His Master’s Voice, for those who’ve forgotten).

The story, on the surface, is familiar. Silent movie star George Valentin, vain and successful, fails to make the transition to the sound era, and is replaced at the studios by Pepe Miller, who got her first break as a dancer in Valentin’s last film. As she rises, he falls, losing his fortune, his mansion and his wife in the Wall Street crash. All he has left, ironically, is Uggie the dog. Naturally he turns to drink, but Pepe finally finds a way to overcome his apparent obstinacy, and there is a happy ending.

At the beginning, it’s as though George Valentin isn’t just a silent film actor, he is a totally silent man in a silent world. After he is brought in to see a sound test at the studio, he realises the awful truth, in a clever gag scene where he is surrounded by a world of sound. The awful truth is not just that he won’t talk (as he insists, in character, in the spy thriller that opens the film), but that he can’t talk.

So, while his vanity and his obstinacy – and, if the film’s title is to be accounted for, his artistic purity, play a big part in his downfall, that’s not all. The studio boss (John Goodman) sums it up: Valentin is a silent movie star – the public don’t want to hear him talk.”

Here’s the wider proposition:  it’s not about whether you can change, and it’s not about whether you want to change, it’s about whether the public want you to change. Our culture is essentially a conservative one – in fact society generally protects itself by making sure that things change as little as possible. Once you are identified as something, or someone, of a particular type, that’s what you are fated to remain.

It is so interesting that this film should have been made now, in the year that cinema itself is finally dealing with the change that some say is the greatest since the dawn of the talkies – the switch to digital. Perhaps what has happened to Kodak – the once great giant of photography and cinema – is the same as what happened to George Valentin. I suspect some in Kodak – like Valentin – saw the digital business as no more than a passing threat to “real” photographic technology: that is, their entrenched business. They didn’t want to change. But that’s not the important point. What matters is that Kodak’s public saw then as a photochemical company: they no more wanted to go to Kodak for digital cameras than their fictional grandparents wanted to hear George Valentin talk, They wanted to get their digital cameras from a digital company.

There’s a personal angle too. Despite having moved away from film technology nearly ten years ago (shortly after the newer edition of my film technology book came out), and having spent the previous ten mainly concentrating in the film – video – digital interface, I still find many in the industry who almost apologize to me that they are shooting their latest project digitally. Please listen everyone: It’s All Right.  My world has moved on from a developing machine.

Of course I’m not writing off photochemical film any more than I’d write off silent film. Both have great strengths, but the new techniques have strengths too. The question is, whether it is at all possible for someone – a company or an individual – to change what the public expects them to do. And if not, can they, successfully, switch from being the star player to a minor role as cult specialist or character actor.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Jan Krzyszton on February 8, 2012 at 9:54 PM

    It’s like all the professional photographers who poo pooed the efficacy of digital cameras…not “real” photography, they said. Yet everyone of those who declared that to me a couple of years ago are digital only and enjoying the savings in film costs! Digital is here to stay..


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: