I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: What Makes ‘The Artist’ Special?

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

[Author’s Note: As will become apparent to you, this week’s post is short enough to be a capsule review.  But thanks to my school’s library closing for Monday’s holiday, I have to spend most of my time there Tuesday evening to do work.  This is a slightly edited version of a piece on the 2011 Best Picture winner, The Artist, I wrote for a class I’m taking.  This may have to become a more regular occurrence on this site when I’m short on time for longer essays.  Sorry in advance.]

What transforms The Artist from a mere genre exercise into a resonant film is its brief use of diagetic sound.  Its utilization of retro techniques — 1.33:1 aspect ratio, long takes, and the “mugging for the camera” common in the silent era — is charming and engaging, but would ultimately result in interesting emptiness without its acknowledgment of itself as a modern (re: talkie) film.  George Valentin’s (Jean Dujardin) nightmare about sound’s implementation in his business is a masterful use of impressionist ideas — dream logic, such as his inability to speak in a world where sound envelopes him —  and practical implementation of sound design.  Up to the point of his nightmare, the only sound in the film is its score; a whimsical, enjoyable score that bores itself in a viewer’s head.  Within the dream, though, George’s powerlessness is enhanced by his dog’s insistent barking, the shock of hearing a drinking glass clink against a table, young actresses on the upswing mockingly laughing at him, and eventually, a floating feather that lands like an atom bomb, waking him from his fitful sleep.  This experience shakes him, and instead of facing the changing film landscape over which he had previously reigned, he becomes obstinate and doubles down on his insistence that talkies will just be a short-lived fad.  His waking nightmare, the one in which he loses everything in a blur fueled by arrogance and the Depression, will continue for several years, before the sobering reality of the necessity of adaptability finally sinks in.


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