Director’s tribute to early cinema

By Drew Hunt

Set in Hollywood at the end of the 1920s and stylized like an old silent picture, “The Artist” emerged as something of a surprise on this year’s festival circuit. As a whimsical and nostalgic homage to early years of cinema, critics and filmgoers alike have taken a shine to the film’s fanciful depiction of an era that, despite its assumed antiquity, is as full of life as any other time in movie history.

“The Artist” tells the story of George Valentin, a hugely popular movie star who, after arrogantly proclaiming the rise of sound technology to be nothing more than a fad, falls into obscurity while the industry trudges on without him. Matters are complicated further when Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), an unknown actress and love interest of Valentin, breaks into the business and rises to prominence as talking pictures become the standard.

Director Michel Hazanavicius has a clear reverence for classic cinema. The film is dynamic and infectious, a true accomplishment in an age when words like “black and white” and “silent” turn most audiences away. But Hazanavicius is true to the authenticity of the era (down to the smallest production detail) and his audience’s sensibility.

What could have been a stuffy, elitist denunciation of modern cinema is instead an exuberant celebration of everything that continues to make movies great—and better yet, important.

“The Artist”—likely not coincidentally—arrives at a time when cinema at large is in a state of fluctuation. Formatting and digital projection in 3-D continue to hold dominion as exhibitors’ preferred method of showing movies, while companies like Panavision have all but ceased production of film cameras, focusing instead on digital equipment.

For some, the slow death of celluloid has been difficult to stomach. But shifts in the landscape are inevitable. Form follows function, after all: A number of cinema’s most revered directors have embraced this changing of the guard—Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders both made 3-D films this year; Jean-Luc Godard has hinted that he’ll do the same.

On top of that, making a movie is easier today than it was even 10 years ago. A trip to Best Buy and a healthy appetite is all one truly needs. Just ask Korean maestro Park Chan-Wook, whose latest short film “Paranmanjang,” a grand prize winner at the Berlin International Film Festival, was shot entirely on his iPhone.

This is all examined in “The Artist,” a film about cinema’s first great leap in technology and the ways in which people either thrived or faltered as a result of it. At the peak of his misery, Valentin sets fire to a pile of film stock, signifying the ire of his situation and, perhaps, the ire of cinephiles who share his pessimistic outlook.

But all is not lost—for Valentin or for us. If nothing else, “The Artist” is a testament to the enduring medium that is the motion picture. Hazanavicius illustrates this with all the zest and adoration of a true film lover, a gift for those who relish the old times but still hold a firm belief in the power of cinema.