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still from The Artist by Hazanavicius

The Artist

Low-tech magic at Top of the Park

by Michael Betzold

From the July, 2014 issue

Retro is all the rage these days. Quite a few bands now play some sort of Americana and use old-timey instruments. Even literary efforts harken back to old days. Instead of reading an e-book on an e-reader this summer, I'm turning the pages of filmmaker J.J. Abrams' ambitious and artful S, a mystery scrawled in faded "pen" in the margins of a novel fashioned as an old library book.

With computer imagery giving filmmakers incredible powers, it's no surprise that a lot of summer movies resemble bombastic video games--overstuffed with sound and noise but undernourished in character and story line. The more technology's limitless possibilities dominate our culture, especially on our ubiquitous screens, the clearer it becomes that less can really be more. There's something aesthetically satisfying about making the most out of minimal tools.

That sort of artistic nostalgia might explain how a few years ago, most improbably, a silent film won the Best Picture Oscar more than eight decades after sound came to cinema.

The Artist is an inspired choice for the Top of the Park, where it shows on July 2. Though it's a French movie, you won't have to squint to see subtitles while lying in a blanket on the grass, because there's almost no spoken dialogue. You can just listen to the marvelous Jazz Age music while enjoying the enchanting melodrama.

Understandably, writer-director Michael Hazanavicius had to fight to get this movie produced. Against all odds, it became an international success despite the antiquated nature of its genre. A valentine to a lost era in cinema, it took home five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for its star, Jean Dujardin, who plays a silent film actor who can't find much work with the advent of the talkies. It could have won a sixth were there an award for Best Canine Performance, because the movie's cute pooch steals a lot of scenes.

"Wistful," "enchanting," and "crowd-pleasing" are adjectives abundant in reviews. Certainly Hazanavicius

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doesn't miss a beat in constructing an appropriately period-authentic story, finding actors who look the part, costuming them with exquisite verisimilitude, and making sure the cinematography faithfully recreates the look of a film of the 1920s. The artistry is undeniable, and it's got what a lot of more thunderous movies lack: a good story. It's a lot of fun--the cinematic equivalent of a charming old snow globe.

In the end, though, The Artist, while sweet and tasty, is not much more than a confection--which is why I personally rooted for a much more substantive tribute to the history of cinema, Martin Scorcese's wonderful Hugo, to win Best Picture in 2011. But The Artist is still worth checking out. Perhaps some of those in the "Top" crowd will leave inspired to borrow a real period silent film from the library or download it from Netflix--say,the sci-fi classic Metropolis or the comedy Sherlock Jr. Many movies of the 1920s remain surprisingly fresh and potent and, like The Artist, prove you don't need a bag of high-tech tricks to produce on-screen magic.     (end of article)

[Originally published in July, 2014.]


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