Michel Hazanavicius, 2011
#30, 2011 Skandies; AMPAS Best Picture
I can see why this movie won the Oscar. The storyline — successful actor gives young ingenue her big break; her career takes off like a rocket while his collapses — is one most viewers already know by heart, as comfortable as watching a rerun of a favorite sitcom. The male lead looks like a movie star. The female lead has a heart of gold. The third most important character is a cute little dog who does all sorts of amusing tricks. And yet, as fluffy as this movie is, it still feels virtuous, because it's a silent black-and-white movie shot in 4×3 with title cards in a foreign language — the cinematic equivalent of a salad drenched in ranch dressing and topped with fried chicken strips that you still feel is good for you because, hey, salad! You start up the movie expecting that it'll put you to sleep, you instead find it surprisingly charming and accessible, and you feel good about yourself: Looka me! I'm appreciating Art!
There have been a number of widely seen movies about the transition from silents to talkies; the most famous is probably Singin' in the Rain. But in 1952, the advent of sound film was only as far in the past as the advent of the web is today. It was a subject for nostalgia. By 2011, by contrast, silent film had passed almost entirely out of living memory. If you were under ninety years old, you'd spent your entire life going to movies with spoken dialogue and sound effects. Yes, people are still aware of the existence of silent film. Film survey classes still start with silents — I took several, and for some reason Broken Blossoms was always the one the professors put on the syllabi — and presumably will continue to do so for a long time to come. Cineastes will watch a few on their own initiative in order to acquaint themselves with the canon. But this seems to me to fall into the same category as the guy I knew in grad school who liked to show people the fabliau he'd written. Yes, it was part of a long literary tradition, but it was part of a long literary tradition that ended around the year 1400. It's not the same as a nostalgia project. Consider, to pick something basically at random, the eleventh episode of season five of the sitcom Community, which transplants the cast into the Sunbow G.I. Joe cartoon. However funny the episode might have been on its own merits — and I don't recall it really being a classic — for some of us it carried with it a heaping helping of nostalgia that enhanced the comedy by an order of magnitude. It did so in a couple of different, possibly even opposite, ways. The G.I. Joe cartoon went on the air in the fall of 1985, with new episodes appearing through the fall of 1986 and then a year or two of reruns after that. Meaning that the Community episode was aimed at a pretty narrow demographic of people born in the late 1970s (and people who, like me, had younger brothers born in the late 1970s). I rarely get pop culture references anymore, but I got all these jokes. It feels good to get all the jokes. It feels even better to get all the jokes and know that most people don't. I'm special! They aimed this episode at a niche audience, and it's a niche that includes ME! On the flip side, to know that there were other people out there who knew the G.I. Joe cartoon well enough to write those jokes, and enough who would potentially get those jokes for the network to allow this to go on the air, creates a pleasant sense of being part of, well, a community. There are regions of my brain devoted to storing the memories of all those hours of watching the adventures of Shipwreck and Snake Eyes, and there are millions of other Gen Xers who can say the same. It's nice to belong.
The point, to the extent I have one, is that that's how nostalgia projects work. But that's not how The Artist works, at least not for people who haven't had Willard Scott wish them a happy birthday. It plays on tropes that have passed from nostalgia into history. Obviously, the more general themes of the film are still relevant: old cultural forms continue to give way to new ones, and those invested in those old forms continue to resist change. Maybe by the end of the century, stories without interactivity will be historical curiosities much as movies without any sound but the music are today. But, yeah, while I think I have an okay handle on how nostalgia projects work, my understanding of how historical curiosities work for people is a lot shakier.
And that wraps it up for the 2011 Skandies. Note to self: If you take thirteen months to get through a year's worth of movies, you won't ever actually catch up. Sigh.