The Artist, and cannibalistic nostalgia
February 6, 2012
Remember how I said The Muppets was the most metafictional movie of all time? I think this one beats it.
I quite enjoyed The Artist. I pretty much had to — a twenty-first century black and white silent film, what’s not to like? It was clever and fun and competent. (And in one scene Peppy wears a version of the dress I wore to the Hugos last year. I know, because the company’s website has been making a huge deal about the film using their dress.) But I also felt much like I did after seeing Hugo. It’s nice, but I’m not sure it deserves all the obsessive elated hype it’s been getting.
It also got me thinking: Like Hugo, The Artist is about filmmaking and nostalgia. They both express adoration and admiration for a bygone time. They depend on a fair amount of knowledge of the history of movies to even get the subtext — The Artist could not exist without Singin’ In the Rain providing the audience with background for the story. You don’t have to know about Méliès to understand Hugo, but knowing about him and his work sure adds to the experience of the film. In fact, without knowing about his work, you’re only getting part of the movie.
And then back to The Muppets, and metafiction. In The Muppets, the plot and external commentary about the movie were the same: are the Muppets as an entity still relevant, thirty years after their TV show was a big hit? The movie’s intended audience was unabashedly fans of the old TV show — if you didn’t start crying when the film recreated the old opening song, you were not the intended audience. If you never watched the old show, you could still enjoy this movie, but you were missing a big chunk of it.
Then there was Super 8, which I didn’t see but I understand is meant to be something of J.J. Abrams’ tribute to Spielberg science fiction… These are all different from “period” films, which simply take place in the past. These are specifically movies about making movies, and the history of making movies, with a definite sense that those were better times.
I have to conclude that, this year, for whatever reason, Hollywood is eating itself. (I know technically The Artist isn’t a Hollywood movie…but dude, it’s up for like a bajillion Oscars so I’m lumping it in…) It’s celebrating, and wallowing in, its own history, which is a fine thing in small doses. But getting so many of these movies at once? I imagine this is happening for a lot of reasons: we have a couple of generations of filmmakers now who’ve grown up immersed in film rather than trying to invent it, like the first couple of generations were. Fashion in general has been backward-looking and nostalgic. There’s a sense of wanting to reclaim a lost or fading history. There’s a pervasive dissatisfaction with the big summer blockbuster structure that drives Hollywood these days.
Looking backward can be very satisfying. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, especially if you find an audience who loves your love as much as you do. But it’s not very risky, like looking forward is. I wonder what a truly new kind of movie would look like.
(I wonder if what these movies really seem to be doing is trying to recapture that lost sense of wonder — of seeing a train come toward you on a screen for the first time, of hearing a movie talk for the first time. 3-D hasn’t cut it, obviously.)