“O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers”

– William Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality” 1804

“For those who believe everything is better with technology, the old days of cinema contain minimal delights and even fewer insights.”
– Bill Gibron, “Art-Official: The Artist,” Popmatters, December 26, 2011

Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (2011) has so far reached a $25 million return compared to about three times that amount by The Descendants. (1) Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011) won the Golden Globe for Best Drama picture, though it fails to rise in any significant way above a TV Hallmark Cards Sunday night feature. You could possibly find plausible reasons as to why the film has earned such a high honour, finding most certainly precedents in which mediocrity achieved acclaim.

The Artist wins three Golden Globes: actor, score and best motion picture musical or comedy and countless more Oscars, but the absence of a script that does more than sketch faintly Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s 1952 Singin’ in the Rain pushes Jean Dujardin’s performance as George Valentin to centre stage to fill the void. Compared, however, to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Billy Wilder’s 1950 Sunset Blvd., a silent screen idol who plunges into her own psychotic world of illusion when she no longer fits into the new “talkie” world of movie making illusion, George Valentin displays only the fall of pride into self-pity. Norma Desmond’s struggle to make the world respond to her illusions not only rings true but also has impact that stretches beyond the acclaimed actress to everyone in whatever state of traumatic collapse who does the same.

The Artist leans on Gloria Swanson’s performance in Sunset Blvd. but does not extend it to any glimpse as to the ways our new cyber fantasizing and the illusions of friendship and sociability of our “social networks” have reshaped how we now “escape.” The customary escape to the movies, silent or talkies, has now been itself eclipsed, like a silent film star eclipsed by the new technology of the audion amplifier tube and the introduction of the Vitaphone system, by an escape to cyberspace. All this only serves to indicate that the artistry of The Artist has no exceptional claim on our attention.

Its claim lies in our reactions to its very existence as a silent movie in the age of Twitter. I mean that The Artist shouldn’t be here; it’s a shadow of the fading of our own senses, emotions and imagination in a new Millennial world in which they have been steadily “outsourced” to new technology.

Rather than being on the trail of what is intrinsic in the film, which is not what possesses any mystification, we need to focus on its own appearance in a world that rejects its existence out of hand. Firstly, the film has provoked the kinds of comments that reveal mystifications, the first being what is most obvious: why present a film that is about 95% silent, not 3D, not computer enhanced, not paced at interactive video game speed, and in various shadings of grey? Why risk turning off the crucial marketing demographic – the tweens and teens – with characters without cell phones? Why focus on characters who don’t update the minutiae of their lives on Facebook? With characters who neither text nor tweet?

One would take the chance, perhaps, if the film not only captured the genius of the best of the silents but also somehow, through the insights of our own times, enabled us to see and respond to what may have been lost and what may have been gained. This, however, is not The Artist’s project. It doesn’t command the artistry of the best of the silents, or does it trouble us with what has been lost, or compliment us on our advance. But the most intriguing mystification arises from the film’s presence in 2011, a haunting presence that gets between our fixated gaze at the newest device in our hand and the chance of being Jean Dujardin’s George Valentin accidentally bumped into by Berenice Bejo’s Peppy Miller.

Imagine this: a mind caught in a matrix in which human consciousness “dances” with data 24/7, in which time passes in a sequence of tweets 24/7, now focuses on The Artist for 100 minutes. It doesn’t happen; it happens. And having happened when there is no surround in which we can now makes sense of what it means, there is only mystification.

Dujardin’s charisma, which is after all a celebrity charisma that in the age of celebrity, we understand, succeeds admirably and against all odds in drawing our interest. That he can interest we who have multi-tasking interests, voracious appetites for jump cutting over-stimulation, and who are more enchanted by the screen of our cell phones than by the Big Screen is, beyond the power of what I describe as the film’s mystifying quality, an attraction of the film. You could say that in this film the magnetic charisma of Dujardin’s performance, so compatible with the stardom of George Valentin, is shadowed by the ways in which a discarded past haunts the present and projects fear, like projections on a screen, into the future.

Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) is a silent movie also done after the silent era had ended but it does not rely on its antiquated effect in 1936 but instead brilliantly satirizes these modern times in which humanity and machine are meshing to no purpose but increased production and profit. Chaplin’s Little Tramp rescues love and hope repeatedly out of the machinery of a dehumanized industrial system and the laws that guard it. Modern Times is a post-Depression movie, one that attempts to point to who the villains in that real world tragedy were and how the victims of that tragedy continue to pay the price. After the economic meltdown of 2008, which has had continued global effects and an imposed austerity upon the victims while the perpetrators go on as before, we have The Artist, a film literally speechless in a world in which all talk of crime and punishment is detoured into confusion.

Yet, as I say, the film’s presence itself opens up a conversation regarding technological innovation and replacement of our own non-technological way of bumping into reality, our own un-assisted way of imagining whom we love and most significantly allowing the world and not a virtualized hyperreal to inspire our imaginations. The bitter consequences of technological innovation extend not only to what the speculative philosophers call “The Great Outdoors”, or Romantic poets rhapsodized as Nature, or Gaia environmentalists and deep ecologists refer to as ecosphere and biosphere within which all living things exist. There are haunting consequences to a depreciation of our own inherent human “hardware” and its replacement by what technology offers as accelerated and heightened “interfacing.”

The deeper we get and the further we go into this transplanting of our imaginative, emotional and sensuous responses to the newest apotheosis of hi-tech the less we are able to recognize our loss. In cinema, we are already witnessing a slow collapse in the presentation of history that pre-dates both computer and cell phone. Any representation of a world before cyberspace has little to tell us in a world already transformed by cyberspace. There is also a reluctance to draw upon serious literature that demands an attentiveness now collapsed into the duration of tweeting and texting or hyper-stimulated to the level of interactive computer gaming. We are, in short, very much dependent upon computer enhancement of our own senses.

It seems transparently clear that any replacement of our own faculties, our own emotions, senses and imagination by a technology that “enhances” all that, that does the imagining for you, that supplements your senses, that exercises your emotions is profit making.

The “magic” of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (David Yates, 2011) and Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011), both released in the same year as The Artist, rely on the complete technological moviemaking palette as contrasted with The Artist’s tech minimalism. While The Artist’s presentation requires an active role of imaginative transformation on our part, the hi-tech of Harry Potter and Hugo mechanizes (“automaton-izes”) the process and places the viewer in the more passive – if over-stimulated ­­– role of receptor. The “magic” of imaginatively, as well as emotionally and sensuously, responding and absorbing what we see has been taken over, pre-packaged, accelerated and enhanced in Hugo and Harry Potter. The role of the imagination in transforming the world reaches a level of over-stimulation that overwhelms. The Artist has drawn back and gone in the opposite direction.

All of what I say here is somewhat ironic when you consider that the métier of the Harry Potter films is magic, the unraveling of the Hugo plot is in the “hands” of an automaton, and the magic of The Artist in a hyper-kinetic hi-tech culture can only mystify without magically transforming.

Wordsworth wrote a brilliant poem a few miles from Tintern Abbey. To do this, he relied on a fusion of all his own faculties without the crutch of technology. No profit is made; the walk into Nature was free, the imagining was his, and his consciousness roamed beyond a 140-character tweet. You could say, from an entrepreneurial point of view, that his imagination had not yet been colonized for profit, that it was a frontier that could be remodeled in ways that could do the imagining for you. You could also say that what we then imagined with our convenient automatic imagining were products and services and not walks in the woods.

We have a far different consciousness than a walk in the woods consciousness now; we can no longer take those kinds of walks without our cell phones; we can no longer sit 100 minutes watching a silent movie. That we have done so and have also awarded this film has, once again, more to do with our deep unconscious grasp that we “trail clouds of glory” we can no longer regain.

Fear of losing one’s cell phone –now called “nomophobia”, and on the rise – has now emerged as a new fear. We fear losing our hi-speed computer connections; we expect Wi-Fi everywhere; all that is dear to us is represented by an app; we restrict the dimensions of society to our Facebook world. Our fears have technologized; our faculties have been displaced by hi-tech prosthetics.

What remains intriguing about the mystification that surrounds every aspect of The Artist is its bold effrontery. It is a startling, assertive presence in a world that has left black and white silent movies as far behind as it has left dinosaurs. It’s most probably that we see it as a dark drag on a world that is heading as speedily as it can to a virtualized online world, a “humachine” world in which all our bodily senses, our imagination and our emotions are as has-been as George Valentin’s silent screen mugging. And yet, why be drawn to The Artist, reversionary and primordial as it is, unless its very presence reminds us of the real pleasure of bumping into the world with our own imaginations.

Endnote

  1. Refers to US figures as of February 2011.

About The Author

Joseph Natoli is the author of numerous books, the more recent of which are This is a Picture, and Not the World: Movies and a Post-9/11 America (Suny Press, 2007), Memory’s Orbit: Film & Culture 1999-2000, (Suny Press, 2003) and Postmodernism: The Key Figures (eds. Hans Bertens & Joseph Natoli, Blackwell, 2002).