With its sweep of the Independent Spirit Awards yesterday - and hammy Jean Dujardin beating American treasure Michael Shannon for Best Actor - The Artist cemented its dominance at tonight's Academy Awards. Overrated is a stupid, reductive word, but the reality is that The Artist is truly overrated - at least if we're measuring its ratings in terms of awards won. And this movie has won them all.
It isn't so much that The Artist is bad (although being the juggernaut of awards season will surely guarantee the film is historically seen as being terrible) as that it's slight. THIS is the best movie of the year? Really? It's a perfectly nice movie, but greatness and The Artist don't even live in the same zip code. It's frothy and light and obvious. Some people defend The Artist because it's silent and black and white, but here's the reality: more people have seen Ghost Rider 2 in the past two weeks than have seen The Artist in its almost four months of release. This film will not spark a new love for black and white cinema, and it surely won't direct anyone back to silent films - not only because The Artist does not, on any level, use the film grammar of the silents but also because its whole premise is that silent movies are old-fashioned and out of touch.
Compare that to Hugo, a movie that concerns itself with the silent era of filmmaking but does so in a way that makes the films feel immediate. In The Artist George Valentin's final silent film is a hokey joke, playing to empty theaters. In Hugo Scorsese celebrates the imagination and skill of these pioneers, looking to make us feel the excitement that Hugo and Isabelle feel watching Safety Last. Scorsese presents these films as being as rapturous as the biggest blockbusters of today. There's no love for the silent film in The Artist, just a gimmick that grows tired very quickly.
There's another insidious level to The Artist, one that Karina Longworth astutely noted in LA Weekly recently:
The Artist dramatizes the flexing of that muscle in a way that ultimately and cheerfully endorses the subservient relationship of the talent to the producer/studio. When the Goodman character fires Valentin, the star defiantly pledges to strike out on his own. "I'll make a great movie," he says. "And it's not like I need you for that." The rest of the narrative essentially proves him wrong: If Valentin wants to make a movie that anyone cares about, he needs to do it with a studio. That we're supposed to accept his film-closing rebirth as an Astaire-esque dancing movie star -- contracted by the same mogul who all but left him for dead -- as a happy ending and not a humiliation, is a baffling turn of events, if we're also supposed to sympathize with his plight as an independent artist. The Artist, then, is a film in which an iconoclast hits rock bottom by staying true to himself, and learns via near-death experience to embrace conformity.
If you're wondering why The Artist is sweeping awards, that's probably the answer. Lip service is paid to independence and artistry, but in the end the film re-affirms the strength and primacy of the studio system and commercial filmmaking. That's what makes the wins at the Independent Spirit Awards all the more baffling - this is a movie taking a piss on the indie film spirit.
But here's the upside: we don't have to hear about The Artist anymore after this. The film will win big at the Oscars tonight, we'll bitch and moan a bit this week, complaining that our favorites didn't win (or weren't even nominated) and then it'll fade away. In two years time people will be hard pressed to remember what film won. Around the World in 80 Days won Best Picture in 1956 while The Searchers wasn't even nominated. Which film do we still talk about? Oliver! beat out 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, and cinema recovered.
Let The Artist have its night. The great films of 2011 will have the rest of history.