The Walker Percy Memorial Moment

For movielovers such as myself and Mr. Percy’s eponymous, anonymous protagonist, movies about loving movies are a wonderful treat. Singin’ in the Rain, Diva, 8 1/2, Stardust Memories, Day for Night – all music to my eyes. (Of course I know that Diva is ostensibly about opera, but it’s truly an ode to cinema; shot after shot pays loving homage to the greatness that can be achieved in a film frame.)

So it’s with delight that I report that two of the contenders for Best Picture fit the genre, and do so beautifully. I don’t think either is on a level with Citizen Kane or even The Lady from Shanghai, but I do think that both The Artist and Hugo will have legs, and that they’ll have at least some effect on the joy of watching a good flick. At least, I hope so.

Hugo takes a glorious true filmmaking story – the rise, fall, and re-rise of George Méliès – and embellishes it with one child’s search for his father and another’s for escape. The vehicle is invention, both old school and cinematic. I did want classic Scorsese, with his camera lurching like a drunken Orpheus through the underworld; I got instead vintage Spielberg. All the carping about Spielberg not getting enough Oscar love this year is interesting; had the credits been erased, I would have sworn this was his work. I have tremendous respect for Spielberg, but the man can’t leave a silent space in his movies, and often frames that should be ugly and dark are too gorgeous. Everything is scored and shot to a loving fare-thee-well, as is Hugo. The music is beautiful; there’s just so much of it. It’s a bit of a shock coming from Scorsese, a master of aural acuity, and it feels a wee bit studio-driven. (“Marty, the families LOVE pretty music.” “OK, OK, I’ll put in the pretty music, just lemme throw in a little Satie here and there for God’s sake, I gotta have some Satie.” “Calm down, Marty.” “I am calm. Who are you calling not calm? Why are you saying that?” And so on and so forth.)

For a movie so deeply in love with the movies – Hugo says, “I love movies,” an indication of the film’s solid grab for the mainstream, because period accuracy would have the kid say “pictures” or “films” – there are surprisingly few quotes and homages. There’s a nice nod to Harold Lloyd, the great everyman of silent comedy, but other than the joy in presenting Méliès’s work and imagination in all its glory, the cinemania is reduced to a montage of great moments prior to the talkies.

I get it. The family audience that makes this movie profitable will not understand a visual quote from Pandora’s Box. So there isn’t one. If only Scorsese, with his encyclopedic movie knowledge, had thrown a few bones to his loyal fans (those of us who will see anything he does, including Shutter Island, no matter what, based on the genius of Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and the masterly Personal Journey through American Cinema), Hugo would ascend from being a very good and lovely movie to a great one. We are, after all, a group that will instantly pick up a quote from Abel Gance’s La Roux. In fact, the movie feels much more closely linked to Gance and his epic gravitas than to Méliès’s frothy escapades.

But the fact is, Hugo is quite wonderful. The children are very good, Ben Kingsley is terrifc (and somehow not Oscar-nominated but…whatever), Sacha Baron Cohen proves again how gifted he is, and Helen McCrory and Christopher Lee are a treat. Thelma Powell’s editing is always a marvel, Robert Richardson’s cinematography provides some magic of its own (including a heady opening traveling shot that calls to mind the greatness of Welles and Gregg Toland) and  Dante Feretti designs a period Paris both thrilling and mysterious. That the film has succeeded on a family level – the matinee I went to had many rapt children in attendance – is amazing. These kids were introduced to Méliès! Wow. And not just to him, but to the concept of movie loving. For that, give Scorsese as many awards as possible.

And I’ll go on the record now to say that I think The Artist is even better. Like any movie that is a dead cert to win Best Picture, it now has its coterie of detractors and shruggers. Here are some reasons I like The Artist very, very much indeed.

1. While loving movies, it is never reverent. It moves at a good clip, tongue remains firmly in cheek, and whenever wit must battle pathos, it wins.

2. Jean Dujardin. His is an absolutely remarkable performance. Silent acting is tough. It demands the rigor of a dancer, and the fact that Dujardin is no slouch on that front is a tremendous part of his success. It’s not something that can readily be understood unless you watch a lot of silent movies (which I avoided for years, but now wonder why I waited). Once you’ve seen the greats, including Chaplin, Keaton, Louise Brooks, and von Stroheim, you begin to understand the power of standing still, of holding a position longer than seems humanly possible, and then moving at exactly the right moment. Dujardin absolutely deserves the Oscar that he will win; what he does is much more difficult than anything that the other nominees do, and he makes it look easy.

3. Pacing. Director Michel Hazanavicius conducts the movie like a symphony. There are darker moments that are lit just right: not too bright, but not too dire, either. When it moves, it races, but we keep up.

4. Everything else. The supporting cast – how I adore James Cromwell – the spot-on design (Laurence Bennett on production design, Gregory S. Hooper’s art direction, Mark Bridges’ costumes, and a team of hair and make-up artists led respectively by Cydney Cornell and Julie Hewett), the beautiful camerawork by Guillaume Schiffman, and the razor-sharp editing of Anne-Sophie Bion working with Hazanavicius. Filmmaking at its most disciplined. Rigor never looked so fun.

The Artist will win. Is it the best picture of the year? Sure, for some folks, but in the grand scheme of film and the hundreds made this year, of course not. But the Academy won’t embarrass itself (it certainly has in the past; this is no Greatest Show on Earth). More importantly, the hype helps convey this giddy yet somewhat substantive ode to the power of the projector to people who would never dream of watching a silent film otherwise. It gets them to see that cinema is a marvelous art form, but more, as Orson Welles said and is paraphrased in Hugo, “a ribbon of dreams.”

Is it any wonder I love this stuff?

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