Thursday, November 17, 2011

Preview: The Artist and attention to detail

Yes, I know I just posted a preview-oriented entry yesterday, but IFFBoston had a preview for this one at the Coolidge on Tuesday, and though I don't know exactly when it's coming out, having the word out about it being fantastic seems like a good thing.

(When is it coming out, anyway? IMDB says next Wednesday, 23 November 2011, but the local rep theaters don't have it down for then. More crucially, The Weinstein Company has not yet started spamming my inbox with Artist-related things. I suspect they will do so once My Week with Marilyn hits theaters, but that implies a December-ish release.)

A very pleasant surprise when this screening was announced was the presense of writer/director Michel Hazanavicius, who came out for a nice Q&A session afterward.

Michel Hazanavicius
Terrible phone camera photography ahoy!

It was a pretty entertaining session, although I wish I'd been able to really formulate a good question about how his recent films both engage and tweak nostalgia. It's something I really liked about the OSS 117 films he made with The Artist star Jean Dujardin - Cairo, Nest of Spies especially does a really good job of it. Or maybe ask him about reuniting with much of the same cast to do this very different movie. It's an interesting theme that seems to be running through his last three films, and the questions that were asked - often about specific references - didn't really get at it.

His answers to those questions were insightful, though, because they both showed just how much movie knowledge is bouncing around in his head, and how much detail managed to make it onto the screen. You can play spot-the-reference with this movie if you want, although I'm not sure how rewarding that is once you've made yourself feel clever. In fact, his anecdotes to me seemed to indicate that the beauty of getting even small details right is not what you can specificallly pick out, but what you can't. He talked, for instance, about how in one of my favorite scenes, Dujardin's George Valentin is going down stairs while Bérénice Bejo's Peppy Miller is going up, corresponding to their fortunes in show business at that moment - and that this is generally true whenever you see them on stairs. Sure, some other analytic types picked that up right away (I was more focused on how he tended to use square staircases to fill the Academy Ratio frame), but even if you don't pick it up consciously, the message is getting through.

And the subconsciousness isn't always on the part of the audience. Hazanavicius mentioned that he always gets questions about Uggy the Dog in these Q&A sessions, and it's a bit difficult for him to get enthused because he's not really a dog person, and a dog isn't really an actor, but kind of a prop that can be made to do different things with sausages. It wasn't, he said, until the movie was finished that he realized just how important the dog was to the movie; that he made the audience sympathize with Valentin a lot more because, despite how selfish this man could be, a dog knows who is and isn't a good person, and this one was tremendously loyal. I half-suspect that the original conscious point of the dog was actually to make Valentin less sympathetic - he repeatedly lavishes more attention on his pet than his co-star and his wife - but something in the back of his mind knew that this, even more than his driver's loyalty, would help the audience connect with him.

There were a bunch of other amusing bits - how he and his composer were at war at certain times, or how Bejo (his wife) wound up absorbing the research he immersed himself in while Dujardin, an in-demand actor who was filming other movies at the time, wound up working much more instinctively. Or that this particular project was born out of a producer who was looking to remake the 1960s Fantomas film, which led to Hazanavicius going back to the early-twentieth-century pulps and wanting to adapt them as a silent movie, and while that didn't happen, the adventure movie we see early on is Fantomas-inspired. I actually really loved those bits, to the point that when they were playing on a screen with action going on around it, I kept trying to watch them (attention to detail, again!).

I think the niftiest thing he mentioned, though, is that he actually shot most, if not all, of the film at 22 frames per second. That's something that happened a lot during the silent era, as it took a while for the 24fps standard to fully take hold, and can cause real problems when projecting silent movies today: Not only are many cinemas just not equipped to run their projectors at anything but 24fps, but there can be arguments about what the proper frame rate actually is. A lot of movies from that era were, in fact, shot at 22fps intending to be projected at 24fps; the difference is often not noticeable, but it's subliminally 10% faster and (presumably) more exciting. I suspect that the only time anybody might consciously notice it is when Peppy is driving like a maniac, but the rest of the time it's both doing what it did back in the twenties to make the movie a bit zippier and giving the it an extra layer of authenticity, even if it's one that most of the audience won't actually notice.

And that, folks, is fantastic. Like I say below, I'm predisposed to like this movie anyway; the tremendous care put into it makes me much more certain that others will too.

The Artist

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2011 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (IFFBoston Presents)

Look back through my reviews here, and you'll see that The Artist had a better-than-usual shot at appealing to me: I go to most any silent movie that plays the local repertory houses, and liked the OSS 117 movies that director Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin did together (particularly the first, which also paired Dujardin with his co-star here, Bérénice Bejo). I'm not saying to take my opinion with a grain of salt, though - Hazanavicius doesn't rely on nostalgia or previous goodwill, but creates a movie that captures the delights of the silent era perfectly while acknowledging the inevitability of its end.

The film opens in 1927, with the Hollywood premiere of the new film starring George Valentin (Dujardin), a star of adventure movies in the Douglas Fairbanks mode. It's a smash, and while he's holding court on the red carpet, a young lady accidentally winds up on the wrong side of the velvet rope, winding up on the front page of Variety with the headline "Who's That Girl?". She's Peppy Miller (Bejo), and she bumps into Valentin again when she gets chosen as an extra for his new movie. Her beauty and charm soon have her moving up the ladder, while Valentin's refusal to even consider talkies has him headed for a rapid fall.

After a set of retro-styled opening credits, Hazanavicius opts not to mince words, with Valentin's on-screen alter ego yelling "I won't talk!" at a mad scientist, followed by a "No Talking" sign as the action moves to Valentin waiting behind the movie screen for his introduction. It's an instruction he will mostly hold to, as he and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman shoot the film in a period-appropriate squarish frame (see it on your town's narrowest screen!), in crisp black and white, with dialog delivered via inter-titles and Ludovic Bource's score tasked with implying sound effects. The filmmakers display incredible affection for this 1920s style of filmmaking, only rarely doing things that couldn't have been done at the time and never stooping to parody - once they've decided to make a silent film, they know that they can't break the rules lightly.

Full review at EFC.

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