Female buddy pictures: “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” (1997); or, the dark side of girls onscreen
23 November 2013
In writing about Revenge of the Bridesmaids yesterday I enumerated some of the ways the broader genre of female buddy pictures might keep their stories simple (and very, very pink), but still manage to show women who love each other and say funny things during funny situations. “When we can say that no feminists were harmed in the viewing of this film — well, sometimes that has to be enough,” I concluded about a film I truly liked.
Sadly, this is not always the case. Today, the darker side of very pink female buddy pictures.
- The women are gorgeous, and one might be even a little bit more gorgeous than the other one (or so we are taught to perceive).
- Dieting and body size are far more crucial to the narrative than I can bear (i.e., one of our heroines used to be fat).
- They are not rich or successful, and are somewhat insecure about their overall failures; but as the story unfolds they are handed incredible opportunities for success on a platter.
- In fact, their shared insecurity forms one of the important aspects of their love for each other.
- They are not incredibly bright, so that we can have wacky adventures with them springing from their ditziness.
- They are united in their hatred of The Mean Girl(s) who torments them and inevitably becomes central to the story; The Mean Girl(s) is portrayed as a natural part of the landscape, whereas we are to understand that good female buddies are a rare and wonderful thing.
Perhaps as you read the above you think, “That’s exactly why I hate these goddamn female buddy pictures! The only possible feminism there consists of their friendship for one another, and just look at how contingent that is—contingent on their gorgeousness, dieting, insecurity, shared poverty, and nuttiness!”
With that laid out, shall we discuss Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion?
To start, let’s be clear: Lisa Kudrow is a comic genius, even if here she mostly reprises her role on the otherwise execrable show Friends. As the bubbly Michele, she’s unemployed but ever since high school has thrown her very best talents into designing and sewing up the fantastic going-out wardrobe she shares with Romy (Mira Sorvino) in their teensy little seaside LA apartment, where they’ve lived for ten years—ever since graduating from high school. The slightly-less dopey Romy works as a cashier for the service department of a Jaguar dealership by day so they can go out dancing every night. In short, their lives are awesome.
But when they hear about the imminent ten-year reunion for their high school back in Tucson and the two women sit down and go through their yearbook (flashback!) and imagine attending, Romy arrives at a single, disturbing conclusion: their lives are not nearly as awesome once you start looking at them through other people’s eyes. She gazes vaguely into the distance, gets a determined look on her face, and pronounces that they will spend the next two weeks losing weight, scoring boyfriends, and finding a job for Michele.
It might take an extraordinarily long time for them to realize the futility of their plans – these are not smart women – but they ultimately land on a new plan: they will pretend to be successful businesswomen and impress the hell out of all the people who tormented them in high school for being weird and not terribly bright. The flashback assists in showing them at the senior prom, sans dates, dressed (awesomely, below) as two different incarnations of Madonna, mocked by evil A-list meanies.
Now: do I have a problem with our heroines looking like Madonna? Hellz to the no. Nor do I take issue with the “let’s prove the meanies wrong about us!” impulse. But ugh, the stupidity … and the dieting.
Romy and Michele has plenty of virtues, and they don’t end with the clothes. The ultimate message here — about what a neat-o bond the two women have always had — is lovely, even if the film portrays that friendship as exceptional in the world of women. Nor do I object to Mira Sorvino’s stilted, oddly deep voice for the role, which I found sort of adorable. Also: Janeane Garofalo, who lifts up even the crappiest of material (and she got a lot of crappy material there for a while) even when she’s limited to playing the kohl-eyed, chain-smoking naysayer … again.
I also feel as if I could have forgiven the film if it hadn’t cooked up a phony conflict between Romy and Michele in the middle — a conflict springing directly out of their invented story about themselves. With this single plot device, the film brings up every one of the worst aspects of female buddy pictures: who’s smarter? who’s prettier? who’s less of a loser? who’s going to wind up with money? who’s going to be the winner in the battle for the one slightly worthy guy?
Not to mention that the film asks us to buy the concept that two women who look like this might have been losers in high school, even if one of them wore a scoliosis brace and the other hadn’t yet dyed her hair blonde.
Thus, even though the film ultimately confirms the enduring value of their friendship, it does so by reminding us of their shared ditziness/insecurity/need to unite against Mean Girl(s). It hands them a happy ending on a plate — via the largess of a rich guy. We walk away laughing, again, at how bad they are at math.
So yeah. Was my feminism harmed in the viewing of this film? Yes. Yes, it was.
But do I have a pathway out of this morass? Natch! Stay tuned for a feminism-confirming adventure into the world of girls’ boarding schools in 1963 with the film All I Wanna Do (1998), also released under the separate titles Strike! and The Hairy Bird. Even better, a copy of this one has been uploaded to YouTube — not great quality, and it’s segmented, but you watch all 97 minutes in the comfort of your own laptop. Keep up your strength, my feminist friends.
21 November 2013
The fact is that if a film starts with an image that looks like this, I’m probably going to like it. Even if the film originated on the ABC Family channel (I’m trying to repress the channel’s Pat Robertson connection).
This is Abigail (Raven-Symoné), who shares a New York apartment with her lifelong best friend Parker (Joanna Garcia). They’re trying to make it — Abigail as a novelist, Parker as an actor. But as she poses for her police booking photo, Abigail tells us in voiceover:
Something you should know about me: I have a little problem with authority. In second grade I told our music teacher, Mrs. Quarantine, that if she wanted us to sing like birds, she should get some freakin’ birds.
Parker: I laughed so hard I peed.
They’re not the nice kinds of bridesmaids. “We’re more like the avenging angels who’re gonna give you what you have coming to you kinds of bridesmaids,” Parker explains. You see? This, from the Pat Robertson channel? I loved it.
That’s the thing about Revenge of the Bridesmaids — it bucks up against virtually every taboo you might expect from a wholesome network like ABC Family (and yes, it’s streaming on Netflix). Young people have sex. They drink. They move away from their provincial, oppressive small hometown in Louisiana to go to New York, where they try improbable careers like actor and writer, even if they aren’t incredibly good at those careers.
While on a short trip back home, Parker and Abigail discover that their other great friend has had the love of her life stolen out from under her by the rich Mean Girl, Caitlyn (Virginia Williams), who literally lives in one of those creepy antebellum plantation manors. Naturally they plot revenge. Naturally we root for them, even though we know somehow they’re going to wind up at the police station getting booked.
- a plotline from An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
- Parker developing a possible love interest with the local cop (handy, that)
- Caitlyn’s evil-bitch mother, who is a lot smarter than her daughter, and demands that Abigail go on a diet
- a chipper-shredder
Perhaps this is the moment to warn you of a few things. If you read the title Revenge of the Bridesmaids and thought, whew, that sounds like a lot of pink buttercream frosting, you have nailed it. No new feminist ground is forged here; maybe it’s best described as apt for fans of Drew Barrymore rom-coms. You will not finish this film and feel liberated, enlightened, or particularly intelligent. All I can say is that I watched the entire thing and enjoyed practically every minute, while my partner — whose appetite for rom-coms is usually far greater than mine — walked out. Too much frosting.
So yeah, I’ve taken a perhaps overly rosy view of a film that would probably only score about 3 stars out of 5. But that’s the thing, you see. How often do I get to see a film in which two women get to love each other like this? Sure, their love for each other also gets framed by their shared hatred for Evil Caitlyn, but who doesn’t have an Evil Caitlyn in her life somewhere? Is it so wrong that us feminists want to have a little pink buttercream every now and then?
That’s the thing about female buddy pictures: they represent the sugary crumbs that women get in a world in which male buddy pictures outnumber female ones about 100 to 1.
- They point out how often women have to survive on high-sugar content films like this in order to see women who love each other and do things together — in short, films that pass the Bechdel Test.
- Creators of such films KISS [keep it simple, stupid] by selecting super-girlie themes. As much as I liked the avenging-angel bridesmaids, I want to see more films without weddings in them.
- These films just love to drop in plenty of male love interests. After all, let’s not go too far with that whole Bechdel Test thing, you can hear them saying.
- Why is it always the skinny one who gets the boyfriend in the end?
In retrospect I realize one of the things I loved about Orange is the New Black is how much it messed with genre tropes like this. Gone was the pink frosting; in its place was women’s prison. Women were just as close to one another, but some of them also leapt over the big heterosexual wall erected in fluff like Revenge of the Bridesmaids.
Yes, I’m saying that OITNB might be the best female buddy picture I’ve seen all year.
Lest you cease to trust my judgment about film, I think it’s best that I pair this rosy view of Revenge of the Bridesmaids with a snarky feminist view of a very similar film, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997), which I’ll discuss tomorrow. Stay tuned for a rant.
But I’m going to stick with my endorsement of Revenge. Films like this may pit good girls against bad, reward them with love interests, and shower everyone in frothy clothing and only slightly off-color language and situations. Only to have someone like me say, “Hey, that was a lot more off-color than one might expect from the Pat Robertson channel!” But they also show women going all-in to help one another. When we can say that no feminists were harmed in the viewing of this film — well, sometimes that has to be enough.
I loved Miss Congeniality even with the secretly awful “I can be a feminist and love beauty pageants!” storyline and the makeover in which the shlubby FBI agent turns into a stone-cold babe. Chalk it up to the appeal of Sandra Bullock, madcap writing, and the supporting cast (Michael Caine, Benjamin Bratt, and Candice Bergen as the fussy cum psychotic pageant-show director). But after reading Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Feminism it got harder to watch, as it told women, “It’s okay not to be a feminist! It’s okay to want to be pretty and have girlfriends instead! Once you get rid of your frizzy hair and scary eyebrows, that superhot guy will like you!”
The Heat may not be perfect, but it dumps everything that’s objectionable about that earlier film and offers something slyly feminist while still feeling unthreatening.
Taking into account that this film will win no prizes, I kind of loved it — and even better, it feels like the kind of movie I’ll keep enjoying when it makes its inevitable appearance on basic cable in 9 months or so. The writing is tight and smart and (I think) will wear well with age. Bullock plays an older, more effective, un-made-over version of her Miss Congeniality character, except she doesn’t actually seem lonely. And Melissa McCarthy is just so good to watch — she shows that she can deliver a sly line as well as she can do physical humor. Best of all, unlike Bridesmaids, this film shows that McCarthy’s physical humor doesn’t have to descend to fat jokes. Oh, excuse me — I meant enlightened fat jokes.
The tepid reviews meant that it took me a long time to see The Heat, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and written by Katie Dippold (Parks and Recreation) — so long that I was surprised to see it still in theaters after 5 weeks here, considering how quickly films get yanked these days. Yet my theater had lots of people in it, and we all laughed throughout — even the 80-something couple behind me, who were unperturbed by the language, etc.
Let me repeat: it’s not perfect. The comedy is broad and often crude. The movie gets put on hold at the end of the 2nd act while the two leads bond by getting drunk in a bar together (right: never seen that one before). I loved the writing, but you can tell it was written for the small screen, even if it comes from a writer on one of teevee’s best shows. The Heat sometimes feels like the female comedy film is still in its awkward tween phase, with occasional disconnects between writing, acting, plot, and tropes.
But to focus on its awkward tween-ness is to miss what’s really enjoyable about this film — and that has to do with how the story of a partnership between two 40-something women is different than between men.
Some of the snarkiest comments about the film come from critics who overstate its feminist elements. “Nothing quite says female empowerment like violating the civil rights of criminal suspects, am I right?” asks Andrew O’Hehir of Salon in a review that makes me want to use a blunt instrument to take some air out of his self-inflated balloon. But then, he thought the derivative male buddy movie Two Guns was completely “enjoyable trash,” so perhaps pity is the more appropriate response.
Anyway. Is The Heat overtly feminist? No, not really, aside from a few comments about how hard it is to be a woman in law enforcement. Rather, it’s a secret, sly feminism that emerges in the way the story refuses to play by the old rules.
First is the way the film up-ends virtually every trope about female cops, as Ashley Fetters details in The Atlantic. Movies have taught us that women are the newest and least experienced cops on the force; that they hunt serial killers from a distance or in ways that don’t require mano-a-mano exchange with perps; that they don’t use violence; and that they just wanna be loved. In each respect, The Heat acts as if those assumptions never existed.
Bullock’s and McCarthy’s characters don’t care how they look. Not only are they not looking for love, they seem to take for granted the fact that men are interested in them (and they are): McCarthy has a whole string of lovelorn former hookups who haunt the bars of Boston, hoping to run into her.
Best of all, this film was not about The Pretty One and The Fat One. Bullock’s character gets a lot of shit for her mannish looks and heavy jawline — in fact, I wonder whether I’ll ever be able to look at her again without thinking of the whipsaw barrage of questions thrown at her by McCarthy’s obnoxious Boston family. There are no fat jokes. They’re both smart and capable and competitive and capable of violence and somewhat isolated. The way they find friendship with one another is sweet without being cloying.
I also noticed the actorly generosity between the two women. There’s no doubt that McCarthy gets the better lines, but that’s in keeping with the way that Bullock’s straight-laced character has to play catch-up. “That’s a misrepresentation of my vagina,” she says lamely (and very funnily) after one string of verbal abuse. I’ve never seen either woman share the limelight so effectively.
So yeah, the movie is occasionally crude and won’t pass any authenticity tests with police-show aficionados. I’m mostly uninterested in those complaints. I want to see The Heat 2, with a more experienced Dippold doing the writing and these two growing into their characters — simply because for the female comedy film to flower as a beautiful teenager, we need plenty of funny, watchable, and well-written films to pave the way. Because in the meantime, awkward tweens can still make for damn good viewing. And what else do you want to do on a Saturday afternoon other than guffaw at a lot of goof, with women (for once) doing the goofing?
22 November 2012
When the recently-released-from-the-looney-bin Pat (Bradley Cooper) first meets the merely “unstable” Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), they assess one other the way a couple of big-game animals might. Inappropriate things spew uncontrollably from their mouths. They look one another up and down as crazy mixed emotions wash transparently over their faces. One suspects that their killing one another or having terrifically athletic sex are equally likely outcomes — and as we start to root for the latter, it’s primarily because the former makes it all the more interesting.
When we saw Silver Linings Playbook last night with pre-Thanksgiving crowds, the audience roared throughout, and so did we. It’s most similar to the writer-director David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster (1996), which showed how much he knows how to make a screwball comedy in which things escalate and take unexpected turns.
Between his tight scripts, colorful characters, dream casting, and some drop-dead brilliant editing, Russell knows how to take you down a weird and very funny road. And I reluctantly admit that he gets a stellar, manic performance out of Bradley Cooper, whose charms I generally fail to miss. Cooper’s big blue eyes here convey not sexiness but clueless self-delusion and a singular lack of control that constitute, surely, the best acting he’s ever done. (I also suspect that being in such good acting company raised the bar. But let’s not be small.)
Pat has been institutionalized for something they refer to euphemistically as “the incident” — brutally beating the man sleeping with his wife — and during his months inside, he has absorbed only selectively the physicians’ advice. Namely, he has hitched his star to a vague pile of wishful thinking about silver linings and can-do optimism, while ignoring everything else. He is so myopically determined to win back his estranged wife, who has placed a restraining order on him, that he’s obsessed with slimming down and making himself into exactly the man she wants him to be. Moreover, he’s dead set on doing it all without taking the meds that dumb him down. When the shrink advises him to have a strategy for the possibility that his wife doesn’t want him back, he converts this back into his single-minded strategy for making himself marriage-ready.
A pause is in order. Yes, this is a film about a dangerously self-deluded, mentally ill individual who believes he can get along fine without his meds so long as he exercises and keeps looking for silver linings. Make up your own mind about whether you’re willing to take that as a given and let that guy be your protagonist. The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody was not willing.
To be honest, I was willing — especially as it’s in aid of a really good screwball comedy. The key to this film is that Pat’s refusal of medication in favor of fantasy is a perfect metaphor for how this film will function in your life, perched as it is to arrive in theaters just in time for Thanksgiving. Persist in your delusions and have a little faith, it whispers, for perhaps things will come out okay in the end. As willing as I am to enjoy comedies about the insane, I also noticed those times in this film when I had to swallow my disbelief. Let’s just say that Russell will surely be hearing howls from the ranks of those who actually treat and/or have to live with bipolar and mood swing disorders — and yet I kind of loved it anyway.
Pat isn’t the only one given to magical thinking. His mother (the magnificent Australian actor Jacki Weaver, who’s not given nearly enough here, and who chilled me to the bone in Animal Kingdom) believes that one can smooth everything over with the right foods — “crabby snacks and homemades,” terms only familiar to those with intimate experience with the Philadelphia suburbs. Even worse is his father (Robert De Niro), an Eagles fan so obsessed that 1) he has been banned from the stadium for life for fighting and 2) he believes that Eagles wins can be ensured so long as he faithfully enacts a bevy of superstitious gestures, from arranging the TV remotes in a particular way to holding an Eagles handkerchief, expectantly, in one hand while unblinkingly gazing at the screen.
I mean, in retrospect, is it any wonder Pat has his issues?
In someone else’s hands, this scenario would make me cringe — but with actors as stellar as these, what can I say? It works. But things get ratcheted way up when Pat shows up for dinner with his friends Ronnie (John Ortiz in a really great small role) and Veronica/”Ronnie” (Julia Stiles, I love you) to find that they’ve invited her sister Tiffany, a young widow with a bit of a reputation from her pre-marriage days.
Until now, Pat has appeared as determined as he is deluded. But compared with Tiffany, he’s a lightweight re: determination. Her mere presence throws a goodly portion of his myopia out the window. Nor is she afraid to put herself in his way and keep herself within his line of sight, and keep confounding Pat’s attempts to label her. She may be unstable, but she’s far smarter and less deluded than he is, and in him she has recognized a common soul.
In Tiffany, Jennifer Lawrence has the hardest role in this film. Whereas Cooper gets to go batshit without going quite so far as Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys (1995), Lawrence has to persuade us that she’s crazy enough to find Cooper’s character appealing without letting us rack it up to mere nymphomania or view her as comparable to the utterly incomprehensible Emily Watson character in Punch Drunk Love (2002), who inexplicably set her hat for Adam Sandler (argh; that one still kills me). This is hard, especially because Tiffany’s pursuit of Pat requires that she smack him around a bit — and I don’t just mean figuratively — to knock him out of that crazy singlemindedness.
Now, I‘ve been raving about Jennifer Lawrence for years now, but let me say how happy I am that she opted for this comedy. She has a string of very serious roles as ass-kickers — and can we say the same about any other woman in the history of film? — so her career will only improve by showing that her highly physical, coiled presence onscreen has huge comic potential as well. Her character isn’t used for levity or knee-slapping jokes; rather, she appears to rivet your attention, grab you by the ears, and focus your attention on a viable road back to reality.
I liked every minute of this film, even when I wasn’t yet convinced by Cooper and when, toward the end, things move crazily toward improbable resolutions. And I can imagine Silver Linings Playbook becoming a part of my own family’s routine of re-watching goofy comedies during the holiday season. Because in the end, screwball is its own medicine. In offering a modern take on a classic Hollywood genre, this film makes self-medication both a theme and a prescription.
19 November 2012
The days are getting shorter, and the semester has arrived at the truly ugliest and most miserable few weeks. Thus, it’s time for Feminéma to offer advice for those affected by the lack of sunlight in our lives. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I have a six-point No Depression plan of music, food, and old movies, helpfully delineated below.
1. Acorn squash and crispy pancetta with sage and penne. This is so good and so seasonal right now. Just make it and tell me if I’m not correct. (I followed the recipe religiously except that I used both sage and rosemary. And don’t be fooled by this photo: the pecorino romano cheese on top is absolutely crucial.)
2. The music of Ella Fitzgerald. I want to give a special shout-out on behalf of her album with Louis Armstrong, Ella and Louis (1956), but really any of them will do. Soak up that voice, that range, and those fabulous standards as dusk falls and your acorn squash is baking and the pancetta crisping up in the pan.
3. Pomegranates with any and all Middle Eastern or central Mexican dishes … or just on their own. Of course, in a perfect world we’d all live around the corner from a place that serves a killer chiles en nogada nightly (the fact that most of us don’t is enough to make me question religion altogether). But hey, pomegranates are everywhere in markets right now. So, learn how to open them with this handy video:
…and sprinkle the seeds on hummus, baba ghanoush, a lamb dish, or — if you’re very clever indeed — your own homemade chiles en nogada:
4. The bluegrass album The Eagle by Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band (1998). I maintain that it’s very difficult to remain blue while listening to bluegrass music, perhaps because the sadnesses it describes are such simple, easy kinds of sadness (your girl fell for another man, for example). Overall, those trilling instruments — the mandolin, the fiddle, the stand-up bass, the banjo — do something to my soul that’s hard to replicate except in the form of Ella Fitzgerald.
This album makes me particularly happy because seeing these artists live back in 1998 is possibly the best concert experience I have ever enjoyed. They performed around a single microphone (this is old-school, folks) — so every time one of them took a turn as the featured soloist, the rest moved out of the way. It’s masterful.
5. Grapefruit, of course.
I got turned onto the magical healing properties of grapefruit by my Dear Friend, with whom I suffered some of the ugliest parts of our mutual careers. Sometimes she would tell me that it had been a two-grapefruit kind of day, and I would know exactly what she was saying.
It has become a part of my daily routine, what with fresh grapefruit juice relatively inexpensive year-round. But ’round about now I switch to the real thing. There’s something about the ritual of slicing it into portions and scooping up that beautiful flesh that helps.
6. The Lady Eve (1941), that perfect Preston Sturges comedy with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. It’s wickedly sexy, the ultimate in silliness, with Fonda as the slightly dimwitted millionaire’s son who gets caught in the snare of Stanwyck’s con-woman clutches. Just watch this scene, in which she watches all the other women on board their cruise ship try to snag him. Stanwyck gets him within minutes, naturally.
“Holy smoke! the dropped kerchief! that hasn’t been used since Lillie Langtry!” she proclaims at one failed attempt to get Fonda’s attention. Stanwyck was one of the first actors I wrote about when this was still a new blog — and she remains a favorite of mine. Never has she been more perfect than as the card sharp who makes her own happiness.
Those of you who suffer from seasonal affective disorder — perhaps in combination with all the other reasons to find this part of the year so hard to survive — will forgive me my light tone, the absurd notion that one could find music or a few ingredients to be a cure. I don’t mean to diminish this condition. But I do believe that there are external things that help me — and perhaps others, too — most of all by making us feel that our own actions might mitigate the worst of it.
Be strong, friends. And put some pomegranate seeds on top.
5 October 2012
Once upon a time, I was pretty excited about seeing Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria, a film about the invention of the vibrator in the 1880s as a cure for hysteria in women. “I wanted to make a Merchant-Ivory movie with vibrators,” Wexler explained in an entertaining interview last spring. What, I asked, could go wrong?
Pretty much everything, as it turns out.
To be precise, what goes wrong is:
- Storyline that seeks neither historical accuracy nor three-dimensionality.
- Jaunty background music that signals in every scene that this is secretly a Disney film made in 1977.
- Dialogue that is so broad and unfunny that you sometimes expect the entire film to become a terrible musical, à la “Springtime for Hitler,” shouted from a stage by amateur actors.
- The entire narrative is foreshadowed in Scenes 1 and 2.
- Utterly improbable use of the law to speed along the narrative.
- Maggie Gyllenhaal appears so distracted by her own mastery of an Emma Thompson accent that she stumbles into every scene like the actorly equivalent of a bull. (See #3 above.)
- Token ginger-haired housemaid/reformed prostitute lives up to every stereotype. Not that she is out of place.
- And yes, the story takes the independent-minded reformer and feminist and … ultimately marries her off.
And then there are shots like this. [Didion shakes her head, slowly and mournfully.]
I can’t believe how much Hysteria represents a squandered opportunity. I mean, funding for movies made by women doesn’t grow on trees, people. More important: I got this film out of a RedBox machine last night because I needed light, comic fare for the end of a long day — and it proves merely to be grating. (I will admit that Rupert Everett had his moments, but I’m mad at him right now, thanks to our friend Michael.)
Want to know the difference between this and a Merchant-Ivory film? Let’s just say that the vibrators were the very least of it.
28 January 2012
The scene: an old 1920s theater with Art Deco designs and original (i.e., uncomfortable) chairs. Most of the audience is over age 65. They show us some previews and then the curtains on either side of the screen scoot in a bit, narrowing the view, because The Artist was filmed in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1, just like old movies were. That very shape of that screen — virtually unseen in my lifetime except to watch old movies on TVs that used to be shaped like this (still are, for us old-school types) — makes me feel warm and happy, as if someone has handed me a down duvet to curl up in.
I have trouble understanding the rumblings from anti-Artist critics. This is a post about why.
I giggled from the film’s very earliest silly moments. I found myself so attached to Uggie, the dog, that I considered getting a dog. And I cried: the big melodramatic moment came and I was truly moved, with big affectionate tears running down my face. What a relief: after watching the trailer approximately 30 times, I had fretted the full-length film couldn’t live up.
That’s the thing, you see: director Michel Hazanavicius has created a primer for audiences unfamiliar with classic film, and what he teaches is how to fall in love with cinéma. For the rest of us who already love those early films, it’s a love letter. A very different love letter than the one Martin Scorcese created with Hugo, and one that’s more affecting.
For me, the key to the film is that it understands the central, simple brilliance of early film: The Artist asks only that you to fall in love with the two main characters, and especially to enjoy their falling in love. Peppy Miller (Bejo) lands a role in the new big film starring George Valentin (Dujardin), and she winds up as an extra in a silly scene in which he must dance with her briefly as he makes his way across the room. But as we see in a series of takes, he keeps flirting with her, joking, each time requiring a new take — and each time it’s a little harder for him to get back into character to start the scene again for a clean take.
In short: director Michel Hazanavicius isn’t pedantically telling us about the history of cinema. (I found Hugo delightful but a bit pedantic.) Rather, he’s given us a way to connect emotionally with cinema that most of us aren’t familiar with, and which gives unexpectedly pure delight. Some filmgoing pleasures are old ones, with a few sight gags tossed in.
Hazanavicius’s interviews have been great to read in part because it’s clear he feels his love for old film so passionately. Asked by a reporter for Chicago’s The Score Card about the differences between this and his earlier OSS 117 film, he explains:
The most important change was the absence of irony. There’s no irony in this movie. Quick into writing this movie, I watched a hundred silent movies. The ones who aged the best were melodramas and romances. And even the issue with Charlie Chaplin is that people think he is a comic, but his films are melodramas. Pure melodramas, nineteenth century dramas.
There’s no winking at you. The film isn’t saying, I know that you know that I know this is all stupid, even if it’s sweet. This is a 21st-century version of a classic silent film.
The closest it comes to a wink is when the film plays with sound. There are a couple of early scenes, designed to get us to laugh, that introduce us to the experience of watching a film with no sound. The subject of sound becomes a prominent theme — whether films will use it, whether audiences prefer it, whether Valentin might be right about resisting the big transition to talking film. Sometimes it’s used initially to prompt laughter, like at the beginning of a dream sequence.
But that sequence quickly turns to eerie nightmare, showing us what Valentin really fears: irrelevance. And somehow that scene is resonant beyond the gag at the center of it — making us viewers feel the threat of sound, and the safety of silence, at least in Valentin’s eyes.
The best melodramas always have dark elements, characteristics that ring true. One of these is Valentin’s hubris. I don’t want to oversell the film’s story — it’s determined to remain light melodrama — but nevertheless I found it surprisingly touching to see how Valentin wrestles with his pride and growing public insignificance.
What made that story so appealing, I think, was the paired tale of Peppy Miller’s rise to stardom and how she experiences her own expanding success as being related to Valentin’s fall — that is, the fall of a man she loves without disguise. Her need for him is something that you almost feel corporeally from those scenes of her very long arms. Again, I don’t want to oversell this story; maybe my appreciation for it is predicated on hearing so many critics accuse Hazanavicius of creating a mere pastiche. Suffice it to say that I believe some critics have underestimated the story’s resonance.
Of course I can see that director Hazanavicius creates a number of scenes by quoting from all manner of earlier movies — Astaire and Rogers, James Whale’s Frankenstein, The Thin Man, even Citizen Kane. Yet again to fly to his defense, I see those quotes as being done out of an abiding love of film and a consciousness of the way film is always quoting from itself. (Remember The Ides of March and Moneyball? Constant references to other films!) If you watch movies purely out of a desire to see something new, you’re depriving yourself of some of the joys of cinema.
So, what’s the difference between “quoting from” other films and “creating a pastiche”? Again, I’d say it has to do with whether the film ultimately seems self-conscious, ironic, winking at us. Maybe some viewers see The Artist as an amalgam of other things, but that wasn’t my experience, and nor was it Hazanavicius’s intention, according to his interviews.
Most of all, I believe Hazanavicius chose silent film, specifically, for a good reason: to teach us something we’ve collectively forgotten. He wants to show what film could do when we had to use our eyes so searchingly. Within a few days of seeing the film — and reading a few more reviewers who called this a gimmick or a form of pandering — I became more convinced that the director may not be a pedagogue, but he certainly wants us to learn something in the course of watching this film.
To wit: in my theater, you could hear the viewers gradually starting to laugh more, to intuit the internal logic of a silent film. Even though most of them were 65+years old, it’s hard to imagine any of them had ever seen a silent film on the screen while they were growing up. They started vocalizing non-words more — with silent film, you don’t need an audience to be silent — so you could hear people uttering things like, “ahh,” “oh!” and “wow” (especially when Jean Dujardin tap-danced). That low-level, unobjectionable audience murmuring enhanced the experience of watching, contributed to the communal pleasure. But it’s something we had to learn in the course of watching it.
I have the teensiest of complaints about ‘s The Artist — that some scenes felt like a mishmash of 1920s, 30s, and 40s influences, and that however charming she is, Bérénice Bejo seemed too tall and twiggy for the era — but my full range of emotions during the course of the film shows the limitations of my small criticisms. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I just burbled with the unmitigated pleasure of watching film, like when I saw the pitch-perfect grizzled face of Malcolm McDowell in a bit part (below). Oh, hang on, I experienced the same when I re-watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the frothy Top Hat (1935) on New Year’s Eve.
And oh, Jean Dujardin! He can look beefy during his Douglas Fairbanks scenes, “who, me?” disarming during his William Powell scenes, and fantastically light on his feet during his Gene Kelly scenes; egotistic early on, depressive later. And when he gets himself into a love scene with Bejo … well, he has a gravity, and a genuine sense of surprise and feeling, that makes us feel as if we’re falling in love, too. (In a way, we are.)
It’s strange that I loved the film this much and yet it took so long to express it here — I saw it nearly a month ago. It seems so horribly stereotypical that I, as an academic, would formulate a pile of tedious words to analyze something that’s like a visual soufflé. But there you have it — academics are bound to try to deflate the beautifully, improbably fluffy in order to understand how it works.
Should it win Best Picture and Best Actor at the Oscars? I think its only serious competition is Hugo and, as I’ve indicated, there’s no question for me that The Artist is better. I’ll also have to see Demián Bichir in A Better Life before I weigh in on Question #2. It’s my opinion that the Oscars put up a weak list this year (where is Poetry? where is Higher Ground? why are Moneyball and The Help up there?), and that given those lists, I’m rooting for The Artist. What can I say? Michel Hazanavicius shows us how to fall in love with cinema, and in love with a love story — and I went there with him. I hope you do, too.