Friday, February 17, 2012

Following the Rules - "The Artist"

It has been argued that art benefits from limits. Sonnets must have 14 lines and adhere to structures of rhyme and meter. Great artists don’t say, “I can’t work with those rules” but take up the challenge. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, not including those in his plays.

Some limitations of art can be attributed to choice and some are imposed by circumstances. The producer Val Lewton made low budget horror films in the 1940s. He didn’t have the money for elaborate special effects for films like “Cat People” or “The Seventh Victim” so he had to use shadow and impressions to scare the audience. And arguably his films where the frights took place in the minds of the audience better than some films of the period that now seem dated by laughable creature effects.

The Production Code of the Hayes Office limited what could be openly shown and talked about in mainstream Hollywood films. And though I’m not an advocate for censorship, such films as “Casablanca” and “Notorious” are much more subtle and even adult in dealing with issues of sexuality than most modern films that are free to show more body parts.

Michel Hazanavicius, the French writer and director, of last year’s acclaimed film, “The Artist”, imposed upon himself several rather daunting limits. Set in Hollywood from 1927 – 32, the film, like those of the silent era has no spoken dialogue (mostly), is black and white and uses screen proportions of those years in film. Interestingly, it also complies with the content restrictions of the era (mostly; with the exception of a rude hand gesture and an implied act of violence that might not have made it to the screen at that time.)

Jean Duardin plays a swashbuckling star of the silver screen (think Fairbank/Valentino) named George Valentin at the peak of his career who meets a young starlet on the rise (Peppy Miller played by Berenice Bejo). The advent of sound proves devastating to his career as it was for many silent stars.

Ultimately, “The Artist” is a story about pride; a man too proud to accept help when it is needed, even to accept love.

When his studio switches to making “talkies” exclusively, Valentin uses his own money to make an elaborate silent film that, along with the market crash, leads to his financial downfall.

He turns out his faithful servant who desires to still serve and resists help from Peppy who desires to return the favors he granted her.
As Proverbs 29:23 teaches, “Pride brings a person low.” The question in the film is whether Valentin will fulfill the second part of that verse, “but the lowly in spirit will gain honor.”

Hazanavicius playfully uses the conceits of the silent film, the facial mugging and exaggerated gestures to kid, but not mock the films of that period. He also strategically uses sound effects to hint at the great changes to come in the film world. He wisely uses the limits to push himself to make his art.

Just as art is often improved by limits, God provides limits for his people to improve our lives. His commands are not impediments to our happiness, but like a rhyme scheme for a poem, a challenge to live richer, more creative lives for him.

(And on a side note, if you have never taken the time to watch the great silent classics, you are missing some great fun. Comedy in particular found a unique “voice” in this era that is only hinted at in “The Artist”. Start with Charlie Chaplin [“City Lights”, “Modern Times”] and Buster Keaton [“Sherlock Jr.”, “The General”] and discover a treasure trove of laughs, and yes, art.)

No comments: