The Artist is a Cinematic Masterpiece

Everyone will soon know who she is!


Directed by Michael Hazanavicius

La Petite Reine, PG-13, 100 minutes

* * * * *

This film has everything that American movie audiences allegedly hate­–it has no American stars, it’s a foreign film, it’s in black and white, there’s no discernible sex or violence, and to top it off, it’s silent. That’s right--silent. And if you duck it, you’ll miss the best film of last year, this year, and any year in recent memory. I can’t remember the last time the entire movie audience applauded a film, but that’s the precisely what happened when “The End” flashed on the screen at Amherst Cinema.

Writer/director Michael Hazanavicius is French, but he clearly has an abiding love for American silent movies. His main character, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), is a mash between Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks. The setting is 1927, and Valentin is the hottest commodity in Hollywood--a dashing rake who lives in a palatial mansion with his bored wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), a loyal chauffeur, Clifton (James Cromwell), and the costar of most of his swashbuckling features–a dog named Jack (Uggie). Valentin has a big personality and an increasingly big ego–so big that he tells directors like Al Zimmer (John Goodman) whom to cast. This precisely what he does when he literally bumps into Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a long-legged star struck fan who is so determined to break into film that she auditions for the chorus line in one of Valentin’s films. If you know film history, you know what happens next; in 1929 sound films begin to take over and Hollywood no longer has any use for histrionic actors such as Valentin who mug at the camera but lack the ability to enunciate. They are cast aside just in time for the Great Depression.

In The Artist, Valentin’s decline coincides with Peppy’s meteoric rise to fame. The story–told in the fashion of 1920s comic tragedies­–revolves around Valentin and Peppy and where their circles collide and intersect. The script is equal parts touching, sad, hysterical, and poignant. At its heart is the age-old question of whether fame obliterates the real self, of whether it merely masks the dormant goodness that can rally when the chips are down.

This film is clever on so many levels that one would need to see it several times to catch everything. Film buffs will have a field day picking out homage to films such as The Mask of Zorro, The Sheik, Sunset Boulevard, Busby Berkeley musicals, and dozens of other Hollywood classics. Watch for meaningful crosscuts, background detail, and the use of light and sound. To mention just two small details that might go unnoticed, in one scene a destitute Valentin staggers across a street and the movie marquee in the distance matches his fate. One of my favorite cuts was the strategic use of sepia chrome to show changing tastes; color would be too dramatic to show cultural flux, but a few seconds of brown tinting amidst the gray tones makes the point. And, of course, no silent film was completely silent--it just meant we didn’t hear dialogue spoken. Listen to what Hazanavicius does with music and ambient sound.

There is no dialog to speak of (pun intended), but the cast communicates all that you need to know through sweeping gestures, facial expressions, and in situ action. Dujardin is part Fairbanks, part Peter Sellers as he transitions from prince to sad sack, Goodman exercises his swaggering side to capture the soul of a bombastic director, and Cromwell uses his elastic face to make Clifford a blank slate when he’s withholding judgment, but twists it to convey anger, astonishment, resolve or pity. Bérénice Bejo is simply astounding; you easily believe her climb to the top because every time she’s on the screen you can’t take your eyes off her angular beauty, her soulful eyes, or her winning smile. The only actor that comes close to stealing scenes from her is Uggie, the cutest Jack Russell Terrier on the planet and already a veteran of numerous films (including Water for Elephants).

If you thought you’d never be caught dead at a silent film, please see this one. You’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven.


Annual Who Cares About the Super Bowl Message!

The New Zealand All Blacks: Real men don't need helmets and pads!

This is my annual who-cares-about the-Supre Bowl message. I especially don't care for an event held in the scab state of Indiana!

When the Super Bowl kicks off, I won’t be among the 100+ million watching the game. Football bores me, an admission that’s tantamount to proclaiming myself a leper in American culture. So be it. But the Super Bowl does conjure a pleasant memory--it reminds me of the last time I saw even part of the Super Bowl: 2001 in New Zealand.

Those were the early weeks of the Bush administration. I should have known then that we were in for some tough times. That year I was coerced into attending a Super Bowl party. At the time I was a Fulbright scholar living in Wellington, New Zealand, and received a formal invitation from the U.S. Embassy to come watch the game. Less formally the local Fulbright office was told it would be a “good idea” for all American scholars to attend. We were supposed to project solidarity before nervous New Zealanders, since the Super Bowl came just weeks after the Supreme Court anointed Bush the victor in the stolen election of 2000. His impending reign was dreaded in Wellington; most Kiwis liked Bill Clinton, and they positively adored Carol Mosley-Braun, his ambassador to New Zealand. New Zealanders had hoped that a Gore victory would mean that Mosley-Braun would stay on in New Zealand.

Super Sunday did not begin well. In a harbinger of what would become Bush’s paranoid style in international affairs, I was accosted by a U.S. Marine for taking pictures of the outside of the embassy. Nine months before 9/11 some genius determined that my photos were a “security risk.” Inside the embassy the mood was one of startling contrasts—officious members of the Bush transition team looking like Stepford diplomats with their painted-on smiles and matching flag lapel pins on one side of the room, and the skeletal remnants of the Clinton staff hanging out with dazed New Zealand staffers on the other.

Someone had gone to a lot of trouble trying to make Super Sunday a “typical” American event, but that proved hilariously hard to pull off in a place 7,100 miles from Los Angeles. There was, for instance, a platter of hotdogs, which became one-bite items that New Zealanders left on their plates. Seconds were politely refused when offered by uniformed waiters, and with good reason. The wieners were what one might get if a bratwurst was crossed with corrugated cardboard. But they were positively scrumptious compared to the “rolls,” rock-hard zeppelins that might have been fresh a week or so earlier. They were also several inches longer and thicker than the hotdogs. The less said about the ketchup and the relish, the better.

Then there was the problem of the game itself. To say that academics are not your typical football crowd is an understatement; if they follow sports at all, most prefer baseball’s cerebral dimensions to football’s brute physicality. I had to ask who was playing and was surprised to learn that one of the teams was the Baltimore Ravens; I knew that the Colts had fled Baltimore, but I had no idea there was now a club named for Edgar Allen Poe’s poetic feathered foil. But I was an expert compared to the local embassy staff. For them, “football” was soccer and the rules of “American gridiron” were as incomprehensible as the intricacies of cricket to Yanks.

Most of the American Fulbrighters gathered outside the TV room chatting about their respective projects, while the flag-lapel Bushies hooted and booed in the wings. The day improved dramatically when we engaged the baffled New Zealanders huddled by the food table. One young diplomat asked me the charmingly phrased question, “Who do you favor in the gridiron match?” When I admitted I had no interest in the outcome and was far more interested in learning about New Zealand life, his face brightened and the verbal floodgates opened. Others joined in and conversation ensued over national idiosyncrasies, film, books, and cultural misunderstandings. The food came under the microscope, with New Zealanders proclaiming the baked beans tasty, the “crisps” (potato chips) too salty, and the hotdogs and coleslaw inedible.

One New Zealander looked furtively over his shoulder and confessed that he and other local staffers also had been ordered to attend the event, and that none had ever before seen American football. Anxiety ran deep over the highhanded attitudes of the incoming American staff. As our chats gravitated toward politics, every one of the Fulbright scholars was asked to explain the Bush-Gore election. (None of us could!) Every now and then a few staffers popped into the adjoining room for appearances’ sake, but the only part of the broadcast that received favorable comment was the halftime extravaganza; Britney Spears was then all the rage in New Zealand as well. I don’t recall who actually won the game, but I do remember an impromptu lesson on the glories of Jonah Lumu and New Zealand rugby, a sport I came to appreciate during my time in Wellington. To this day I follow New Zealand’s national rugby team, the All Blacks, more than the entire of the NFL.

So I’ll be skipping the game on Sunday. I might, however, cook a really lousy hotdog and slap it into a stale bun just for old time’s sake.


Fribble Maker Shakes Down Retirees

Tell Friendly's to stuff their Fribbles up Sun Capital's behind!

Mae Pelissier is 82-years-old. For 28 years she worked for the Friendly Ice Cream Corporation in Northampton, MA, and dragged herself to the store at six a.m. to make sure it was ready for morning customers. Until this month she got a small benefits package for her labors: a pension of $72 a month, a $6,000 life insurance policy, and a little bit of supplemental health insurance. Now it’s gone, as is the fate of 6,000 other former employees.

Friendly’s went into Chapter 11 and didn’t make its way out. It sought a buyer and only one appeared. Its name alone tells you that it isn’t interested in making fribbles: Sun Capital Partners Inc. What companies like Sun do is buy troubled assets, put companies on a short leash, and if that doesn’t work, sell everything that isn’t nailed down, bring in the wreckers, and move the real estate. They pare to the bones costs associated with wages and benefits. One of the first things Sun did with Friendly’s was instruct it to tell its retirees that Sun would not assume the company’s pension plans. So forget the fribbles-–it’s time to shake down Mae Pelissier.

Back in the 19th century companies routinely stiffed workers of their wages, especially in the construction industry. A favored dodge was to defer wages on a construction site, and then declare bankruptcy as the project neared completion. A “new” firm suddenly appeared–often the old one with a new name and a new board of directors. This pseudo white knight bought the bankrupt project (at bargain basement prices), set up shop, and operated with money in its treasury that should have gone for wages. Workers fought like hell to get what were called “mechanics lien laws” passed to curtail this vicious practice. Now, when a firm goes belly up, paying back wages is part of the liquidation process (as any firm taking over the company understands).

Move the clock forward and we see a new dodge centered on pension plans. Spare me all claims that “times change.” Pensions are a classic quid pro quo; workers agree to scale back wage and immediate benefit demands in the name of deferring reward until a later time. It’s simply unconscionable that firms like Sun can cancel these plans so cavalierly. (This, by the way, is also the profile of many of the firms with which Mitt--I’m Way Above the 1%--Romney has been associated.) Let me be clear: no laws are being broken, but the morality of this is on par with selling heroin in the schoolyard.

The United States needs to extend mechanics lien laws to cover pensions. What kind of society or company can strip Mae Pelissier of such a piddling pension? Friendly’s, of course, washed it hands of this. It had no other buyer, it claims. Here’s my retort: If a firm such as Sun won’t honor pensions and no other buyer that will emerges, the government should seize the bankrupt firm, sell all its assets (including property) at a public auction, and all revenues should go into a state-run escrow account that maintains benefits. Continue paying these until the funds run out; if retirees run out before the funds do, government gets to keep them.

We can’t hold out breath waiting for the Millionaire Congress to pass such a law, but we can register our personal protest. Boycott Friendly’s. Do your part not to leave any bones for Sun Capital to pick.


Shame Intrigues, but Does it Resolve?

SHAME (2011)

Directed by Steve McQueen

Fox Searchlight, NC-17 (explicit sex), 101 minutes


Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan

Steve McQueen directed Hunger in 2008, a harrowing film about the 1981

Northern Ireland hunger strikes, in which Michael Fassbender very effectively played Bobby Sands. Now McQueen takes a dubious risk portraying a man who is addicted to sex. Take a deep breath - this is not all it might appear to be. Fassbender plays Brandon – an upwardly mobile New Yorker living in a high rise apartment on 28th Street. Brandon's tempestuous private life, which allows him to indulge his sexual addiction, is disrupted when his sister Sissy–played with brilliant intensity by Carey Mulligan–arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.

Her highlight is her funereal club performance of the song “New York, New York,” witnessed by Brandon and by his boss, who lusts after Sissy. Everyone seems to be addicted. Performances are excellent throughout - including Brandon’s creepy office colleagues imprisoned in their high-rise office in the same way as Brandon is in his apartment. But, for me, Mulligan is the real star. She goes full tile at the dialogue and appears to be as damaged as Brandon and in need of the same emotional support, the difference being that she’s open about it and he isn’t. Addiction is a fascinating topic from so many viewpoints: psychological, neurological, biochemical, sociological, legal, moral.... It’s a good example of the complexity this film seeks to address. At what point does a brain-state become something that removes personal responsibility? Does it ever? After all, we are our brains.

Whether the film successfully tackles any of these issues is problematic, but it does hint at them at several points along the way. However, I suspect McQueen also has a prurient interest in Brandon’s sexual proclivities, even when we are asked to accept them as a critique. Something tells me the line between this and fascinated appeal is crossed many times. In the end, this is a difficult film to love, but it’s one to admire from a technical point of view. New York is a city of blinding lights, shot through with dark blues and greens reflecting the coldness of Brandon’s apartment. Told through a series of flashbacks and anchored in the early 1980’s prior to the worst AIDS/HIV scares, it gives McQueen the freedom to accelerate though Brandon’s wild life. It certainly asks many questions, but whether it resolves much is hard to say.--Lloyd Sellus