Talking Pictures in Review: The Artist

One shouldn’t miss the irony of holding an event called “Talking Pictures” that centers on what is almost exclusively a silent film. Nevertheless, we did view—and discuss—The Artist last Friday night. And for those of you who are cinephiles, I thought I’d include a few points from the post-film conversation.

To begin with, watching The Artist obviously encourages a viewer to pay closer attention to the means, other than spoken dialogue, that filmmakers use to convey their stories. And here it should be no surprise that the music is particularly crucial. The score effectively becomes a dialogue of its own, helping to drive and flesh out the story. (I recall seeing someone demonstrate the power of a soundtrack by showing a scene of The Magnificent Seven in which the titular heroes slowly wind their way on horseback. Without sound, the shot was unremarkable, even boring. But accompanied by the film’s stirring theme, the shot was transformed in such a way to convey an atmosphere and meaning relevant to the story.)

The Artist’s music aside, the film is also clearly dependent on the performances of both its leads, Jean Dujardin (as George Valentin) and Bérénice Bejo (as Peppy Miller). There’s a charismatic expressiveness to both. And I’d agree with the observation of one critic I read who noted their ability to shift in between the more exaggerated technique of the period when “on camera” and subtler approaches at other times.

As for the story itself, I found myself a bit surprised at how straightforward it is. In fact, one could argue that it’s more of less the archetype morality tale about the danger of pride. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: we encounter a man who seems to have everything going for him, one who’s at the top of his profession. He remains oblivious to or uncaring about his own inflated sense of self-importance and tendency to treat others poorly. Circumstances eventually humble him, to the point that he despairs even of his life. In the end, he’s saved by the outward looking love of another. And of course there’s a happy ending.

Don’t misunderstand, I don’t offer that summary as a criticism. I rather think that it has something to do with just how well this movie was received: in addition to winning five Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Director, and Actor), virtually everyone I know who’s seen the film enjoyed it. I suspect this reception springs from the fact that The Artist is largely free from the irony, cynicism, and the gritty realism that are so often staples of “serious” filmmaking. All those elements can and should be a part of art that reflects the entirety of the human experience, film or otherwise. But this movie reminds us of the value that lies at the other end of the creative spectrum. And it should be no surprise to Christians that people reflexively respond to well-crafted works that communicate joy, hope, and redemption.

I’ll mention one final point of interest that is ironic in it’s own way. Another theme that comes out of film is the inevitability of change and progress, and even the foolishness of standing in its way. And yet this story communicated through the throwback vehicle of silent film. As a result, The Artist illustrates the wisdom of respecting and finding value in both the old and the new, both the well tempered alloy of tradition and the bubbling innovations of creativity. I have no idea whether this point is intentional or not. Regardless, it’s one that we’d all do well to remember in any number of contexts, including the ministry of the church. Faithful Christians will always remain tethered to timeless biblical truth. But they will also add to the heritage handed down by those who have gone before by responding to and communicating that truth in ways that are particularly appropriate for their own time and place.

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