Singin’ in the Rain
Why I’m a Cheater: A Note About My Top 10 List
If you saw my personal top ten list of films, my personal favorites, you may have noticed that, instead of the standard ten, on there were technically thirteen. Some films were grouped together like thematic double features, while others stood on their own ground. Numerous (well, what I consider to be numerous) people asked me about this, specifically why. The reason: I’m indecisive.
Although it is my deepest desire and aspiration to become a professional film critic, I know my least favorite thing will be to compile any sort of end of the year list. That hasn’t really stopped me from making one for 2011 (though I published it in July 2012) or one even for 2012. But to make a list of my favorite films ever? I haven’t seen Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, but I assume that’s what they were talking about during the torture debate.
So, I’m indecisive. I know it isn’t comparatively a lot next to people like Alex of And So It Begins, Tyler of Southern Vision, or Matt of the No-Name Movie Blog, but I’ve seen something like 1200 films and to reduce all of my favorites to a simple ten? A nightmare. It was hard enough compiling a list of 101 (where, again, I sort of cheated with some films). I have a running list on my computer of my favorite films and it has nearly 350 films on it.
So, I chose the films that I go back to, or would go back to, on a fairly regular basis. Such films included Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which is his most enjoyable and even most optimistic film; Clue, a delightful murder mystery comedy; Manhattan, Woody Allen’s gorgeous masterpiece; and Stranger Than Fiction, a touching examination of human life and the writing process. Other films I included were ones that left me thinking, that I could literally not stop talking about or thinking about: David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., his surreal poison love letter to Hollywood; Metropolis, arguably the most important film ever made; Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s deadpan eulogy for film; and Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s majestic, adult fairy tale. And some film are just gorgeous and the kind of thing you want to watch over and over again: Fanny and Alexander, Bergman’s most whimsical film (even at five hours); Modern Times, Chaplin’s last outing as the Tramp; Vivre sa Vie, Godard’s most humane film; and Nights of Cabiria, Fellini’s own fairy tale.
Bringing Up Baby is sort of a default answer as my favorite film of all time. It was one of the first films I ever saw and one that continues to make me laugh. I suppose I’m fortunate that the first film I fell in love with happens to be a staple of classic cinema, and one of the best screwball comedies ever made.
Now, onto why I grouped films together. I understand that such lists and their limitations (10, 20, 30, 101, etc.) are basically self-imposed, as a way to make the critic more decisive and definite about what he or she may declare their favorite or the best of cinema. I can barely do this because I am a weak person. I have no will power. I have no intention in investigating the philosophy or nature of lists, their arbitrary nature, etc. I also hate ranking things, which is why you can see most of my lists are in alphabetical order instead of something numbered. I am a terrible person.
So, grouping films together was my compromise. Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s Modern Times were together as they represent political idealistic, almost utopian films, sort of social commentaries. The juxtaposition of drama and comedy, of silence and sound (sort of) is, of course, a little intentional. Mulholland Dr. and Holy Motors are the surreal companion pieces, both as much about the medium as they are about the industry, both incredibly intoxicating to watch, and both masterpieces of cinema. And finally, Nights of Cabiria and Vivre sa Vie, one a film out of the magical realism that Fellini had crafted out of the neo-realistic movement in Italy, the other a more humane drama or tableaux that Godard put together during the French New Wave. Both are, to me, companion pieces, both about women whose dreams have come crashing down into a world of almost lewd hedonism, something neither Giulietta Messina nor Anna Karina want. They’re both about prostitutes, and while their execution and detailed stories are different, their paths and the tragedy of both characters are extremely similar.
So, I grouped and doubled films generally by theme. I knocked some films off the list, which sort of hurt, but I’ll get over it. (I will miss you, galaxy far, far away…) It hurts to take off films that mean a lot to you, but I think list making is like some sort of masochistic activity that film buffs really enjoy partaking in. I also knocked off Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain, and Casino Royale. The first two, I suppose, had more merit (to me) in terms of knocking them off because I didn’t go back to watch them as often as I did the Bond film. As a lifelong Bond fanatic, it pains me to knock something sort of unique on my list off in favor of what could be considered fairly canon material. Which, I guess, is the sham of the whole thing. It’s a combination of the canon and of the off the beaten path, but all of which fall under a personal meaning to me.
Though, I think that’s the point. Regardless of the masochism, the self imposed confinements and restraint, it’s about finding what means the most to you, even if that goes past your originally intended limit. It’s about sharing the films and experiences with others and finding both similarities and differences in those experiences. It is, I think, about enjoying what you are passionate about, engaging in your passion with other people, and continuing to explore that with those people. It isn’t a contest. It’s constant exploration, conversation, and broadening of understanding and depth and taste. And, most of all, cinephilia.
Thanks for reading and let me know what you think!
Shout out to Alex Withrow!
The Artist is Present (And Well Aware of It): The Artist
There are few things I like less than a gimmick. Hence my vehement (former) hatred of 3D, as it was simply used to rake in cash while it was masked as a more immersive experience. Masquerading as something more than it is may be the worst part, for when you take away the veil, the only thing you have left is a lousy and sloppily written story. That’s what gimmicks do; that’s their purpose. The same goes for the short lived reemergence of scratch and sniff cards at the movies (they gave me one all the way back during Rugrats Go Wild), which obviously did not last long. But what happens when a gimmick disguised as a “loving tribute to a bygone era” sweeps audiences and critics off their feet, gallivants on the red carpet at international awards shows, and takes home the Academy Award for Best Picture? Ladies and gentlemen, you have Michel Hazanavicius’ smug load of fluff The Artist!
I consider myself a mild enthusiast of silent film, especially the comedies. I have certainly explored the romantic dramas, such as G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, the seedy horror of expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the experimental, like Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Comedies, however, are my forte. I was enamored of Chaplin and Keaton when I was young and hold them close to my heart in a nostalgic way. So, you would think I would initially be excited that a silent film would take center stage again in world cinema in such a year of highs (The Tree of Life) and lows (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) as 2011. I was indeed very eager. It was nice that a silent film should garner such attention from such a large audience. Though, it took me forever to find out what they were talking about, and the lauds from everyone’s mouths were words blinded by the whimsy and garish light of the grey scale, clearly bedazzling them from the fraud of a film that it is.
The film begins with the premiere of a film, an element that is to begin the trend of wink wink moments directed at the audience. It’s 1927, and the only thing I could think of was, “Is that right? Are those filming techniques right?” George Valentin (Oscar and Cannes Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin) is the Douglas Fairbanks Jr.-esque character, successful in every action/adventure/romance/thriller he releases. The landscape of film is static at the moment, but there is to be a shift in the wind soon after. He bumps into a nobody extra named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who shortly thereafter rises to stardom. Her rise to stardom, however, is marked by two things: 1) talkies have taken over and silent are quickly becoming a thing of the past and 2) this is all at the expense of Valentin’s stardom. Valentin becomes a forgotten piece of film history, and Peppy enjoys newfound fame, with the hint of obligatory guilt. You see, despite their short meeting, they’re in love. What ensues is a series of faux existential crises that manifest themselves if fairly delirious ways, and other fluffy moments.
Yes, I understand perfectly that this is a loving tribute to the silent film era, something that wants to be so authentic that the aspect ratio (1.33:1) is the same as most films between 1927 and 1931, the period that the film takes place in. The film is mostly silent. There are various allusions to other directors and styles (even the use of some music from Hitchcock’s Vertigo). This may supposed to be cute and clever, but it comes off as smarmy and anachronistic. Stylistically, Hazanavicius likes to jump the gun to show off how much he likes silent film and how much he loves to pay homage to it. This, however, makes it so that these seemingly minute details do not fit within the context of the film, making the seemingly minute into something rather important. If you’re going to make a movie like it’s 1927/1931, don’t fill it with pieces of style and content that came after it. Without that gimmick and anachronistic series of elements, there is honestly little to say about the plot. Too little visual storytelling happens, its reliance on the gimmick and on “talking”. It’s flat and tired, and can barely stand up for itself.
What’s worse is that all of this is seems incredibly smarmy and the self-awareness is overwhelming. Every time Dujardin winks at the camera – not so much breaking the fourth wall, but winking at the audience within the film – it feels like he, as well as the director, is winking at us, muttering amongst themselves, “Aren’t we cool, and cute, and amazing for making a silent film in 2011? Isn’t this the best?” This total self-awareness ruins the experience, making the gimmick seem even more glaringly obvious that it already was. Gimmicks are bad enough, but when the people in the film are in on it and smirking all the time, the audience is jarred beyond belief. I found them to be completely smug. I found the entire film to be smug.
What I found to be mildly ironic is that Peppy Miller, during an interview for an upcoming film, condemns silent actors to just mugging for the camera, essentially. There seems to be more mugging on the camera from Dujardin as Valentin than in any silent films I’ve actually seen. From Modern Times to The General, from The Last Laugh to Sherlock Jr., there may have been overacting to a point and some embarrassingly hammy reaction shots, but Dujardin really milks it for the camera. As to whether or not this is to prove Peppy’s point and satirize the issue itself or if this is really Dujardin paying tribute to the silent era. Whichever it is, it’s done neither convincingly nor enjoyably.
It occurred to me last night, while at the 60th Anniversary screening of the great musical classic Singin’ in the Rain (which was amazing, by the way), that The Artist is essentially a very bad loose remake of that film. It tackles the same ideas, the same issues; it has a very similar meet cute, and a somewhat similar conflict and resolution. Both films explore the transition from the silent era to the sound era and how worried studio execs were at how actors would sound on the screen. Granted, while similar in theme and plot to some extent, both films take on different routes. The Artist is far more overt and self-congratulatory about its tribute, while Singin’ in the Rain remains fairly modest, giving far more insight into the studio system than The Artist ever did. Most importantly, though, Singin’ in the Rain explores these themes and ideas with sincerity and real wonder, without the smirk or self-awareness. The Artist, with all its hammy acting, anachronistic stylizations, and thin plot, smirks through the entirety of the film. It ends up being too self-aware and even “meta” for its own good. If probably would have fared better simply as a period piece instead of a full-fledged silent project. If you’re looking for a film that accurately and sincerely looks at the transition from silent to sound sans gimmick, you’re better off Singin’ in the Rain.