Past/Not Past: A Tale of Two Cinemas

“…The train in the La Ciotat station still keeps arriving, a century later. It’s still possible to put oneself in the position of the frightened spectator, which means that there is something in cinema that is of the past but not past” —Serge Daney

When I quoted the above for a piece on Martin Scorsese’s Hugo I published late last year, stripping it of its context (the beautiful interview between Serge Toubiana and Daney from Postcards from the Cinema) and appropriating it for a film in which the train literally does arrive again at La Ciotat, I wanted to highlight an obvious connection, as well as an ideological link, between Daney’s statement and Scorsese’s film. Both suggest that there is something immortal in cinema and something cyclical in the medium itself. Firstly, they suggest the idea that the Lumière brothers’ image of the train somehow exists behind every moving image and that its relevance can never expireits power remaining intact even as it is projected in digital 3D. Secondly, they suggest that the cinema rejuvenates itself—that with innovation comes rebirth. Michel Hazanivicius’s The Artist is a film also concerned with cinema’s ability to reinvent itself, but its ideology differs greatly from that of Daney and Scorsese. Hugo and The Artist are pitted against each other at the Academy Awards this year, and while we can scoff at the meaningless ceremony, this “coincidence” is nevertheless instructive, as is the overlapping of their exhibition. The films’ pairing helps clarify the divergent qualities in each.

The most obvious, perhaps even revealing, distinction between the two is rather ironic: Hugo is a 3D/color/American “blockbuster” shot in Paris and London and The Artist is a 2D/black and white/French “festival” film shot in Hollywood. But first, let’s establish that the films share some common ground in their approach to the silent era and the medium itself. It’s clear that both filmmakers have a knowledge of cinema and a deep fondness for it. Hugo and The Artist both articulate cinema as a resilient force and implicitly argue that as technology alters the fabric of the art form, cinema will evolve and survive. However, while both films optimistically look ahead to the future, only Hugo adheres to the past—The Artist panders to it. Scorsese finds new ways to express a love for cinema’s past while Hazanivicius fetishizes the old, which in the parodic, happy-go-lucky universe of his film feels detached from any sense of the importance Hugo links to it. Admittedly, The Artist’s central goal is to be a light entertainment. Its shallow but thoroughly clever adoption of silent film aesthetics is not an inherently negative quality, yet the nature of its homage is condescending. While much of the film’s narrative dwells on a lament over the dying silent era, it tacitly celebrates its demise. Jean Dujardin’s Douglas Fairbanks is a Gene Kelly in disguise, finally brought fully to life by the promise of the sound era. As soon as the sound era is reconciled with the protagonist it is as if the silent era ceases to matter, and ceases to exist. In direct opposition to the “cyclical” philosophy of cinema, The Artist sees things only in linear fashion. In a sense, it sees cinema as a business (no wonder it’s the latest Weinstein award-donkey) that will gleefully shed its skin for a more profitable one when the time comes. To liken it to a cliché, The Artist is “out with the old and in with the new,” whereas Hugo’s discourse is more accurately likened to Faulkner’s “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

Where The Artist is capitalist, Hugo is spiritual. Scorsese sees cinema’s history as equally intertwined with world history and personal history; it is a means to connect and interpret the world, even to help one define oneself existentially. Perhaps this is why I find Scorsese’s cinema the most moving of all. His cinephilia, not unlike Daney’s, is inextricably part of his identity and how he relates to the world. It is not simple film-geekery but rather a part of one’s understanding of humanity and how to figure an individual into a cultural lineage. The Artist feels closed off from the world that it is supposedly a part of, concerned only with the dire economic circumstances that serve as a Darwinian inspiration to the movies to stay fit to survive. Hazanivicius fails to see the responsibility of images and our responsibility to them.

Functioning as perfect figurations for each film’s point of view are their respective “mascots”: the Méliès-made automaton in Hugo and Uggie the dog in The Artist. The latter provokes an “isn’t that cute?” type of response that affirms its condescending position on silent film. In contrast, the automaton is a complex representation of cinema and its amalgam of technology and humanity. It is an object through which the protagonist, a Scorsese-surrogate, is able to transcend his limitations. There is no question about which of the two treats cinema more seriously. That issue can also be measured by the question of which of the films is more likely to inspire a less informed viewer to be more open to silent film. It’s difficult for me to pretend to see from this perspective, but Hugo makes the prospect of watching a silent film exciting. The Artist, on the other hand, provides a substitution for watching an actual silent film, and I can hardly see it being able to convince a viewer to watch “one of those silly old movies.” The Artist’s awkwardly anachronistic references to Welles and Hitchcock, and its Singin’ in the Rain cut-and-paste-job, render its tribute impotent and muddle any intentions to glorify the “silents”. Hugo builds references to other films within its own language, in congruence with how culture and its meanings are inherently built up of all things.

The Artist’s award-sweeping streak isn’t really surprising. Sadly, it’s actually the more successful at capturing Hollywood’s view of silent cinema, as well as revealing its inability to recognize the 20th century in the 21st . The pairing of these films might turn out to be a demonstration of the preference in Hollywood consciousness for stimulation via shallow realization versus actual exploration. Ultimately, whichever film the old, white men in Hollywood vote for doesn’t matter. What does matter is that The Artist sees the silent era as something finished—worth a laugh, maybe, but expired. That’s wrong. Hugo shows us that that train will keep on arriving, again and again.

Responses

8 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • Pedro Verdugo

    Great article, i liked both films, Hugo a little more than the Artist and had the same problem with it, i think most people that see The Artist will see it more as a curiosity and will not care to explore the Silent Cinema, While Hugo seems to celebrate old cinema in a way which make you be more interested in the era.

    All in all i think both are good movies, for a director to make such a movie like The Artist i think it shows he has such a passion for Silent Cinema that goes beyond the possible message it is giving.

  • Adam Cook

    Thanks, Pedro.

    The Artist has a couple things going for it, no doubt. Dujardin’s performance is indeed impressive (if only for that smile that doesn’t seem to exist in the 21st century) and the film’s whimsical charm was sustained for the first 20-30 minutes, then I fell off entirely as it gave away to dull melodrama and its silent era focus became more and more problematic. I think Hazanavicius would have been more successful if he were more willing to embrace an openly parodic approach–something he clearly does have the chops for.

  • profoblivion

    I agree wholeheartedly. And I’m posting this after watching the Oscars and shaking my head because when it mattered most the old white men went the other way. Hugo touched me, profoundly. The Artist… quaint and cute. This typifies everything that’s wrong with Hollywood.

  • Matthew Jones

    Hugo is nice but I like more the artist. Well, this two film brought me into different world and emotions as well. Firstly, while watching hugo I felt as if I was a kid. The feeling of inquisitiveness and being adventurous is there. On the other hand, the artist film brought me as if I’m living in the past. Although it was musical film and black and white but they were able to portray the passion.

  • António Mendes

    I think you’re misinterpreting The Artist.
    By all definitions The Artist, as a pastiche of silent films, is a post-modern movie. As you put it, it’s anachronic, but it’s because it was made 80 years on the future. You must not forget the revisionistic nature of the OSS 117 spy spoofs. Yes, playful, but the secret agent is portrayed like a xenophobic moron, instead of a clean cut spy hero. The anachronism comes because cinema simply evolved and we can’t deny that knowledge today, especially when we’re homaging an era that no longer exists.
    Now, stripped down to basics, Hugo and The Artist are essentially the same story. Valentin/Meliés were forgotten by the audiences. As both need cinema to live, being put to the sidelines makes them suicidal (Meliés’ suicide is a spiritual suicide. He lives, yes, but he mourns over his younger self every day of his life). In the end they’re brought again to the limelight thanks to Peppy/Hugo. However, one of the key differences between the two movies is in the nature of the rescuer.
    Hugo, more than anything acts because he’s curious about Meliés, and he’s searching for answers about his automaton and how did it end up on his father’s hands. Saving Meliés’ life in the process is almost a side-effect, an added bonus. This is a risky but intelligent move, as it lessens Hugo’s heroism for the sake of making him a realer character.
    In The Artist, Valentin kickstarted Peppy’s carreer and, as she later finds out, she feels she has the moral obligation with Valentin and herself to save him from suicide.
    The Artist, in a way, like Murnau’s silent films, is mostly an allegorical tale. Valentin represents the silent films, the Past, while Peppy, on the other hand, is the sound movies, the Present. As such, the Past “made” our Present, and yet, we still have a moral obligation with the Past because we came from them. In the end, Valentin and Peppy, Past and Present, dance together in a number for their next movie. It’s post-modern to a T.
    The Artist was Hazanavicius’ dream project, and, clearly, from his work, he’s not a cynic, I doubt that he’s condescendent to silent era films. Actually, above anything else, he’s known for being a lover of old movies.
    So, yes, The Artist’s message is that for better or for worse, change happens, which, in itself, is not a capitalist thought, but more like an anti-conservative statement. And yet, it also says that as we move on, if we do not care about the past, if we do not learn from what it has to say, we’ll be hollow and stagnant. And yes, cinema is business, there is no way you can deny it, but, as Meliés, in Hugo said, cinema is also where dreams are made.

  • Todd Kushigemachi

    This is a beautiful piece, and I love how articulate it is in comparing and contrasting these movies. I feel like I’ve heard the defense of The Artist as a pastiche several times. That’s true, but I don’t think that defends the film as much as speaks to issues with postmodern done wrong. Indeed, the pastiche as defined by Fredric Jameson is inherently capitalistic, devoid of the criticism and historical context that makes postmodern parody constructive. Pastiche here removes the superficial makings of a silent film from its original context and reappropriates for an audience that has never seen a silent film or nostalgically simplifies what the silents were actually like. Maybe The Artist is similar to a F.W. Murnau film in terms of its mechanics and story structure, but it lacks the expressiveness and artfulness of Sunrise. (Indeed, mentioning those two films in the same sentence starts to show you how these comparisons break down if you think about it too much.) As someone who likes silent films quite a bit, I felt swept up in Hugo’s love for the movies, nostalgic in its look at Melies but progressive in focusing on the pioneer’s achievements to move the medium forward while making its own technological advancements. The Artist was quite fun, but as homage, it seemed to miss the mark. Bravo Adam.

  • faornelas

    Thiss is a well written article, but for me this is a discussion that takes nowhere. Both Hugo and The Artist are well done movies that entertain its audiences and,to be perfectly honest I found Hugo to be a very didatic movie, made for people who knows nothing or just a few things about the silet era and beginning of cinema. Not to mention it is far from Scorceses real masterpieces. If that isn’t pure entertainment, I need to reevaluate my conception of the word.
    And what is the matter if The Artist considers the silent era over? Billy Wilder’s Sunset Bullevard also does that and it is an extraordinary movie, better than the two here.
    I don’t know why, Adam, but I have this impression that if Hugo had won Best Picture at the Oscars you would be advocating for The Artist here. Please, don’t take me wrong, that’s what most people do. But just beacuse a movie won the Oscar, it doesn’t mean it is less deserving. The Artist was also part of the Cannes official selection.
    And yes, the train will keep arriving as long as there are cinephiles interested in the cinema’s history, but not because of Hugo. Most people who have seen it, just had a good time and will never watch a Melies film. Sorry

  • Colleen Kelly Mellor

    I’m sorry—It must just be me, but I thought both films focused on the narcissism of genius. My God, both male leads (Melies and Dujardin) were totally preoccupied with the dizzying descent of their careers and only survived because of their enablers (the women in their lives who seemingly lived just to get them through.)

    Bright light in each? The young boy, Hugo, who REALLY had troubles and the little dog in “The Artist.”

    See my take on both movies in http://biddybytes.com/?p=10368

Your opinion

Please login to add a new comment.