Backstage at Orchestra Hall; it’s the Winter concert, and I am in MC announcing-person mode in thought and dress. I have no script this time, just a few things I have to hit, so if anything occurs to me before I step out on stage there’s no time to massage the thought. It’s fun. Blows up the day, though; these evening concerts mean that the entire day is spent waiting to go on stage, more or less.

The weekend? It was. Deadly cold, thanks to one of those godless Arctic exhalations that sweep down from the poles this time of the year. I worked on books. That was it. If you’ve ever thought that revising a book was an unhappy task, trying making them into ebooks. All the fun of revision plus the excitement of pagination.

I saw “The Artist” this weekend, and it’s as good as people say. Towards the end I was surprised to hear the soundtrack quote the “Theme D’Amour” from “Vertigo,” one of the finest things Bernard Herrmann ever wrote - and then I was even more surprised to realize that it was the theme itself, lifted directly from the soundtrack of Hitchcock’s movie. Of course, it works; it’ll work anywhere. You could use the music for dog food commercial and people would want to buy a sack and take it to a dark room and hold and it weep.

It’s probably full of little thefts as well - there’s a sequence which shoes the protagonist‘s marriage getting chilly, and it’s shots of the two of them at the breakfast table, back and forth, with costume changes to indicate the passing of time. In the background behind the wife are two pieces of sculpture, and in each shot they’re farther apart. Nice! And the whole idea was borrowed from Citizen Kane. But who cares.

If you’re thinking it’s odd that the main character dismisses talking pictures - any fool could see this would change everything - well, there were a few dissenters, and they weren’t just stars with reedy voices.

From Film Daily, 1924:


Eh? He goes on.



Never? How could anyone say this, really? You understand how settled and solid the art form must have felt to its practioners; the natural, inevitably technological addition was seen as anathema to the thing itself.

It’s an article about movies in 2024. He predicts 3D:


. . . and home theaters and iMovie:



He would have been disappointed by the trains; last time I saw a movie on a train it was a cross-country Amtrak jaunt, and they played some old VHS tape on a 26” set in the observation lounge. As for ships, well, I saw a 3D movie on an enormous screen in a big theater on the Disney Magic, so he would have been pleased. Even if the cars were talking.

But he had no use for speaking pictures. He made two, though, and when they didn’t do well he bowed out of the business. Name: D. W. Griffith.

One imdb comment called it the “missing link between ‘Singin’ in the Rain” and ‘Sunset Boulevard,’” which makes sense inasmuch as they’re both about Hollywood, and one is black and white, and both are about fading stars who had trouble managing the transition to sound. As are about 40 other movies. Hollywood loves that one; I wonder why. It’s interesting to see how many careers fell down, yes, but you never see any movies about people who failed in silents because their real skill was talking. You know, acting. With words.

“Sunset” was 1949. (released in 1950, but conceived & written in the late 40s.) Norma Desmond’s character had been big in the silent era, failed when synchronized sound came in. So that’s twenty years. That’s the distance between now and 1992, which seems like nothing - if you’re middle-aged. But the distance between 1929 and 1949 seems immense by any standard. Point being: I wonder of some day the fate of people who couldn’t make the transition to the internet be regarded with the same mixture of tragic and nostalgia.

Anyay. The film starts with words that made me sigh with pleasure:


Ah. A seven year. The only exception to my preference for even-numbered years. Sevens seem to have a certain emotional resonance, because they’re in the solid later years of a decade, and we think of time in terms of decades, neat containers we can seal and stack and store. The last happy year is the Seven year. By the time it gets to the Nines, things start to get crazy. I wonder what would happen if scientists discovered the calendar was off, and skipped a Nine. Everyone was dumped on the cold porch of an Ought. Straighten up, now. Behave.

By the way: the Theme. If you know the context, it’s just a shattering work: a decent solid man who’s been completely unmoored by an injury and post-traumatic phobia finds himself remaking a shopgirl to recreate the image of a dead woman. Yeah. That. He knows everything about this is wrong, but what makes it worse is that it’s possible. This is what’s played when the shopgirl is finally refitted to his liking, and he embraces her. To use this in “The Artist” suggests that Peppy - and just a moment on Peppy; if we may quote Walter Monheit from his Spy Magazine days: OOF - was obsessed with Valentin in an unhealthy way. But there was nothing wrong about her concern, which means that the music was somehow purified in “The Artist” until only the sadness was left. It’s like using the theme from “Taxi Driver” in a sweet urban romance.



In one of those twists that really does turn your head around: Kim Novak didn’t like it. I wasn't OUTRAGED, because the entire movie is about movies. That it manages to be funny, charming, fascinating, unnerving, and eventually ecstatic is a tribute to the actors and the directors - because it could have been an insular navel-gazing stillborn downer intent on showing us how everything is Bad and everyone was Flawed and y'know, behind all the glitzentinsel it's sad and corrupt!

No kidding. Hence the importance of the myths that remind us the obverse is possible. One of the reasons “The Artist” works so well is the charisma of the leads, and the way the director somehow managed to project their characters through the distance the silent medium has erected. No matter how good the movie, the actors in the silents mostly seem removed a few degrees; we’re aware of the medium more than the message. There are exceptions - Louise Brooks still connects; watching her is like grabbing ahold of a live electrical wire - but silent movies exist in a Box. We know the medium ended. Period full stop. The mummery of a silent movie seems to come from an era we can only understand by piecing together the evidence from different sources, unlike a musical from the 30s, which brays it all out there in one glorious unified package. But “The Artist” gives us two cliches we have been trained to regard as archetypes -

The silent-star with the pencil mustache and the marquee smile . . .


. . .and the action-hero glare . . .



The decent striving up-from-hunger good girl actress who, by a happy turn of events, has It by the gallon:



She's one of those actresses that stills don't do justice. She's too alive.

In lesser hands these would be archetypes. In this film, both actors connect with the viewers in every scene on a visceral level from the moment we meet them: snap crackle shazam. The movie loves them: this is obvious from the start. The movie we are watching loves these people. It just glows out of every frame, and you can’t help agree.

That’s the genius; that’s the trick. Folks, I watch a lot of movies. It’s been years since I watched one I wanted to stop, rewind, and watch all over again.

Bonus: best supporinting actor isn't James Cromwell or John Goodman or Malcolm McDowell, but a dog.










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