Americans are too prone to nostalgia, a phenomenon comparable to gushing about babies, movie stars, and pets. That it was considered unhealthy is evident from its name, based on two Greek words: nostos, a return home, and algos, sickness. Dictionaries define it as either a yearning for something past or homesickness. There is a difference.
It is one thing to long for the past in whatever form (retro fashions, vintage cars, one’s real or imagined childhood, and the like), and another to yearn for home from abroad (as in armed service, business travel, special studies, and such). In other words, nostalgia is the wish to negate either time or distance, humanly understandable but scarcely salubrious.
Of course, in a mild form, a great many of us are susceptible to it; it is only when it becomes intense and persistent that it turns seriously unhealthy—like the difference between a cold and pneumonia, between sniffles and high fever. Granted, nobody dies of nostalgia, but why look at the world distractingly through the rear- view mirror rather than as required through the windshield?
Agreed, a major reversal of fortune can elicit , if not entirely justify, nostalgia, but how many people can claim that as an excuse? These thoughts are induced by a couple of recent movies, the Franco-Belgian The Artist, with ten Oscar nominations, and the Anglo-American Hugo, with eleven. Both are competing for Best Picture, but omens are more favorable to The Artist, including its awards and popularity in Great Britain.
I myself find The Artist disgraceful. It is a perfectly silly, sentimental story, told almost entirely without sound and in black-and-white, to resemble old-time flics. This is like trading in your car for a horse and buggy, or like reverting to babytalk. especially considering the paltry quality of those by-gone movies meant to be replicated. Monochrome may be suitable for dark doings, as in Agnieszka Holland's current In Darkness, about a group of Polish Jews in World War Two hiding from the Nazis in the Lwow sewers. But using it merely for nostalgia I consider lack of both good taste and sound judgment.
To be sure there are distinct allusions even to such superior movies as Citizen Kane and A Star Is Born, yet imitation of this kind is hardly a virtue. And what about bringing in Malcolm MacDowell, a major but now neglected actor, merely to share a bench with the heroine for a couple of minutes?
Absurd, too, is the leading man’s losing his fortune and star standing on the flop of an epic, self-financed picture, excerpts from which prove absolutely no worse than the rest of The Artist. Downright ludicrous is the soundtrack’s acquiring audibility just for the depositing of a tumbler on a table, presumably symbolic of the coming of sound to the movies, though this one promptly reverts to mutism.
For further incredibility, consider the hero’s confinement in a burning house long enough to turn to a crisp, but being saved by his faithful dog’s tugging at a nearby policeman’s trousers, which in some unexplained way leads to the putting out of the flames in ample time. Or take the heroine, now a star, getting, as the intertitles inform us, a brilliant idea for saving the situation, which turns out to be nothing more than the surly and despotic studio head’s being enchanted by her and her hero lover’s performing a second-rate dance sequence inordinately dwelled on.
There is an abundance of clichés, such as a torn-off poster for the hero’s ruinous movie blown to a sidewalk, with indifferent feet cruelly treading on it. Be it said, however, for the hitherto undistinguished writer-director of the film, Michel Hazanavicius, that his star and real-life wife, Berenice Bejo, is pretty and charming, and that his protagonist, Jean Dujardin, resembles some of the leading men of yore. But even the unrelenting score by Ludovic Bource will stoop to such a trick as switching into Bernard Herrmann's celebrated score for Vertigo, the sort of dirty doing the great film composers of olden times would not have condoned, let alone perpetrated.
Yes, Hugo, too, has its share of nostalgia, and even rewrites history. Moreover, the notion that a young boy, upon his father’s demise, would inherit the job of regulating the clocks of a major Paris railway station is fairy-tale stuff. But the screenplay is by John Logan, an established writer, and the direction by the distinguished Martin Scorsese. The film unabashedly but nonexclusively appeals to a young audience,
its two young principal actors could not be more delightful, and even its use of 3D is not showily overassertive. I only wish Howard Shore, the composer, had resisted annexing Satie's well-known and superior Gymnopedies to his otherwise acceptable score, for which aberration see above under Ludovic Bource.
Perhaps there is a symbolic significance in the contrast between the dogs that figure importantly in both these Oscar contenders. In The Artist, the dog is preternaturally clever; in Hugo, he may perhaps be (dare I say it?) too doggedly ferocious, but still rather more believable. So, too, Hugo takes place in an ingeniously evoked Paris, whereas The Artist merely smells of the studio.