Friday, February 17, 2012

THE NOSTRUM OF NOSTALGIA

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 clich├ęs, 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.

5 comments:

  1. Haven't seen either film but was amused by reports that outraged customers in Liverpool and elsewhere in the UK demanded refunds because THE ARTIST was silent, in black and white, and projected at a small size. Also, this bit from THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, a broadsheet with a rather nostalgic name:

    Hazanavicius said he saw the funny side of the audience walkouts.
    "I have been told about it and I think it's hilarious, actually," he said.
    "If I could give any advice to people it would be that they should ask for their money back whenever they see a film they don't expect. If it's not written on the poster 'this is a bad movie' and they think it's a bad movie, ask for a refund!”

    Some French audiences also had difficulty with the film. Hazanavicius explained: "It's funny because we don't have the same word in French for 'silent', we say 'mute'. And in the beginning people kept asking, 'Is this a movie about mute and deaf people?'”

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  2. I'm not sure the operating sensibility behind 'The Artist' is nostalgia. How could it be when the people who made weren't even around when silent films were made/shown. There would be no basis for their feeling anything nostalgic about the lost time and place since they were born and grew up long after it.
    No, I think the operating principle here is post-modernist film school cleverness. The filmmakers are not so much wishing to return to the past but using a lost art form to fashion something quirky, different, and clever. In our age of CGI and 3D movies--and computer games and ipads--, the 'new' is all around us; it's nothing special anymore. Thus, something old and forgotten may seem more different and fresh to audiences today--not because it's something we long for but because it's something completely new for most of us.
    If it had been made in the 1950s by someone who grew up during the Silent Era, Simon might have a point. But 'The Artist' was made by someone who grew up with sound/color movies and video player machines. It's not driven by nostalgia but pomogia--post modern virus. It's not about recovery but rediscovery.

    For some, 'the Artist' may be like 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' where we feel a sense of the new through the old(cave paintings from 30,000 yrs ago). To be sure, cave paintings are real whereas 'The Artist' is fake. It would have been more interesting if a real forgotten silent film was rediscovered and shown. One cannot fake old silent films, anymore than a modern artist can fake cave paintings.

    But then, one could argue 'The Artist' is not trying to fake a silent film as having fun with the idea. It's like designing one of those early pianos and playing music just for the sake of trying something-new-by-something-old. I guess we are all bored, and so it's 'anything to feel creative, clever, and different.'

    As for 'Hugo', I don't think it's a work of nostalgia but one of homage. Scorsese is not saying we should return to the movie past but show appreciation, remember its origins, and credit its pioneers. Nothing wrong with that, though maybe it's not such a great movie.

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  3. I found a great deal of pleasure in watching the film, which was, indeed a film about "the movies" even more so than Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard were films about "the movies." I don't think that Hazanavicius and company were attempting "great art," but I do think that they were attempting to show young audiences (i.e. people who would never see a black and white movie) the various virtues of using the kinds of values, visual, musical, and otherwise, that made 1930s Hollywood movies truly beautiful. They also brought a nice sense of humor to their escape from reality.

    Look what Amadeus, with all its inaccuracies and distorted sentiment, did for Mozart!

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  4. "Look what Amadeus, with all its inaccuracies and distorted sentiment, did for Mozart!"

    I realize Mr. Simon is not a Mozart fan, but this remark by the above commenter reminded me of something my father, an English professor and lover of Beethoven and Mozart said upon the release of Amadeus. Plaintively and softly, all he had to say was:

    "Why are they doing this to Mozart...?"

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  5. As for sickness being a bad thing, as Mr. Simon seems to imply (seemingly reasonably), that would be a rather modern view -- a view itself both good and bad, as befits the Paradox that bedevils all saecula.

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