On Oscars, Gimmickry, & “The Artist”

Oscar was good to director Michel Hazanavicius and his (mostly) silent film “The Artist” at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony.  The film left with five awards, including top spots for Picture, Director and Actor.

I think most post-ceremony analyses are nonsense, so far be it from me to make sweeping conclusions based on Oscar distribution.  But there is at least one thing to be said about the particular trophies “The Artist” took home.  Unlike, say, “Crash”, this year’s Best Picture winner was no fluke.  Something about this film resonated with Oscar voters.

Eventually whatever that intangible element was, whatever spell the film put on its vote-casting viewers – all of that will fade.  That’s my prediction.  There will come a moment when the audience who lauded “The Artist” to the stage five times on Sunday night will realize they handed those awards over to a gimmick.

I said it – a gimmick.  “The Artist” walks a precarious line between homage and gimmick, and though it is a film filled with homages, it ends up being about that very thing.  The film knows it’s silent and black-and-white (and this is very different from the filmmakers knowing the same thing).  It knows it’s being watched by a modern audience.  “The Artist” is about as self-aware a movie as has ever been made.  It winks at the audience almost the entire movie.  Sometimes literally.

“The Artist” is charming and there are some praise-worthy moments in it, but it has nothing new to say. Its plot is straight out of “Singin’ in the Rain”.  It’s a people-pleaser to a fault, so much so that it tries to appease both a generation of film-lovers longing for the silent era and movie-goers with modern sensibilities.  So even at its most nostalgic, “The Artist” won’t fully commit to its own aesthetic convictions, evidenced even by its credits.

I have no doubt the makers deeply love the movies.  They didn’t intend to make a gimmick.  And even if they did, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that.  Even Hitchcock did it.  But for Hollywood to award its highest honor to a gimmick is concerning.  My hope is that eventually the hubbub surrounding “The Artist” will fade, that it will take a humbler place in movie history as a film that had several good sequences in it, some that reminded us of its bygone setting.

My hope is that Hollywood won’t try to capitalize on the film’s dark horse acclaim.  I can see it now.  “From the makers of ‘Scary Movie’, ‘Epic Movie’, and ‘Disaster Movie’ comes….’SILENT MOVIE’ “.