Last night I was talking on the phone to a friend, Steve, who lives in St. Louis. Steve has two young daughters, so he has to be, let's say, choosy with his movie selections, given all the free time that he doesn't have. When I told him he'd like 'The Artist,' his less-than-thrilled reaction was, "The black and white silent movie? Not sure that's my cup of tea." And there lies the problem with 'The Artist': there's a perception that it's highbrow fare. It's not. 'The Artist' may have a highbrow concept, but its story is decidedly middlebrow.
The expectation that's causing Steve not to want to see 'The Artist' is perhaps the same expectation that's fueling the backlash against 'The Artist.' People who critique movies for a living are a passionate bunch. When a movie like 'The Artist' comes along -- a movie that seemingly promises highbrow pleasures -- these people get excited. But 'The Artist' is a regular old story about a silent film actor trying to remain relevant in a changing world. Oh, and he has a cute dog. Put it this way: The guy who played Dauber on 'Coach' is in 'The Artist.' This is how backlash happens. I've now heard members of awards-voting organizations apologizing for 'The Artist' winning, which is weird because the ability of 'The Artist' to deliver such a mainstream, middlebrow story, despite its highfalutin concept, is exactly what I admire so much about it.
There are four albums that defined my freshman year in college: Pearl Jam's 'Ten' (even though it was released a year before), R.E.M's 'Automatic for the People,' U2's 'Achtung Baby' and Gin Blossoms' 'New Miserable Experience.' For the most part 'New Miserable Experience' found critical success too, at first, receiving solid reviews from outlets like Rolling Stone. I still have 'New Miserable Experience' on my iPod and, almost 20 years later, every song on that album is still good. (Some better than others, of course; I do find myself listening to '29,' 'Cajun Song,' 'Cheatin'' and, yes, 'Hey Jealousy,' more than I do 'Hold Me Down'.)
In 2011, Gin Blossoms are forgotten and no one would ever consider them as an influential band from the 1990s. If there is a middlebrow blemish somewhere on the Earth's crust, its oozing puss is bound to someday erupt to the tune of 'Found out About You.' The Gin Blossoms define middlebrow success and, really, people don't have a problem with that -- but, of course, the Gin Blossoms were quickly discarded. 'The Artist' is pretending to be highbrow with its concept when, in reality, its just as middlebrow as the Gin Blossoms. Only 'The Artist' doesn't want to be discarded, it wants to be remembered forever as the best movie of 2011. This is why people are angry.
The Earth is a cynical place these days. I am cynical and that's one reason I have this job. I struggle with that fact quite often. I watch a movie like 'War Horse,' 'Hugo' or 'The Artist,' and I feel this knee-jerk reaction to somehow try to discredit the earnestness I see before me. It's almost like we've been programmed as a society to be skeptical of anything that appears to be earnest -- and 'The Artist' is really earnest. But people are predisposed to remember things that have a bit more of an edge. The Gin Blossoms had zero edge. The earnestness of 'The Artist' is its edge. And it's OK to like that.
One common argument is that 'The Artist' just doesn't feel like a Best Picture winner; that we won't be talking about 'The Artist' in ten years. I don't agree with this sentiment, but I'm open to the possibility. My real problem with the argument is that there's no realistic alternative offered. The argument against 'The Artist' is starting to sound like the argument against pretty much anything that Obama does. In other words: "That plan sucks, but I don't have a better one. But it still sucks." The thing is, looking back, very few Best Picture winners actually deserve the title of "Best Picture." Over the past 20 years, there's, maybe, six films that have that all-important "Best Picture" feel to them. I'd argue outside of 'Unforgiven,' 'Schindler's List,' 'Braveheart,' 'Titanic,' 'The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King' and 'No Country For Old Men,' the rest just happened to be released during a weak year or got incredibly lucky.
Yes, I'll be the first to admit that 2011 is a relatively weak year for movies -- good, but... -- but that's certainly not the fault of 'The Artist.' Yet, as the current frontrunner, it's taking the blame. 'The Artist' isn't the first film to disguise itself as highbrow, it's just the first to make its intentions this obvious and open. Which is exactly why it's brilliant. Based on past winners, 'The Artist' is certainly a deserving candidate. (You're telling me 'The Artist' doesn't live up to the "excellent" standards of 'American Beauty'? Oh, puh-leeze.) But that's not really even my point. I'm not specifically arguing that 'The Artist' should win the Oscar for Best Picture anymore than I'm arguing that 'New Miserable Experience' should have won a Grammy (U2's Auchtung Baby really should have won over Eric Clapton Unplugged). I am saying that I thoroughly enjoyed 'The Artist' and, yes, it's quite OK to feel that way without being ashamed for liking something that's earnest and middlebrow -- cynics like myself be damned.
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