Saturday, February 25, 2012

Catching Up on Best Picture: The Battle of the Myths

The Best Pictures Oscar contest: a horse race with no transparent handicapping. But this year the specter of Joseph Campbell will be in the Kodak auditorium because three films have unusually intersecting mythologies.

Myth #1: American View of the Mystique of Paris

From the first whiny notes of the soundtrack over the sickly yellow lit scenes of tourist Paris, I knew Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was no Manhattan. That was a film that beautifully captured the living reality of New York (for some) with the dream mythscape that lies beneath it and pokes through occasionally for everyone in different ways.

I watched MIP twice, again believing that my lyric mojo was on the fritz, because I wasn’t charmed. I don’t find Owen Wilson compelling, his engagement to Rachel McAdams made no sense on any level and they had no chemistry at all. I agree with one of the NYTimes viewer comments: “Felt like it was written by an earnest 10th grader.”

And I had an evening of much head bobbing to the tweets of the esteemed James Wolcott. I happened to see his tweets while he was watching Midnight, and I wish I had captured them because every one of them was dead on, particularly about the music. There are many Sidney Bechet recordings that show off the depth and richness of his clarinet playing, but "Si Tu Vois Ma Mere" is set in the high, tinny range and sounds “cheap,” not luscious. Stephane Wrembel’s guitar theme "Bistro Fada" became annoying as it came back endlessly. (And I thought it had a Spanish-inflected sound, which felt off for such a Francophile film.)

The 1920s gang in the film were okay, but not used well enough. On paper, it is the English majors fantasy to have been with the Lost Generation in Paris. So I think the biggest disappointment was that there was so much potential for the music, and script, and visuals for this idea, and none of it came together for me. But I’m in the minority with that opinion: many people were swept away by Woody’s myth of the City of Lights.

Myth #2: French View of the Mystique of Hollywood’s Beginnings

Michel Hazanavicius’s The Aritist was a more enjoyable film for me. It takes a little time to settle into its faux silent era pacing, both the movie scenes within the movie and the “story” itself. Many did not like Bérénice Bejo exaggerated Peppy Miller, saying her only acting was wide and wider eyes, but I enjoyed the stylized tone. I have not seen the great silents, I only saw my first Buster Keaton at Film Forum this year, The Filmmaker. If felt like an entirely different product than a sound movie. There is a more profound different between the silent era and “talking pictures” than just the addition of sound.

David Denby has a wonderful piece about this in The New Yorker that is somewhat summarized as

"In 'The Artist,'  Bérénice Bejo’s character is a swell girl, full of bounce, and compassionate and loyal, too, but Bejo lacks the impress of temperament—as does Jean Dujardin—that made the old stars so memorable."

And because they don’t have the “temperament,” the innate skill needed to act without sound, there is a flatness to The Artist, a sense that it is paper thin, unlike the endless depth to the images of Garbo, Barrymore, and Negri.

This fact of life, that actors in 2012 cannot know what it is to act silent, does not detract from the overall story. The myth is how swell things were back when the industry was emerging, and the struggle of the life of the artist (as opposed to just an actor).

I saw an experimental silent short this year, with none other than Dominic West trying his hand at being a silent actor in Andrew Legge’s The Lactating Automaton. It tells the tale of an inventor who builds a mechanical wet nurse for his baby daughter after his wife dies. It’s an odd piece, not because of the automaton, but because its tone shifts oddly between sweet and creepy.

And that brings us to Hugo.

Myth #3: American View of the Mystique of French Film Pioneers

Best Picture and multiple other category nominee Hugo from Martin Scorsese includes pieces of Myths 1 & 2: the story is set in Paris; it's somewhere in the 1920s like The Artist, the earliest in 1923 since we see Harold Lloyd's Safety Last; and it’s based on the children’s story The Invention of Hugo Caret, by Brian Selznick, who is film royalty: his grandfather was the cousin of the great David O. Selzick, who produced best picture winners Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940). Put an orphan who lives in a train station together with an automaton that was created by one of the actual pioneers of film and you are firing on several mythological points, which Scorsese has the strength of vision to bring off.

It becomes an unabashed valentine to the real pioneers of early narrative film, tangentially the Lumiere brothers, specifically George Melies. Melies entered a generation of non film scholars in 1969 when the existing footage of his Trip to the Moon was played endlessly as part of the ramp up coverage to the moon landing.

Hugo achieves the mythological beauty of Paris that Woody was striving for, and captures the highs and lows of the life of the artist a la Hazanavicius. Beyond that, it’s also an infomercial on the need to preserve the physical celluloid of the world’s collective film history.

Which Is the Defining Myth for 2012?
These films are up against The Help, a period piece that has it’s own myths about the civil rights movement and its legacy; Moneyball and The Descendants, which from one perspective can be both be boiled down to the myth of the exquisitely handsome man who is unable to relate to women; The Tree of Life, which is a creation myth straight out; War Horse, which I haven't seen but I did see the play in London and New York, and WW1 created the myth of Lost Generation; and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I haven’t seen, but it’s about 9/11, enough said.

I picked The Artist in the office pool.


dorki said...

The movies and Oscars aside, a must-see is the book "The Invention of Hugo Caret" by Brian Selznick. It is called a children’s story, but the pencil illustrations in themselves are worthy of a high award. The overall production of the book is superb.

The movie Hugo as well as the book are enjoyable even by an old coot like me.