The Artist vs. Hugo
In some kind of spasm of nostalgia for old Hollywood, there are currently two movies out that celebrate the silent era: Hugo and The Artist. These two movies have won several critics' awards already, and movie audiences that don't otherwise know or care about silent film might find themselves inadvertently watching some of this stuff this season.
I liked The Artist a lot, and didn't love Hugo, in part because of how each movie deals with their common subject matter. Hugo has a few problems, but the biggest one is that half the movie goes by before you get to the part about early cinema, specifically French pioneer Georges Méliès. The first half is sometimes wistfully fun in a fantasy children's film sort of way, but it's also full of plodding exchanges between Hugo and a surly toy store owner played by Ben Kingsley. These exchanges go like this:
"I will not give you your notebook."
"Give me back my notebook!"
"I am not giving you this notebook."
"Give me back my notebook!"
"I'm not going to give you your notebook."
It's not good.
Then, rather abruptly, the film becomes an adoring history lesson on early cinema. This is by far the more interesting part of the movie, because it includes a dramatic recreation of the career of George Méliès, and clips from actual Méliès movies, which are wonderful. (Watch the special effects in "The Merry Frolics of Satan"--made in 1906!) Even though the second section is better than the first, the tone is a little academic and preachy. As The AV Club's Tasha Robinson writes in her Overrated Movie section, Hugo's message seems to be "You should love cinema because cinema is magical!" It comes off like a mission statement for Scorsese's film preservation nonprofit, and not enough like an original work of art. Also: I've yet to meet the kid who is going to want to sit through this.
A criticism I've been seeing for The Artist is that it's a cute piece of insubstantial fluff, fun to watch, but ultimately just a novelty. I think it's a much more effective argument for the glories of the silent era, and the magic of cinema in general, than Hugo is in all its 3D glossiness. The Artist is, for the most part, a silent movie. Maybe that's a novelty, but how many directors have the guts to make a black-and-white silent movie in 2011? Yeah, it's fun and cute, but I found it sincere and heartfelt, not syrupy.
The Artist is constructed to introduce a contemporary audience to both the story of Hollywood's conversion from silent films to talkies, and to the actual experience of watching a silent film. There are self-referential jokes and a few stylistic winks at the camera, but there's also reflection on the ephemeral nature of fame, and what it means to be an artist in a commercial medium. The movie has echoes of Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Kane, Singin' in the Rain, and The Wizard of Oz. It doesn't tell you that early cinema is important and fun to watch, it shows you why it is. I'm not going to criticize a small-scale movie for being too charming when it's as fascinating and surprising to watch as this one.
Somewhere in LA right now, an editor is working on a silent movie montage for the Oscars.