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Sunday
Dec182011

Naked Gold Man: The Pitiable Tradition of The Backlash

Yesterday I was asked by a fellow writer to be quoted on a "who will win?" Oscar piece at another site. I said yes without hesistation but why are we always jumping ahead? We don't even know the nominee list yet! One particular way in which I find it hard to relate to my fellow Oscar pundits and even a lot of kindred spirit movie fans is this: Year after year there seems to be a enthusiasm for and a willingness to concede the race to a presumed frontrunner before nominations are even announced.

This "it's over before it's begun" atmosphere enables, no, encourages hostility and backlash against popular films and performances. The annual Oscar carnival, meant to be a celebration of Hollywood's perception of their own best work, becomes decidedly less magical and fun once the atmosphere turns hostile. It's both more fun and more accurate to view the Academy Awards as a two phase celebration which has numerous winners. In the first phase dozens upon dozens of films and talented individuals compete to find placement in traditionally five-wide shortlists. Several people emerge as winners, drawing attention to films and performances that are sometimes really worth the moviegoer's time. In the second phase the nominees go all Highlander with their golden swords. There can be only one. 

But why rush to the decapitations? 

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) in "The Artist", a silent film superstar threatened by the "talkie" revolution in Hollywood

The film that has been labelled the winner before its secured a nomination this year is The Artist. Many have already said it's a done deal though nomination ballots don't go out for another 9 days. So the backlash has begun. It's an inevitable fact of frontrunner status as any year teaches us.

On backlashes, nostalgia and scarce originals after the jump

I recently read a hostile piece by Scott Mendelson which is sneakily called "Why The Artist deserves to win Best Picture at this year's Oscars" because Mendelson is anything but happy about the prospect. He makes several clever arguments for (i.e. against) the film such as these...

In a culture ever-more gripped by the need to replicate art of the past, ever consumed by nostalgia for the entertainment they used to consume in their youth, The Artist is the perfect choice... 

In a studio system so afraid of originality at the top levels that they relentlessly remake, reboot, and rehash films and properties for no other reason than that the token recognition factor gives them a marketing edge, The Artist is the perfect choice... 

The argument about a lack of originality is true enough IF you feel predisposed to disliking the picture... but it's also so broad as to take dozens upon dozens of other well reviewed pictures down with it: Hugo, most prominently, which also celebrates art of the past and is derived not from Scorsese's imagination but from Brian Selznick's book, but also all of the sequels and reboots and remakes and literary adaptations of the year which is roughly all of the pictures considered to be in the running. Two of the only three films still in the Best Picture mix that feel like "originals" are also retro/derivative: Drive is based on a book and borrows heavily from an 80s aesthetic and Midnight in Paris is ironically about our problematic relationship with the past and our own tendency towards nostalgia. Isn't The Tree of Life the only contender that qualifies as something like a true original?

The only real Best Picture contenders not based on previously established materialMendelson's principal argument would be a much better one it it had been applied to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. That film is far more representative of our current franchise-dependent, excessively familiar movie culture. To equate The Artist with "safe" pre-branded entertainments like an annual school year at Hogwarts or movie versions of literary phenomenons like The Help or Dragon Tattoo or a reboot of Planet of the Apes is a significant breach of the spirit of generosity and open mindedness that a moviegoer or critic should feel when he or she enters any theater.

The facts are these: The Artist was a risky project for all involved. It is a French made film with no stars about an artform of the past that only people over the age of 90 have any real memory of (everyone else's "memories" are constructed imaginations filtered as they are through academic interest, nostalgic programming, or cinephilia rather than contemporary experience). To suggest that we shouldn't revisit anything of interest to previous generations is akin to saying that we should stop looking at Shakespeare for good, isn't it? (I'm aware that I've frequently argued for a 10 year moratorium on Shakespeare but not because I don't think revivals and reinventions have worth, only because there are other dead playwrights worth considering if we're looking for classics to revive).

In short -- and I'm surprised this isn't obvious to every one -- The Artist is not a rehash of something that is excessively familiar and safe that we enjoyed in our youth. That'd be The Smurfs for many of us and no one is rooting for The Smurfs to win Best Picture. Since the median age for AMPAS skews older, the safest option for reliving their youth is The Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  That one should bring back vivid memories to people who were teenagers or 20somethings in the late 1960s... i.e. many Academy voters.

One argument that Mendelson makes which is far more insightful and compelling from an showbiz-appeal standpoint,  is this:

In a Hollywood where pundits and bloggers endlessly wonder why the stars of yesterday aren't somehow magically every bit as famous and successful as they were in their peak years, The Artist is the perfect choice." 

I giggled sheepishly when I read that. Perpetual success, as if you can never lose something you once earned, is surely a fantasy for many Academy members (as it is for human beings in general). And lord knows I personally qualify as one of these "pundits and bloggers" since I hang on to my beloved actors and filmmakers well past their peak popularity. I'm loyal! Plus, I actually believe it's the right thing to do. Talent should always be considered more sacred than popularity and the tastemakers should be fighting for it rather than hopping on bandwagons. This is why I can't stomach Oscar predictions masquerading as critics awards. Critics are supposed to be fighting for quality, not attempting to guess popularity. Nor can I get behind the notion that in-the-moment popularity or lack thereof is sacrosanct when it comes to celebrity, something to be interpreted as deserved. There are PLENTY of older stars were once "hot new stars" who would have a lot more to offer popular culture than, say, Vanessa Hudgens or Taylor Lautner, if they were given another chance. One of the strange quirks of our excessively rehashed culture is that pop culture's obsession with youth means that great artists with some years on them are always in danger of being chucked out for unproven newbies even though the things we're collectively obsessing on our getting on in years. Some of those babes in the showbiz woods will deserve the break and will deliver us many riches but others are mere space fillers, gainfully employed only because they are young/beautiful and perceived as popular during the split second when casting took place. And then those young actors star in films which are essentially nostalgia exercizes meant to appeal to people the same age as the ones they're pushing out of the game! It's all very strange and complicated as are our collective notions of who deserves fame.

Should the George Valentin's of the world always roll over and accept defeat when the Peppy Millers arrive? I think not. If you have something to offer the world, fight to stay in the game.

As Peppy's star rises, George's falls

I felt tremendous sympathy for dinosaur George Valentin while watching The Artist but I also felt excited by Peppy's novice energy and rise to fame. Ideally we'd live in a movie culture which could honor both types of stars by symbolic extension both the old and the new.

A healthy movie culture would have a ittle bit of everything, including looking backward as Hugo and The Artist do. Barrelling forward while never looking at the past would rob us of as many untold riches as our current recycling robs us of original triumphs. A cinematic culture which never considers the past would be an embarassingly myopic and ignorant one. But yes, I readily concur, it'd be nice to have some balance for a change. I'm as sick of sequels as anyone outside of the general ticket-buying public (who are not at all sick of sequels at all) but it's unfair to lump The Artist in with films that aren't taking any chances and only delivering familiar comforts and exactly what the audience has already said they wanted.

Dissing The Artist because it celebrates and reworks the far distant cinematic past so joyfully for our present consumption is really an odd thing for people who love the movies to become angry about. But such is the unruly hostility of the backlash phenomenon. Hating on The Artist feels, to me, rather like being angry with Todd Haynes for making Far From Heaven, like getting annoyed that Martin Scorsese signed on for Hugo or becoming furious that Quentin Tarantino and Guy Maddin ever picked up cameras in the first place. Consider this: the movie that The Artist most openly recalls is Singin' in the Rain which has long since been canonized as one of the great films. Have The Artist haters forgotten that Singin' in the Rain is itself a nostalgia piece about the birth of the talkies? The window was just much shorter, a quarter century as opposed to ninety-some years. 

Updated Charts... 
PREDICTION INDEX
 PICTURE | DIRECTOR | ACTRESS | ACTOR |

SUPP. ACTRESS | SUPP. ACTOR | SCREENPLAYS ... four very volatile and confusing categories this year, don't you think? THE SUSPENSE! Bring it on.

VISUAL | AURAL | FOREIGN | ANIMATION, DOCS, SHORTS

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Reader Comments (29)

I haven't seen THE ARTIST, but wow this was a great piece.

December 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

I still love "Hugo" a bit more but this is an amazing piece! From now on I'm gonna send this to people whenever they starts bashing the film.

Also, I finally watched "Extremely Loud" today and it's a lot better than expected. What's your take on HFPA snubbing this completely? It really seems to one of those film that's in tunes with them and Academy members? I actually thought Bullock was so much better here than she was in "The Blind Side", and as moving as Von Sydow. It's so weird that they both cant get tractions with such traditionally favored roles.

And that kid, so annoying in the trailer, but such a surprise in the film. A shame that he wont get any recognition like Hailee Steinfeld did last year, who was not nearly as impressive IMO.

December 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjoy

OT: The 60 Minutes Meryl Streep interview has ended. I'm impressed. I think I actually like her more as a person than I'll ever like her as an actress -- I do plan to steal from her the technique of avoiding the rawness of human emotional and go for a heighten sense of play.

December 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter//3rtful

oh shit, I have been someone that's been taking The Artist for granted and maybe shunnig it in a way. I don't know know if I've prevented myself from being excited by it's existence but I think you're completely right. If there is a theater near me playing it 'll probably give it a shot, no reason not too.

December 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPoppy

I don't know what the filmmakers connected to The Artist did to Scott Mendelson but I found his essay put down of the film unnecessarily mean spirited. I don' think those involved with the film expected the film to get so much attention.

But then there was lot of trashing of The King's Speech last year from those who didn't want it too win and that quickly became tedious.

Will someone start trashing The Descendants and War Horse next?

December 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Oak

Has "Best Director" been updated yet? It would seem that nothing has changed, and if it has, I'd be interested in knowing your reasons for keeping Stephen Daldry at #4, given his lack of traction. (Even if you believed he will get in, he'd surely be below Malick?)

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWellington Sludge

I'm anticipating some heavy Descendants backlash in the coming months. It totally reads as the heavyweight contender that started exceptionally strong, began to gradually sag, and finally burned out, a la Social Network last year and Up in the Air the year before that. All three are also (arguably) potent, modern-day dramedies (I realize that description doesn't totally encapsulate Social Network) whose best shots are/were in the Adapted Screenplay category.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew

Gabriel -- will someone start trashing those pictures next? if they gain steam in the race, for sure. :) i may even have to ;)

December 19, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Great piece Nathaniel! "The Artist" has problems that have nothing to do with whether it should be celebrating the past or not, which is indeed a peculiar thing to diss "The Artist" for. If anything, "The Artist" will inspire some people to go and visit some of these black and white silents that they had always believed would be boring or fuddy duddy or whathaveyou.

Regarding "Hugo", I remember when - even as close as the week leading up to its US release - people were complaining about Scorsese daring to make a children's film as if kids don't deserve good, quality filmmaking. Of course, they eventually saw the product and shut up.

Basically, a lot of people talk nonsense about movies they haven't seen seen. At least Scott has seen "The Artist" and finds legitimate fault with it, I guess. That sort of discussion is worth having. "The Artist is stupid because there's no talking omgwtf #fail" is what should be dismissed. Unfortunately, that's what we get most of the time.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

PREACH!

And as for the backlash against The Descendants, I think it's already begun. I don't know how many "*That* was it?" critiques I've read from cinephiles.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Some people like to like stuff, and some people like to dislike stuff. The people who like to dislike stuff like best to dislike what the people who like stuff like.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertimothy

I realize this isn't a review and you are responding more to the punditry/awards, but there plenty of arguments to be made against The Artist that aren't so simple minded as "rehash of the past = bad." If someone just complains that it "celebrates and reworks the far distant cinematic past so joyfully for our present consumption," then that's a pretty silly argument. You have to take everything on its own merits and deal with how it deals with the past it is exploring. The article you mention does seem backlashy, since it revolves specifically around awards. But there's equally a danger of anyone who dislikes The Artist gets labeled as backlash, which gives the film as easy a pass as the detractors dismiss it.

To my eyes, the weird thing about The Artist is that it is only looking back. Several other films you mention (Drive, certainly, Hugo, to an extent) mine the past as a means of looking back in order to look/move forward. Hugo is about early cinema, but it's just as much about film preservation in a time when that practice is largely in question. (That doesn't give it a pass either - its narrative is half-hearted, sloppy, and its magic too on the surface and overstated.) Drive uses electro-beats and "empty" 80s genre exercises to reconfigure a genre. I'm not really sure The Artist is doing anything with its past, other than trying to recreate it. (That it gets a lot of its history wrong and that its best moments come directly from other silents doesn't help its case, I'm afraid.) For me, it feels "safer" and more "redundant" because it is only looking back to look back. Maybe that's "joy for our present consumption" but I hope for a little more when it comes to similar exercises.

I agree with a lot of what you say here. I certainly don't think films should be cast out because they use the past as a kind of source material. But it shouldn't be pitched as nostalgia for nostalgia's sake. The Artist, fun as it is at times, falls into that trap.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames H

It always makes me smile when I read that The Artist represented a HUGE risk because it was made with no stars. Just to set things right, Jean Dujardin has been the most popular French actor for at least half a decade, he's the country's biggest box office draw and highest paid actor. So the risk was calculated, to say the least.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulien

Cannot express myself about The Artist, that I haven't seen yet... like most of the movies in the Oscar race... so slow release here in Italy!
But in the weekend I finally watched DRIVE and BRIDESMAIDS... Can I just say... that now I understand the enthusiasm for these movies. I really think that the first one deserves more attention both as best picture and screenplay... while Melissa McCarthy should definitely run for Best Supporting Actress!
My ideal 5 supporting would be:
-Spencer
-Chastain
-Redgrave
-McCarthy
-Mulligan
Not to mention Viola Davis that for me is actually supporting, but I've already expressed my opinion about this.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTerris

Julien -- I'm sure Dujardin is huge in France, but he's pretty much unknown in the rest of the world! Sadly we're not in the era when European actors were as popular as the Hollywood ones without being forced to move over there and play stereotypes.

I really enjoyed "The Artist" so I resent the backlash. There are lots of immature people bashing movies they don't like or they just don't get. I didn't like "The Help" but still I'm able to recognize how good Viola Davis is in it.

PS I'm loyal to my ladies too!

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I haven''t seen The Artist yet (I am of course, dying to!)

But this is a phenomenal piece.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I will be seeing The Artist with bells on next week (when it comes to my neck of the woods).

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

If backlash is one of the most predictable things to happen in the Oscar race, then you could suspect that anyone who's declaring a movie an early frontrunner, in the end may want to provoke backlash, so that the one he or she's actually rooting for can win. That is, if you're rooting for The Smurfs, for whatever reason, you can declare Cars 2 is the favourite now, even if it isn't, so that Cars 2 will get the unavoidable backlash and then The Smurfs wins.

Or maybe I'm just too twisted? I don't know, I find it hard to believe Harvey Weinstein or any campaigner hasn't thought about that. Actually it may be the main reason to make movies open as late as possible. If there's no time to digest, there's no backlash.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

All the backlash in the world from those who are disgruntled because their favorite isn't going to win won't make any difference in the end (thankfully) - just ask all the David Fincher fanboys who make asses of themselves by continuing to bash "The King's Speech" a year later. Sour grapes...

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDrood

@Peggy Sue: I know that (and believe me, it's fully justified, because up until The Artist, Dujardin has only appeared in drivel) but the people who took the risks -i.e. the producers- never intended the film to go international before the Weinstein expressed interest in Cannes. They intended it first and foremost for the french market, so as I said, as far at that's concerned, the risk was very much calculated.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulien

Drood: I'm not going to stump for The Social Network over The King's Speech just yet (still have to get around to re-watching Observe and Report to see if it significantly improves on viewing #2), but I AM going to say that it's making those sorts of choices too often (both as nominees and winners) that turn younger people away from the Academy. If something like The Dark Knight or Pan's Labyrinth can't be one of the top five #1 vote getters, why should people under the age of thirty listen?

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Peggy -- thank you. I'm kind of embarrassed for people who aren't willing to recognize how great Viola is in The Help just because they don't like the movie. (sigh)

Julien -- really? It looks kind of pricey budget-wise for a France-only intentions.

James H -- i get your point and looking back on my article i think i am probably forcing the last point too much. the Singin' in the Rain comparison is kind of flimsy since Singin' in the Rain was very much a present tense work of art since it was first and foremost a Musical about talkies which by its very nature couldn't be only a thing of the past. But even then then songs were all standards and not originals so it's still an homage type of film. But yes, i get your point.

I guess i've been surprised at how few people who don't like the movie are willing to give it props for its risks and its stamina saying "anybody could've made this because its so ripping off the best of silent films. Do any of these people recognize how difficult it is to maintain this sort of lightness of tone, comedy slapstick, and melodramatic flourishes for an entire movie? I think they're just not being honest when they think it's not an accomplishment. Even if it's only a derivation -- which i can see why people would lable it so as you said "nostalgia for nostalgia's sake" its still a grade A derivation, you know?

December 19, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

If you only knew how much high priced local shit we get thrown at our screens each year...
Which is not intended as an attack on The Artist, which I respect very much, even if I fail to be able to feel what most of the film writers I admire -you included- seem to be feeling for it.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulien

The funniest criticism of The Artist is the, "it's not as good as the best silent films," line of attack. Right, so because The Artist is not one of the GREATEST MOVIES EVER MADE, it's more or less worthless. No one needs to make excuses for the film, or its flaws, and if you think it's not a great piece of filmmaking, or that Valentin is not a complex character, fine. I disagree, but reasonable people often do. But the idea that the success/failure marker for this film is whether or not Havanavicius topped F.W Murnau and King Vidor and Charlie Chaplin is ABSURD, and I feel vaguely embarrassed for people who are making that argument.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I totally agree, Nathaniel, about our obsession with jumping the gun on the Oscars in general. I think the Oscars are treated as sport and akin to a race to be won and have written extensively on the topic:

http://exm.nr/mzJuns
http://exm.nr/llDI8z
http://exm.nr/llDI8z

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOrrinK

A thoughtful and sensible piece. Thank you Nathaniel for reminding us that appreciating artistry is the fun part.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Volvagia, saying "If something like The Dark Knight or Pan's Labyrinth can't be one of the top five #1 vote getters, why should people under the age of thirty listen?" implies that everyone under 30 would have put those films as #1 and that anyone under the age of 30 can't find something significant within "Milk" or "The Reader" or, blech, even "Frost/Nixon" (but, then, I can't imagine anyone finding something significant enough to put it at #1 of their ballot so who am I to assume someone under 30 couldn't?)

I know I wouldn't have even put Pan's and Knight in my top ten and I'm under 30.

December 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Little long bur really nice information it is.

December 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteraaricevans

freelance writer

December 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRAQUELHuber
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