Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Artist (2011)

     Usually I write this blog on the weekends (you know, when I actually have time to) and set it to post on Wednesday mornings. So I wrote today's article only on an assumption that "The Artist" would win the Academy Award for Best Picture on Sunday night. Good thing it did, or else I'd feel a little dumb. Whatever. “The Artist”, as you may have heard, is a new mostly silent movie in black-and-white made by a French filmmaker named Michel Hazanavicius (good thing I don’t have to pronounce that name here) with an international cast and crew. And I mean it, it’s one of the best movies I saw last year (second to “The Tree of Life”), and I hope you get a chance to see it soon, if even on DVD.

     But about the movie: the main character is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a Hollywood silent movie actor in the late 1920’s, before the Depression and before “talking pictures”. The first time we see George is when his latest movie is being premiered, in which his heroic character is being tortured in a laboratory run by a maniacal villain. The character is shouting: “I won’t talk! I’ll never say a word!” (Hooray for foreshadowing!) But his character gets away with the woman of his dreams, and the movie ends with applause throughout the theater. George walks onto the stage and takes a bow, stealing the show from his co-star with his trained dog.

     As he exits the theater to find people begging for his autograph, one woman runs into him: Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, Hazanavicius’ wife), an up-and-coming actress who gets her picture with George in the newspaper. The next day, George’s wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) starts getting frustrated with carefree George. But little does he know, George’s career is about to spiral downward out of control—and Peppy’s is about to take off. As Peppy gets a job as an extra in George’s new movie, George’s producer, Al Zimmer (John Goodman), shows him a new film test: a clip of his co-star singing—and she can actually be heard! George shrugs this off as a mere gimmick, but that night, he has a dream… or rather, a nightmare. And in an extremely creative sequence, George starts hearing things. His dog barks; people around him laugh; his footsteps make noise. But when George tries to speak, nothing is heard. Even when he tries to scream, he is silent. George wakes up and starts considering what may become of his career.

     By the way, a little movie history: when movies started using sound in the late 1920’s, many movie stars and filmmakers were able to continue their careers and use the new technology to their advantage. But other actors, because of the way they talked (like Lina Lamont in “Singin’ In the Rain”), saw their careers fall to stars with better voices. We don’t find out until the very end of the movie that this was George’s problem—he has a thick French accent that would have interfered with his ability to speak in movies, unless he got a coach. So basically, this is why George’s career is seriously in jeopardy at this point—he can’t talk correctly, and when you’re a movie star, it becomes a problem when your movies start having sound in them.

     However, at the same that, Peppy Miller is becoming a big star. As George leaves his studio and funds and stars in his own directorial debut, Peppy starts her career from being a supporting actress to a lead character. And the crowds love her—so much so that when she and George have movies premiering on the same night, Peppy’s film is a huge hit while George’s flops. However, Peppy, who has become good friends with George while at the studio, tries to comfort him, but George feels that he should just be left alone.

     And this is when George’s life starts taking a turn for the worse. Doris leaves him—or rather, she kicks him out of the house—and George finally loses his job at the studio, forcing him to sell the collectibles from his films that he has kept and even fire his loyal chauffer Clifton (James Cromwell) in order to survive. And one night, as he is drinking and looking through his old film reels, he sets fire to them and almost burns his house down. George is taken to the hospital, and there a friend finds him—Peppy, who later takes him to stay at her place.

     But George’s pride starts to become even more wounded there. He finds that Clifton is now working for Peppy as her chauffer, and he finds in a room downstairs all the collectibles that he had previously sold (bought by Peppy’s butler and maid). George runs out of the house and back to his abandoned apartment, where he finds his old pistol. He is about to shoot himself when all of a sudden, he hears a crash outside—Peppy has been driving as fast as she can to find him, and she has crashed into a tree in George’s front yard. And in complete silence, George and Peppy find each other and embrace. And Peppy tells George that she knows a way to get George back into the business.

     And George and Peppy partake in one of the most popular forms of movies in the early 1930’s: musicals. As they film a tap-dancing number under Al’s supervision, they finish, and the crew starts talking. And as Al asks for another take, George responds: “With pleasure.”

     There are two ideas in “The Artist” that I want to talk about today. The first one is the more prominent idea of George Valentin’s pride. We are introduced to George at the top of his game, successful and loved by all. But when his movie studio starts making the transition from silent movies to talkies, George is too full of himself to think that any new technology will take down his career. And when it does, he doesn’t know what to do with himself.

     The idea of pride is warned about in several places in the Bible. The Apostle John writes in his first letter, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” (2:15-17) As a follower of Jesus, I need to remember to keep my focus away from worldly things and to focus on how God wants me to serve others. If I don’t, I will be let down by the world—those desires may last for a little while, but only God is eternal.

     But the other idea is one that resonates more with me. George’s biggest challenge other than his pride is adjusting to a changing world. Only when his friend finds him at the end of his rope does he finally decide to find new ways to work. I can really relate to this because of coming to a college in another state a year and a half ago. I moved from Ohio to Kentucky in 2010, knowing very few people at school and living hours away from all my family. But if I was going to continue to follow Jesus, I needed to find new ways to do so—I could no longer rely only on the church environment or the family I had back home.

     Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “Live in the world, not of it.” I haven’t been able to find a specific verse from which this saying comes (if it does come from Scripture at all), but the closest I could find was when Jesus is praying for his disciples in John 15: “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (15:19) God has called us to be in the world to serve others, but this is not where we belong—our real home is in Heaven, and until we get there, we need to live in the world, not of it.

     My prayer for you is that whatever you may be going through this week, that you would find ways to serve God through it all, and that you would overcome the desires of the world because Jesus has overcome the world.

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