Tag Archives: Michel Hazanavicius

A Glorious Feeling

Me and my Intro to Film class before a theatrical screening of Singin’ in the Rain. We went out for overpriced smoothies afterwards. It was all very civilized!

A new 4k digital restoration of Singin’ in the Rain played in movie theaters across the U.S. last Thursday night as a one-time only event sponsored by Turner Classic Movies, which also served as an advance preview of this version’s imminent release on Blu-ray. As part of my never-ending quest to promote the big screen experience, I took my Intro to Film class from Oakton Community College on a field trip to the Century 12 theater in Evanston to take in a screening. Unlike the sparsely attended “Classic Series” showing of The Searchers at the same theater just a couple of weeks ago (to which I had taken another class), I was happy to see that the joint was positively jammed for Singin’ in the Rain, a testament, no doubt, to TCM’s marketing muscle. Unfortunately, the screening was marred by a technical glitch that excised the first several minutes from the climactic “Broadway Melody” number, an error that nonetheless happily resulted in all attendees receiving a free pass to attend a future show at the Century 12. (And is it just me or do these digital “satellite feed” screenings tend to present more technical problems than traditional 35mm?) That minor glitch aside, however, it was indeed a glorious feeling to see Singin’ in the Rain, the most beloved of all Hollywood musicals, on the big screen with beautifully restored sound and color.

While Singin’ in the Rain is not my personal favorite musical (I’m a Vincente Minnelli man, myself), I do completely understand the case that can be made for Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s masterpiece as the very pinnacle of the genre. For one thing, as one of my students noted afterwards, there is an incredible amount of diversity in terms of the different kinds of dancing on display throughout the film: “You Were Meant for Me” is a graceful, deeply romantic, almost balletic number between stars Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, “Moses Supposes” features furious, old-fashioned hoofing between Kelly and Donald O’Connor, while O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” solo number functions more as a series of outrageously comedic physical stunts than “dancing” in any traditional sense. And this is to say nothing of Kelly’s dancing during the title song, the most famous production number in any movie musical and a brilliant showcase for the co-director/choreographer/star’s unique genius for interacting with sets and props.

Mirroring this diversity in the choreography is the way Singin’ also functions as a perfect hybrid of the musical, comedy and romance genres. Indeed, out of all the musicals from Hollywood’s golden age, it is the one that probably works best as a comedy. (One of my other students told me he didn’t much care about the singing or dancing in the movie but found it nonetheless thoroughly entertaining purely because of its humor.) The comedy comes primarily from Donald O’Connor, as the eternal comedic sidekick who is given a boatload of genuinely hilarious asides, as well as Jean Hagen as an archetypal dumb blonde whose shrill speaking voice has made a number of Adolph Green and Betty Comden’s lines of dialogue justifiably famous (e.g., “I can’t stan’ ‘im!”). If Kelly, then, exemplifies the film’s musical side, and O’Connor and Hagen bring the comedy, it is Debbie Reynolds, looking almost impossibly young at 18 years old, who provides the romance. While Reynolds, with her patented virginal cuteness, does not, as they say, “do it for me” (I would’ve preferred it had the lead female role gone to the more mature, and leggier, Cyd Charisse, who turns up for a delightful extended cameo), there is no denying the potent romantic chemistry between Reynolds and Kelly.

The most important aspect of Singin’ in the Rain that cements its pantheon status though is probably how it serves as a nostalgic valentine to the cinema itself. The film takes place in Hollywood in 1927, a tumultuous era when the movie industry was decisively transitioning away from the production of silent films to that of “talking pictures” for good. The logistical problems that the early sound filmmakers faced are recreated with exaggerated comic panache (e.g., talking into a bush where a microphone is obviously hidden, a microphone picking up a heartbeat, tripping over cables, etc.), prompting Douglas Fowley’s director character (wearing, of course, a beret and “riding pants”) to exclaim, “We’ll have to think of something else!” While these scenes are played for laughs, they also illustrate the very real technical problems with which the industry had to contend, and that indeed had to be solved by creatively thinking of “something else.”

When The Artist was released last year, I was incredulous to see some critics claim that it more accurately captured the magic of silent movies than Singin’ in the Rain (its most obvious influence), because the earlier film allegedly made the silents look “worse” than they really are. I would argue that the opposite is true: while the acting in the silent film scenes within Singin’ in the Rain may indeed be more exaggerated than silent film acting was in actuality, it is crucially no more exaggerated than the acting found anywhere else in Singin’ in the Rain, the tone of which is consistently pitched at the delightfully broad level of vaudeville comedy. I would argue that it is The Artist that tries to point up the supposedly egregious differences between the acting in silent movies (i.e., the movie scenes within The Artist) and “modern day” film acting (all of the other scenes). This is one of the reasons why, although The Artist has its moments as a charming comedy, its attempts to achieve genuine tragedy ultimately make the film feel strained and uneven. In any case, I doubt that The Artist will be rereleased theatrically for its 60th anniversary; by that time it will probably be long forgotten, like most of the other recent Oscar winners, while Singin’ in the Rain will undoubtedly continue to look just as fresh and old-fashioned as ever.


Oscarology: 2012 Edition

It’s chocolate! Now I want one more than ever!

Out of a field of nine candidates, this year’s Best Picture Oscar race has essentially boiled down to a contest between The Artist and The Descendants. Most pundits feel that The Artist has the upper hand, not because it is the better film (although I personally think that it is) but because, as in real world politics, the people who are backing it are simply better at running a campaign. In this post, I will handicap the Best Picture race and offer other random thoughts on the five out of the nine nominees that I’ve seen.

The Shoo-In:

To borrow a phrase from Andrew Sarris, I found The Artist to be lightly likable. I don’t think it’s worth all of the praise it’s getting but, perhaps because I went in with low expectations, I found myself pleasantly surprised by its lightweight charm. (Just because it’s the frontrunner, doesn’t mean it can’t be good!) Unfortunately, French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius gets the silent era in Hollywood wrong in terms of both story and production design. The film takes place mostly in the summer and fall of 1929 so that he can incorporate the stock market crash into the plot when it would actually make more sense for most of the events to be taking place in 1927 or 1928. The notion that a major U.S. studio of the period would have a Euro-centric name like “Kinograph” is absurd. And why is it that a movie ostensibly conceived of as a tribute to the silent era has only films from the 1940s and 1950s as its key reference points? The story is basically a mash-up of A Star is Born and Singin’ in the Rain while also borrowing style elements from Citizen Kane and Vertigo. The appropriation of Bernard Herrmann’s love theme from the latter recently caused controversy when Kim Novak wrote an op ed claiming that it made her feel “raped.” While Ms. Novak’s choice of words may have been unfortunate, I’m actually siding with her on this one; the problem, for me, isn’t that Hazanavicius used the score from another movie. The problem is that he expected it to do the heavy lifting that his images couldn’t accomplish. But it doesn’t really matter that The Artist fails as a tragedy because it does succeed as a comedy. Charisma can go a long way and lead performers Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo and, especially, Uggie the dog have charisma to burn. I’m not sure if Uggie gives the greatest dog performance ever, as some critics have claimed, but his expressiveness does remind us that animals are sorely underused in movies in general. All in all, The Artist is worth seeing. The Artist Rating: 6.4

The Main Competition:

“Worth seeing” is a phrase I can also apply to Alexander Payne’s overrated The Descendants – but just barely. The cast is uniformly good but I really, really disliked the entire narrative thread about the dilemma of George Clooney’s character regarding whether to sell his family’s ancestral land. Clooney’s climactic speechifying about how his family has “Hawaiian blood” and “a connection to this land” when those issues haven’t once been touched upon throughout the entire movie up to that point is bizarre. And as good as Beau Bridges is as a laid-back beach bum in his first scene at a bar, the moment at the end where he’s holding a pen in front of Clooney and coming on like Mephistopheles is just awful. Payne also has an unfortunate tendency to underline the Big Meaning of a scene – like the final ice cream-sharing moment that illustrates how Clooney and his daughters have grown closer together because of the events that transpired, or the scene where Clooney has a late night talk with the older daughter’s boyfriend and realizes that, hey, even idiot slackers know what it means to experience loss too. I miss the edgier, mean-spirited humor of Payne’s earlier work but he’ll probably be taking home the Adapted Screenplay Oscar for this. Clooney winning Best Actor is also likely. The Descendants Rating: 5.8

The Dark Horse:

Hugo is considered a dark horse for Best Picture, which is interesting in that, like The Artst, it concerns the silent cinema. But unlike Hazanavicius’ superficial emulation of silent film aesthetics (black and white film stock, square aspect ratio and, um, you know, no sound), Martin Scorsese’s picture better captures the feel of silent movies and, perhaps paradoxically, does a better job of telling its story through images. Like F.W. Murnau, Scorsese knows how to put emotion into camera movement and his swooping, swooning, lyrical crane shots, combined with Dante Ferretti’s superb production design and an intelligent, judicious use of 3-D (i.e., shit isn’t popping out at you every three seconds) make this one of the most purely pleasurable viewing experiences of the past year. Not everything in Hugo works for me. I wasn’t crazy about the tacked on romance between Sasha Baron Cohen’s station inspector and Emily Mortimer’s flower girl. But all of the scenes involving movie watching, movie making and movie preservation are emotionally moving and, let’s face it, a cinephile’s dream. Finally, as a film studies instructor, I’d like to personally thank Scorsese (who I suspect has a real shot at upsetting Hazanavicius for Best Director) for single-handedly making my job easier; when I show A Train Arriving at La Ciotat and A Trip to the Moon in class now, a lot of students already know what the hell I’m talking about. Hugo Rating: 8.2

The Long Shots:

I already wrote a long, joint review of the following two movies when they first opened in Chicago last spring:

The Tree of Life – This doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning Best Picture but Emanuel Lubezki is a lock for Best Cinematography.

Midnight in Paris – Yet another Best Picture contender set in the 1920s? Good to know nostalgia can extend back almost a hundred years! This is actually my favorite film nominated for the top award but it has no chance of winning. Woody Allen fans will have to content themselves with the Best Original Screenplay Award instead.

That reminds me: last year my brother, with his characteristic wit, told me the highlight of the Oscars for him was when Jean-Luc Godard didn’t show up to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award. Will the highlight of this year’s show be Woody again not showing up to collect his fourth Oscar?

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