Saturday, February 18, 2012

John Simon on Nostalgia

I have been a long time reader of John Simon, and have admired his criticism for a long time, even when I don't agree with his views. Perhaps I admire him most when I don't agree with his views. It was intriguing to read his take on the film The Artist . He actually found the film "disgraceful," and dismissed it as a silly piece of nostalgia that is inferior in every way to the films it emulates. He doesn't like the fact that the film is in black and white, and he doesn't like the use of Herrmann's love theme Vertigo in the film.

It made me wonder if it's a generational thing. After all, if I want to see a great silent film, I could see Wings, that is if it EVER makes it to the top of our Netflix cue, where we have been waiting for it for well over a year. When people make nostalgic films about the 1970s, the decade when I came "of age," I always find false notes. The fashions of the 1970s were horrible. The fabrics were itchy, nobody understood how to make pants that could fit women's bodies, too many people took drugs, there was too much litter, and the air smelled horrible because of the lead in gasoline. The cars, for the most part, were ugly too. And the hair styles. There was terrible racism and terrible sexism. There was also terrible pretension in art and music. And in film, too.

The nostalgia for people who were coming of age during the 1970s was the culture of the 1950s, mostly as depicted by the television show Happy Days. I remember asking my aunt if it was fun growing up during the 1950s. She told me that it was very boring.

I can accept Simon's dismissal, and could add a criticism or two of my own to his list, but I fear that his fortissimo dislike of the film might have drowned out some of the film's special qualities.

I thought that the use of sound in the film was brilliant, particularly during the dream sequence. I thought that the film was a deliberate comic fantasy, just like most of Hazanavicius' other films (which Simon hasn't seen, but perhaps might enjoy). There is a fine line between nostalgia and parody, and I think Hazanavicius, his actors, his crew, and his properties people walk it gracefully. Hazanavicius evokes Herrmann in another film (one of his OSS-117 movies), and it is also quite appropriate. Herrmann represents a generation of excellent American or naturalized American composers who worked in the film industry and brought the quality of American music up to a world-class standard. One silent message (of this silent movie) is how important well-thought-out and well performed music is for the success of a film.

The musicians' union protested the use of recorded music in films because it would put musicians out of work (and it did, for the most part), but the Hollywood studios also set the standard for recorded film music to become an art form in itself. I believe that is one reason why Hazanavicius used the Vertigo music in this particular film that concerns this particular subject. We have no idea what the music played in theaters sounded like in America during the 1920s and how much or how little it did to enhance the films the musicians accompanied. We can imagine it to have been great, or, in some cases, and in some cities, and in some theaters, it could have been dreadful. It probably sounded better in Russia.

Most of all I'm sorry that Simon missed what I found to be the most poignant film reference of all: homage to the character of Flike in De Sica's 1951 film Umberto D..


Lisa Hirsch said...

GREAT posting, thank you. We saw The Artist last week and were completely charmed by the acting, photography, and score. Oh,a nd the dog.

I am sure you understand it more intelligently than Simon because you know film music better than he does and especially because you know the director's other films (which I'm going to have to look for).

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks Lisa! Make sure to look up De Sica's Films as well.