The Artist (2011)

To Steal, or Not to Steal

Reception—a consideration of the differences in how people respond to artworks—is one of the central questions of academic film studies. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) elicited an hysterical response that intrigues me as a film critic. Hopping mad, actress Kim Novak took out a full-page ad in Variety, the Hollywood industry’s main periodical to protest the film’s composer, Ludovic Bource for using Bernard Herrmann’s melancholic score from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) at the climax of the new film. Novak’s interpretation: “I want to report a rape. I feel as if my body—or, at least my body of work—has been violated by the movie, The Artist…. It is morally wrong for the artistry of our industry to use and abuse famous pieces of work to gain attention and applause for other than what they were intended. It is essential to safeguard our special bodies of work for posterity, with their original and individual identities intact.”

Nothing could be further from my response to the film, which is an intertextualist’s dream. In telling the story of George Valentin, a silent film star’s troubled transition to the era of talkies, The Artist constructs its story spine from Singin’ in the Rain, a beloved 1952 classical Hollywood musical with a similar plot, along the way reworking films from The Public Enemy (1931) to Citizen Kane (1941), and ending as a 1930s Astaire-Rogers dance film. The Artist, in short, is the kind of film we should expect in the age of film scholarship, and it delivers upon that promise spectacularly.

If one doubts that great art always exists in dialogue with prior culture, the first stop should be the most canonical, the plays of William Shakespeare. Would it be justified for the descendants of Thomas Kyd (author of the inferior 15th century revenge themed, The Spanish Tragedy) to complain that the Bard violated his memory by writing that derivative work, Hamlet? Of course not: the crucial question is whether the new reworks the old in order to illuminate the world in some meaningful—emotionally moving, intellectually stimulating—way.

Indeed, if anything, we should inform Ms. Novak that she has a surprisingly wider range of targets than merely The Artist. In the past few years, the haunting music from Vertigo has been used to vastly enhance many audiovisual productions. In an extremely odd episode of HBO’s Big Love (“Outer Darkness,” 3/15/2009), the entire Vertigo scene at the carriage house at Mission San Juan Bautista is restaged, shot for shot, attempting to render timeless the banal story of Bill Henrickson’s tribulations as a latter-day polygamist.

My favorite use of Hermann’s Vertigo score occurs in, of all places, a physics documentary. Without warning, in the middle of Supermassive Black Holes, a standard television program about new discoveries in astrophysics (written and produced in 2000 by Zoe Heron for the Discovery Channel and the BBC’s Horizon series), the score from Vertigo plays over CGI graphics depicting a black hole. The moment is uncanny: an explanation of the physical effects of a black hole—the temporal anomalies familiar from Star Trek—is cross-referenced against one of the cinema’s masterpieces investigating the nature of experiential time, Vertigo. Hitchcock’s work is so profoundly imbued with temporal metaphors—about Scotty’s lost love for Madeleine, about the ill-treatment of 19th century Carlotta in old San Francisco—that Chris Marker converted this material into a science-fiction time-travel film, La Jetée (1962).

The use of Hermann’s score has come to signify a mad obsession with time. This proves a fertile frame for reading The Artist. As Valentin wanders the streets alone, he stops in front of a men’s clothier. He looks into the store window at a tuxedo, seeing his reflection in the garment, recalling how dapper he used to look. Not only the soundtrack, but the image, revisits Vertigo, except with a startling gender reversal. In Hitchcock’s film, Scottie (James Stewart) wanders the streets after what he thinks is the tragic death of his beloved, Madeleine. When he finds her doppleganger, Judy (who in a plot twist, is an actress employed by Madeleine’s murderous husband Gavin Elster to portray her for Scottie), Scottie takes her to a clothier to remake her into the image of Madeleine, essentially redoing the work of the diabolical husband, and thus leading us to the conclusion that all male behavior (the husband’s, Scottie’s, Hitchcock’s, ours) centers around control of the woman’s image. The gender reversal in The Artist continues, as Peppy Miller, a young starlet of the talkies, drives around the city desperately searching for George. In Hitchcock’s film it is Scottie who drives around the city following the woman he believes to be Madeleine, but the Hermann score indicates that these drives are more Freudian than Fordian, rehearsing the basic Romantic notion that the travelling away from love is the only kind of movement possible. If Vertigo’s music be the food of melancholic love in 2012 as much as 1958, play on!

– Walter Metz