Screen Talk: Movies About What Movies Are

In the first of an ongoing series of film reviews and discussions, Rini Cobbey, associate professor of communication arts, offers this initial overview of the recent slate of movies—”My Week With Marilyn,” “The Artist” and “Hugo”—about movies:

By Rini Cobbey

“We could get into trouble,” a young girl tells her companion in Hugo. “That’s how you know it’s an adventure.” How do we know when it’s a movie? Three movies this awards season celebrate and show us what movies are through their movie-focused stories.

My Week With Marilyn (dir. Simon Curtis) follows the eponymous few days a starry-eyed, privileged, young wannabe filmmaker Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) shares with Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams). It’s the mid-1950s and Colin has finagled a job on set for Sir Lawrence Olivier’s (Kenneth Branagh) production of The Prince and the Showgirl. First, through his confident but unobtrusive efficiency, Colin wows Olivier into bringing him along as a production go-fer (fetching him cigarettes and the eternally tardy Hollywood star). Soon, though, Marilyn – newly remarried to Arthur Miller, in turns brooding and bubbly, equally over-medicated and handled – recruits Colin for herself. They share a few days on and off set, being open with each other about their hopes and fears and mutual admiration. He’s young and compassionate, wise and naïve at the same time. She’s jaded, with greater depth of emotion and awareness than layers of gild and fluff allow to surface without stubborn, frustrated provocation.

Michelle Williams’ performance is mesmerizing and committed. Branagh is fun and ironic as Olivier, the prince of cinema’s just-past era. Colin discerns that Olivier’s a great actor who wants to be a film star, while Marilyn’s a film star who wants to be a great actor. The movie, though – the one portrayed within our contemporary meta-film, as well as the one we watch from 50 years on – is missing something. The directing is conventional, neatening up a story that should be messier through pacing and dialogue and structure that somehow cause the passion of the characters to seep out. Movies, in My Week, are characters – bigger than life on screen and off, yet still a little two-dimensional. Filmmaking, in this movie-about-movie-making, is schedules and rules and jobs and procedures. This tension between passion and business makes for a movie as paradoxical as its star. The characters, through lack of compelling action or choices, and even more so through cinematography and pacing which feel painfully static in contrast with their subjects, leave the audience with an uncomfortable sense that we’re never really getting to see the heart of the movie any more than most fans would ever get beyond the batting eyelashes only hinting at passion behind the mask of Marilyn.

The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius) is the favorite to win this year’s Best Picture Oscar. It’s the epic story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent movie star in 1927 facing down the changing tides of cinema with the advent of synched sound. Remaining constant as things change dramatically around him are a one-time-fan-turned-co-star and competitor Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and George’s faithful canine companion. While in My Week With Marilyn, movies are character and business, in The Artist movies are plot and technology. This is a plot-heavy film couched in a technology gimmick. No sooner is one obstacle overcome than another arises as if on cue, so that there’s always something happening as our character pursues his goal of maintaining success and identity. And all this happens in black and white with, for the vast majority of the film, no recorded dialogue.

It’s a fun, sweet sketch that, because it keeps moving and its performances are so physically expressive and endearing, is engaging against the odds. What does a silent, black and white movie have to do with a savvy audience nearly 100 years on? On the one hand, it could be that it celebrates story – characters making choices, encountering obstacles, and valiantly acting on. However, after awhile, it begins to feel like it has as much in common with a loud, CGI-laden modern day action flick as it does a creative, compelling treatment of the human spirit and nuances of society.

The Artist resonates through the universals of the power of changing technology, the cuteness of a dog, and a pair of electric smiles. It is, though, ultimately a gimmick, a committed and for its moments engaging adventure. But, even in the theatre with surround sound and controlled acoustics, outside noise from the theatre next door broke in and overpowered the classical soundtrack. Besides the central artist, George, none of the characters develop beyond caricature, and each new plot point feels like a plot point, something artificially set up to keep the show moving along.

The Artist works in the moment, but doesn’t linger or discern beyond the curiosity and cuteness of its premise. Movies are plot and technology, fun while you’re swept up in the movement.

Hugo (dir. Martin Scorsese) suggests that movies are magic, dreams, and – like Marilyn, characters, like The Artist, as well as movement. A young boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) survives on his own, after the death of his father and uncle. It’s 1931 and Hugo lives in a train station, taking care of the clocks his uncle oversaw until his death. Hugo discovers, through a series of adventures, a powerful past full of invention – movies, automatons, and relationships and stories. He sees his dreams in the middle of the day, and this is what movies allow us to do across time.

The film uses light and smoke beautifully, painting magical surroundings that feel as real in traditional format as in the movie’s available 3D. And, in addition to Scorsese’s expected use of stunning cinematography and set design, the movie also provides the most complete story of these three movies treating movies. This stems mainly from characters with pasts that inform their present struggles, clear purposes, mystery, and complex choices.

Hugo pursues the interwoven goals of finding a key to complete an automaton his father left him, discovering what the old man (Ben Kingsley) in the train station’s toy shop knows and why he’s so bitter, outwitting the station’s strict-but-secretly-romantic security guard (Sacha Baron Cohen), and opening himself to the friendship and adventurous spirit of the old man’s goddaughter (Cloë Grace Moretz). As he does so, the film develops a love story about the history of film. Hugo and his father used to go to the movies together; the old man in the toy store used to make those very movies. As in The Artist, technologies have changed as cinema grows out of its infancy. But what Hugo paints in more depth is a picture of movies as spectacle and movies as powerful players in a complex set of characters’ lives. Like the mechanical man who comes alive enough to write and draw and change the lives of the little boy and girl who turn the key to his heart, Hugo showcases movies as magical, imaginative visual stories that bring fathers and sons together, husbands and wives into creative, collaborative relationships, and dreams into the middle of our days.

These three movies about movies, up for multiple Oscars and other top awards this season, present different pictures of what movies are – character, business, technology, plot, and magic. But one thing they all have in common is that movies are in the past. The closest we get to stories set in our own time is over fifty years away, and this puts cinema itself in the precarious category of nostalgia, an inevitably false memory of golden ages past, a longing for what movies were when we all agreed they mattered. And yet each one also sets its treatment in a moment of tense transition. Could this suggest that our own period’s shift from darkened theater and big screens to mobile devices and chopped-up viewing, from chemical to digital format, might not necessitate the death of cinema’s possibilities? What remains inspirational and powerful in movies will do so through spectacle (whatever the time period allows and demands), and story – characters with complexity making compelling choices.

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