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Is It Just Me Or Does The Artist Backlash Seem a Little Half-Hearted?

The annual Oscar race is a process so predictable that it could be a movie formula all of its own. You have your initial race to nominations, with various films falling at certain hurdles, leaving you with a fairly well-spaced field. You have the frontrunner surging ahead, but a dark horse waiting in the wings. And, every year, you have a very eager publicity industry ready to launch a very vehement attack on that frontrunner simply because it has the tenacity of pulling ahead. This year is no different, and The Artist seems to be seeing its share of controversies. However, these seem to be unfolding simply because it’s expected at this point in the race. I can’t help but feel like any of the attacks on The Artist are anything more than half-hearted.

Barking up the wrong tree?

Over the weekend, for example, a story broke. It’s the kind of story that typically breaks as the mailing of ballots approaches. The Hurt Locker came under fire from the U.S. Army and for mailing around a none-too-subtly veiled attack on James Cameron’s Avatar. Slumdog Millionaire was accused of exploiting its child actors. So what did The Artist do to offend the establishment to such a dramatic degree? Star Jean Dujardin had the audacity to appear in a vaguely cheeky poster for his next film, Les Infideles.

The allegation is that the poster, featuring Dujardin holding the legs of a woman up in the air, is sexist or too racy for voters, and this could hurt the chances of The Artist taking home the Best Picture Oscar.  Don’t let the fact that this seems like a storm in a tea cup fool you, nor that fact that the poster is remarkably tame (in comparison to, say, a recent one for Shame). The Oscar race demands controversy! It feeds on it! And so the whole industry seems to have gone into crisis management mode over this one perceived misstep.

Do they have Artist-ic merit?

The posters have since been pulled, but it’s still a big deal. While the posters for the film might not be in the best possible taste, and seem fairly poorly timed for Dujardin himself, it seems like an attempt to make a mountain out a molehill. After all, there were only four complaints made in France, and films like Underworld: Awakening have had their posters banned over there before – posters that would be perfectly acceptable to American audiences, but not acceptable in France because the guns might encourage violence.

It seems to me that this whole thing is a massive over-reaction. Even if you take exception to the posters, it seems absurd to suggest that they have anything to do with Michel Hazanavicius’s frontrunner, save featuring the same actor. Surely some of Owen Wilson’s Hall Pass posters (two married men treating women as sex objects) would be as likely to reflect badly on Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, right?

The press is in Fitz...

I can’t help but feel that the backlash against the Artist is decidedly half-hearted. Every year the nominees come under a large amount of scrutiny, with various commentators and pundits taking rare delight in deeming that certain films are completely undeserving of the award for various moral or aesthetic reasons. The Artist is no exception, witnessing its own rather loud and aggress backlash. What criticisms do these critics offer for rejecting the movie? It’s too light. It’s too entertaining.

Jeffrey Wells, a writer I have a huge amount of respect for, seems dead set against The Artist and outlines his reasons why:

They’re saying that the Motion Picture Academy is very easily impressed and a cinch to win over with “entertainment.” They’re saying that a generally pleasing silver-screen bauble and a really cute yappy dog are a hard-to-beat combination.

I can see Wells’ point, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a valid criticism of a Best Picture frontrunner. The Artist is indeed “light”entertainment, and that’s the appeal of it. It is accessible and easy to enjoy. However, most of the other nominees could also be attacked on those grounds.

The Academy just can't Help themselves...

The Help is a fairly weak exploration of the social climate and racial tensions of the sixties, instead selling a feel-good myth about a white woman speaking up for the poor black house staff – it’s not gutsy or brave or challenging in any way. Midnight in Paris is intentionally and decidedly light-hearted – Woody Allen’s entire point being that there’s a hint of romance in how we relate to the past, but it’s better than cold and dispassionate factual appraisal. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close crafts a feel-good story out of the 9/11 attacks. Hugo is Scorsese’s discourse on cinema, but it’s practically wafer-thin. (And that’s not a bad thing.)

I can’t help but feel that the artistic merit of The Artist might be a bigger issue if the Academy had a history of rewarding “challenging” films ahead of safer choices. This is the same institution that honoured Rocky ahead of All the President’s Men for example, and gave the Best Picture Oscar to Gladiator. That’s not to knock any of those films, but to point out that it’s a bit much to claim that The Artist is “too light” for the Oscars. While I could understand a general appeal for the Academy to embrace broader fare in general (where are the Best Picture nominations for Drive or Shame or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?), it seems a bit disingenuous to say that The Artist is undeserving because it’s like the vast majority of previous winners.

Why Tinker with a working formula?

In fact, this backlash seems to be almost automatic. I can’t help but wonder if the most “challenging” film in the race, Tree of Life, had become the frontrunner, it would be subject to criticism from the other extreme. “It’s too artsy!” pundits would proclaim, and we’d get long articles insisting it was pretentious self-indulgent nonsense. When it comes to awards season, it seems there’s always a press corps that’s ready to declare the frontrunner “too hot” or “too cold”, and it seems to be impossible to find a movie that’s “just right”, so to speak.

Of course, the wonderful thing about the internet is that it allows us to have these sorts of debates and discussions – the notion that none of us are subjected to the tyranny of the majority, and that there’s a place where any opinion can be expressed. Hell, it also helps keep the hype under control. I have no issue with those who don’t like The Artist, and I acknowledge most of their criticisms as reasonable. However, I’m just amused at how much effort seems to be devoted to stirring up a large and vocal “backlash”, to the point where non-issues are being thrown into the arena and treated like news stories.

As the world turns...

I think it might be more interesting to actually discuss the nominees and dig into them, examining those that are worthy of praise and those that aren’t. Rather than trying to generate industry gossip by labelling criticism of the movie as “backlash”, why not actually talk about these criticisms outside the context of a race where they have little bearing? Why can’t we talk about whether those posters are demeaning to women, rather than framing the discussion in terms of the Oscar race? Instead of insinuating that The Artist is unworthy of an award because it’s light entertainment, why not have a discussion about whether it actually lacks substance?

I guess you could call this the “backlash” backlash.

6 Responses

  1. Great article! I have to agree that these all feel like silly complaints against The Artist, and in my opinion, the Dujardin poster is more likely to help than hurt his chances!

    • Cheers, thanks. I actually don’t have a problem with them, and they’re a lot tamer than the poster or DVD cover of any American sex comedy ever.

  2. I think it’s pretty uncool that The Artist is being considered for best picture! It’s good, but when you peer through the artistic novelty & cinema nostalgia it’s a very, very basic movie. All hype!

    Got to love the drama, although like you say, it’s a bit half-hearted this year.

    • Yep, you’d think they could at least invent a proper scandel! I actually forgot to mention the Kim Novak “rape” thing, which was another invented non-scandel involving the film.

  3. Great post and excellent points! If you get a chance, check out the French spy movie made by the Artist’s director and two stars. “Cairo Nest of Spies” is not a great film, but it helps you see the chemistry of this team. There are versions around subtitled in English. I found watching it was fun and enhanced my experience of watching “The Artist” again.

    • Thanks Greer! Yep, I’ve been think about picking up both OSS 117 films on blu ray, if only because they look like fun.

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