Making Art from the History of Art

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Hollywood has a way of both following trends and creating them. We can see these trends develop whenever we look back at the course of a Hollywood year. Filmmaking is now nearly a hundred years old, and while its beginning is not specific enough to generate any "100th anniversary" hoopla, several films this year looked back at the groundbreaking artistry of filmmaking that we often take for granted. These high-quality movies have worked on two levels — as entertaining stories that stand on their own, and as tributes to filmmaking itself.

Let's look at some of these stylish 2011 films that are still making news at the awards shows in 2012.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (directed by Thomas Alfredson; Studio Canal, 127 minutes)

John Le Carre's novels about the Cold War era are among the finest spy thrillers. His recurring espionage agent, George Smiley, is not a caricatured James Bond or a rough-and-tumble Jason Bourne. He demonstrates the true complexity and moral conflict of a man who protects his country and her way of life by infiltrating and often breaking the laws of another. He is a man who lives a life of quiet isolation. Gary Oldman plays him brilliantly in this version.

When I saw that Tinker Tailor was being remade, my first reaction was "Why now?" The Cold War has been over for a long time. Countries that once made up the Soviet bloc are no longer our enemies, and the political and economic philosophies that separated us then don't inform the conflict we now experience in the Middle East. Agent Smiley "came in from the Cold" a long time ago, and for good reason. I wondered whether this story about a mole in the upper leadership of MI6 would be updated or modified to offer a fresh look at current moral dilemmas.

The answer to "Why now?" surprised me. Tinker Tailor isn't just a remake of a spy thriller. It is a remake of a ’70s film, and another offering in this season's retro moviemaking trend. More than a movie about the ’70s, it is a movie made like a ’70s film. Filmed in Super 16mm, which was used for filming television shows and some movies during that time, Tinker Tailor has the grainy texture of a Bullitt or a French Connection, two films that represent the era. The direction is slow, and the pacing even slower — as in those films, which we once considered so tense and exciting.

Everything about this film makes it feel like a reissue rather than a remake. Its old-school communication equipment, Wang word processors, shaggy hairstyles, and polyester clothing feel natural and unobtrusive rather than recreations designed for retro effect. It was reported that Oldman searched diligently through several vintage shops to find just the right eyeglasses for Smiley to wear. Even the outdoor scenes of London have the grimy, dusty look of the ’70s, before London was scrubbed clean and white in the ’80s and kept that way through better emissions controls.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy isn't as thrilling as the Bourne movies or as campy as the Bond films. But it is an impressive tribute to the books and films of the ’60s and ’70s, with an impressive cast of A-list actors as well.

My Week with Marilyn (directed by Simon Curtis; Weinstein Co., 99 minutes)

Here is another 2011 film that celebrates the art of filmmaking. Anyone interested in the behind-the-scenes aspect of the movies will enjoy this one about the making of The Prince and The Show Girl (1957) as seen through the eyes of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a young aspiring filmmaker who worked on the production despite the disapproval of his aristocratic family.

In 1956 Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) was the biggest star in Hollywood, if not the world. Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) was the greatest Shakespearean stage actor. They came together that summer to make The Prince and the Show Girl, starring and directed by Olivier. Through sheer will and determination (and the good fortune of having met the Oliviers at a society party), Clark secured a job on the film, as third assistant director — little more than a go-fer, really. Nevertheless, Clark caught Monroe's eye and became her boy-toy for a week, in every sense of the phrase. And Clark kept a journal.

It was not an easy shoot. Monroe was constantly late to the set, constantly muffing her lines, and constantly close to tears. She brought her own acting coach with her, Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) of the method school of acting, and this created conflict with Olivier as the actual director of the film. As Clark tells Marilyn when he tries to comfort her after one of Olivier’s biting criticisms, "It's agony because he's a great actor who wants to be a film star, and you're a film star who wants to be a great actress. This film won't help either of you."

Kenneth Branagh, who plays Olivier in this film, has similar aspirations for mixing media. Perhaps the greatest Shakespearean actor today, or at least the best known, Branagh's goal has been to move Shakespeare from the stage to film, where the bard's plays will be more accessible to the masses. He has succeeded by bringing seven of them to the screen. His Iago in Othello (1996), with Lawrence Fishburne in the title role, is a masterpiece. Nevertheless, I had my doubts when I saw Branagh enter this film as Olivier. He just didn't look the part. But there comes a moment, as he is applying his makeup for the coming scene as the Prince, when his entire countenance changes and Olivier takes over the body they are sharing. At that moment Branagh simply disappears into the role. Remarkable.

Equally good is Dame Judi Dench as the gracious and gentle Dame Sybil Thorndike, grand dame of British stage and film in the first half of the 20th century, the actress who played the Queen Dowager in The Prince and the Show Girl. Where Olivier is critical, Thorndike is encouraging. When he reacts with exasperation to Marilyn's repeated flubs, Dame Sybil kindly praises her. She greets all the people on the crew by name and expresses genuine interest in them. Dench, the new grand dame of British film and stage, met Thorndike when she was new to acting. She said, "She came round to see us after [our presentation of Romeo and Juliet] and was so charming. We were young actors and she was lovely to us and strongly encouraging and gentle. I think they got very, very close to how Dame Sybil was in the script."

The best art and poetry can evoke an entire life in a single moment. This is the case with My Week with Marilyn. Through her affair with Clark we learn about the memories of childhood abandonment that led to Monroe' lifelong insecurity and vulnerability. We see her fears about not measuring up as an actress, her dependence on pills, and her anxiety about being alone. We see how frustrating it was to work with her, and how hard it was for her to live up to being the idolized Marilyn. And we see the magic she created on film when she felt good about herself. It’s one of the best bio-flicks I’ve seen in a long time.

Clark predicted that making The Prince and the Show Girl would not help either of the principals’ careers. But he was wrong. Olivier's next project was The Entertainer, his memorable film about Archie Rice, an aging vaudevillian actor. He received numerous accolades for the stage production and was nominated for an Oscar when the play was adapted for film in 1960. He said of that role, "I am Archie Rice. I am not Hamlet."

And Marilyn Monroe? Her next film was Some Like It Hot.

Hugo (directed by Martin Scorsese; Paramount, 126 minutes)

This film is about a young boy who lives inside a Paris train station, fixing the clocks. It appears at its outset to be a charming fantasy. Populated by cartoonish characters and centered on an impossible premise, it simply can't be true. But underneath the magic tricks of fiction is the true story of George Méliès, one of the early pioneers of filmmaking. More than a hundred years ago, Méliès developed stop-action animation techniques to create special effects. He hand painted individual cels to make color, and experimented with multiple exposures and time-lapse photography. You have probably seen snippets of his famous A Trip to the Moon, in which the man-in-the-moon is shot in the eye during a rocket ship's landing. You probably haven't seen many of his other films, because the French government confiscated most of his works during the Great War and melted the celluloid down to make boot heels for the soldiers. At the time, filmmaking was considered a timewasting entertainment. No one realized the great historical and artistic value of Méliès's work. And as far as Méliès himself knew, everything was gone.

Later, friends of Méliès set him up with a toy shop in the Montparnasse train station so that he could earn a living. Later still, a few copies of his works were recovered by journalists interested in his story. Eventually he was awarded the Legion of Honor for his work. All of this, as well as many of his groundbreaking film techniques, appear in Scorsese's marvelous film. The movie may purport to be about a fictional little boy who fixes clocks in the Paris train station, but it is no “kids’ flick.” It is one of the most satisfying films of the season.

The Artist (directed by Michael Hazanavicius; Warner Brothers, 100 minutes)

Perhaps the most significant film in this category is The Artist, which won the Golden Globe for best picture this week. It was reviewed for Liberty by Gary Jason, but it is worth mentioning again from the perspective of its tribute to the art of filmmaking itself.

The technology necessary to record sound was available to filmmakers from the very beginning; after all, Edison invented the phonograph before he invented the motion-picture camera. What these early filmmakers lacked was the ability to synchronize sound with action. So movies remained silent, substituting music to complement the action and enhance emotion on the screen. In New York, full orchestras provided that music in ornate theaters for audiences of more than 5,000 people. Small-town theaters employed organists to play the soundtrack. Actors used body language, facial expressions, and outright pantomime to communicate conflict and exposition. Obviously, complex story lines heavy with dialogue were close to impossible. Emotion and physical comedy dominated.

The Artist is a silent movie whose story is set in 1927–32, when the stock market wasn't the only thing that crashed. Silent films also came tumbling down as the problem with synchronization was resolved and talkies took over. Like the marvelous Gene Kelley-Debbie Reynolds-Donald O'Connor musical Singin' in the Rain (1952), set in the same era, The Artist follows the careers of a handsome silent film star and a bubbly young ingénue whom he has discovered — in this case George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and the aptly named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). George is the quintessential ’30s film star with his pencil thin mustache and dazzling smile. But he refuses to make the transition to talkies.

Without the dialogue and complex storyline that characterize modern filmmaking, director Hazavanicius invites the audience to focus on the rich artistry of early filmmaking — the lighting, the use of shadows and reflections, the camera angles, the elegant costumes, and the stylized sets, among other features. Silent films are often parodied for their actors' broad pantomime and "mugging" for the camera, but this criticism is deftly contradicted by the emotional range portrayed by these actors' facial expressions and body language. Yes, there was some serious overacting in early films, but The Artist reminds us that there were astounding subtlety and depth as well.

The Artist really is a silent movie; with two very short but very important exceptions, the only sound you will hear is music. The soundtrack is splendid, and even includes a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock — a long section of Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack from Vertigo at the emotional climax of the film. So be prepared, but don't let this fact keep you away from the film. It is, as its title suggests, a work of art.

Super 8 (directed by J.J. Abrams; Paramount, 112 minutes)

Super 8 rounds out the list of 2011 tributes to filmmaking with a summer blockbuster paean to both filmmaking and filmmakers. As I wrote in my June 14 review: "Super 8 is the best Steven Spielberg movie to come along in years. And it isn't even a Spielberg film."

Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, it is the most Spielbergian film to come along in many years, a veritable homage to the master of blockbuster films inhabited by preadolescent protagonists. Among the Spielberg effects that Abrams incorporates in this science-fiction coming-of-age thriller are the trademark bicycles spinning into getaway mode, the classic suburban settings, the snappy potty-mouthed dialogue among kids, and the Orwellian military bad guys, reminiscent of E.T. Best of all, Abrams employs the particular kind of coming-of-age storyline for which Spielberg is known. Yes, there's a monster out there, but the real monster is at home, in the form of an unnamed tension between parent and child that has to be resolved.

Super 8 is an homage in a different way as well. Setting aside the aliens that are attacking the city (and that might be hard to set aside in real life) is a classic “let’s put on a show” format that would have made Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland feel right at home. In movies like theirs, groups of kids were always transforming a barn into a stage in order to raise money for some worthy cause. The format gave the filmmakers an excuse to present rousing music-and-dance numbers that had nothing to do with the plot.

In Super 8, Riley (Charlie Griffiths) is trying to make a film for a teen film festival. In the spirit of Judy and Mickey, he enlists all his friends to act as makeup artists, sound technicians, camera operators, actors, and writers. And in the spirit of this article about retro themes, they do it with a vintage Super 8 camera, the kind we used to use to film three minutes of family activities before sending the cartridge out to be developed. Many of today’s directors got their start with the family Super 8, including Spielberg, on whom Riley's character is based. Spielberg won a prize at a teen film festival when he was 13. Moreover, his first Super 8 film culminated in a train wreck created by his Lionel model trains, just as Super 8 does.

Like all the films highlighted in this article, Super 8 stands on its own as a well-made, entertaining movie. But these films become even more enjoyable when one recognizes the allusions they make and understands the background of the filmmakers they honor. As we pass the hundredth year of motion pictures, universities are legitimizing the art with degrees that focus on the history of filmmaking, not just on the technical aspects of making a film. I think this trend will continue to influence the quality of filmmaking, especially in works by independent filmmakers — and the influence will be all to the good.

(directed by Thomas Alfredson; Studio Canal, 127 minutes)Clark predicted that making

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