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Twice-Told Tales

January 10, 2012 | by

Over the holidays, I go to the movies. This year I saw two of the critically praised releases of the fall, The Artist and Puss in Boots. Both of these films have relatively simple narratives. In The Artist a successful silent-film actor falls out of favor with the advent of the talkies, and a young actress with a crush on him passes him by on her way up the ladder of success. Puss in Boots is a revisionist collage that steals recognizable characters from a variety of literary sources, principally the eponymous seventeenth-century fairy tale by Charles Perrault, and fuses them together. Both of these films cull elements from earlier films and familiar narratives—and both succeed, in part, because of the joy of recognition we get when we see motifs from our collective imagination tweaked in new ways. But the most prominent aspects of each of these films are the technical approaches to their subjects. One is an old-school silent film, and the other uses cutting-edge computer animation, but technology is the star of both, albeit a star that is worked into the fabric of each movie so as not to overpower the performers.

The Artist is a taut, charming, well-told tale, but it is by no means a fresh tale. The young, aspiring actress and the experienced Hollywood man can be found in innumerable Hollywood novels and films: Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913, directed by Mack Sennett and staring Fatty Arbuckle), My Strange Life (book, 1915), Souls for Sale (Rupert Hughes, Howard’s uncle, wrote the book and directed the film), A Star Is Born (1937, 1954, 1976), and Horace McCoy’s damning novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?—not to mention Singing in the Rain. Usually, in these stories, the actress finds out that Hollywood is a shallow place and leaves, seeking something more wholesome back home in the Midwest, or she finds a prince among the Hollywood predators and, with the prince, professional success. In The Artist, the trajectories of the characters follow the pattern from A Star Is Born, but in The Artist, tragedy is averted at the end by the loving actress, who helps the washed-up actor find a new approach to the film business that has left him behind.

Why has he been left behind? Because, like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, he is a performer stuck in the past, when silent films were dominant. (The actor, George Valentine, reminds me of my grandfather, a surgeon and professor who was afraid to use the computerized card catalogue at the library.) Valentine’s tragedy is that his audience has abandoned him for the wonders of new technology. The relatively warmhearted studio head—studio heads, producers, and directors are depicted as heartless cheaters in most Hollywood fictions—played by John Goodman easily dismisses Valentine from his position of prominence because audiences don’t want what he is offering anymore. The irony of the film is that it uses the old-fashioned techniques of silent film to show that Valentine needs to get over his fear and pride and embrace new technology. The idea that Valentine needs to adjust himself to the technology, rather than the technology adjusting to him, is the writing on the wall for every actor, technician, and participant in the film business.

One of the many films out this year that has embraced new technology is Puss in Boots. It’s a 3-D computer-animated film that uses all of its medium’s potential to take the viewer to miraculous worlds and on adventures that couldn’t be captured before, at least not in this way. It uses the Perrault tale but also cannibalizes the stories of Humpty Dumpty (though he is given a rather more dignified middle name, “Humpty Alexander Dumpty”) and Jack and Jill, who here are turned into murderous villains. The Jack and the Beanstalk story is employed as the structuring legend to give the characters a challenge and reminded me of another version of the tale: in 1902, Edwin S. Porter made a Jack and the Beanstalk film that utilized cutting-edge technology—double exposure, animation, trick photography—he had learned from the films of Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès (not coincidentally, a character in Scorsese’s new film, Hugo), whose special effects were so incredible that he was considered a magician. Because of the technology, Porter’s film gave audiences a new kind of experience and breathed new life in a hundred-year-old story. This is exactly what has happened with Puss in Boots and The Artist (although The Artist achieves the same result with the process in reverse: remaking a traditional story with old techniques). In both, well-worn stories are given a new gloss because of the technology involved. You could say that Avatar and James Cameron are now the cinematic game changers that Méliès and his Rocket to the Moon (1902) once were.

But as an actor, I ask, just as The Artist asks, What happens to the performers when the technology advances? Puss in Boots is an adequate answer to the question posed by The Artist: performers are subsumed by the technology. The Artist is a film about an actor who can’t use his voice in film—and Puss in Boots is an animated film that uses only famous performers’ voices (Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris). Animation has been a part of film history almost since its inception, and animation with sound started at almost the same time as live-action talkies, Snow White being one of the first feature-length animated sound films in 1937. But it wasn’t until Aladdin (1992) and then Toy Story (1995) that recognizable actors started voicing animated characters with regularity. The personalities of the performers is now a huge part of the animation process, and as computer-generated technology advances, the images will only begin to look more lifelike. Pretty soon—in fact it’s already happening, just look at Tintin—it won’t just be the voices that actors provide for CG animators; it will be all the aspects of a performance. Maybe in a hundred years someone will make a sequel to The Artist, which will be shot in a retro style with live-action actors, and which will tell the tale of what happened to an actor who didn’t want to transition into the CG-heavy films of the twenty-first century.

13 COMMENTS

11 Comments

  1. Literary Man | January 10, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Keenly observed fork in the road. It seems, though, that the crucial distinction should be made between screen actors and stage actors. Screen Actors have always been represented as simulacra of themselves, whereas stage actors have always been “the real thing.”

    Puss in Boots et al might signify a trend in which performers become famous “only” for their voices, the way that anyone in the 1950s would recognize Bugs Bunny’s voice, but might not know the performer’s name, and most certainly not his face. The human voice, perhaps, is the only thing that technology hasn’t figure out how to replicate yet. If this is true, actors might only have their voices to offer, unless they spend their time on stage.

    RE the technology piece: Hemingway often mentioned how the telegraph influenced his prose style in The Sun Also Rises. Good art evolves and incorporates the technology of the world into its form; good art, after all, often mirrors the world around it, including its technology.

    All in all, these are worthy considerations and an interesting post to get us thinking about them.

  2. Jose Gainza | January 11, 2012 at 1:47 am

    It is a huge theme that James Franco is touching on. I for one have not heard of it: the idea of actors becoming obsolete due to new technology (but I’m not a film student). It’s worth considering. Though Literary Man touches on a good point too: what about stage plays–will they ever become obsolete–if they won’t, then the actor will never. There may very well exist this trend that Franco is alluding to. It’s a good theme to think about.

    Mainly, you may want to read James Franco’s thoughts on Andy Serkis deserving an Academy award nomination for his performance in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He wrote an article on that a few days ago. (Google it). I believe he is actively trying to convince the members of the Academy to nominate Serkis. I think that is more his point in this new (very much welcomed) Paris Review article by James Franco.

  3. Han | January 11, 2012 at 4:26 am

    I feel as if James always has more (MOAR) things he has yet to say. This article, though, leaves me with one overall theme: Technology is both a friend and a foe. Apologies for the cheesiness there, but is it not true? He makes a pretty clear point regarding how technology is used differently in the two films, and how it plays out differently for the audience and the creators. But then again, are they really differences? He touches rather briefly on the distinctions (just scratching the surface), but that’s where we come in (this discussion space here?).

  4. edina | January 11, 2012 at 5:27 am

    Interesting point of view.

    When the first animation appears by Emile Cole in 1907(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efsx51fyZXA)music was recognized as essential, contributing to the atmosphere and giving the audience vital emotional cues, same as in The Artist. Silent film actors emphasized body language and facial expression so that the audience could better understand what an actor was feeling and portraying on screen. In other hand Puss in boots animation uses performers voice to create same emotions. The idea of sound rises with technology in favor of “talking pictures”. In the first comment of this review Literary Man said “Puss in Boots et al might signify a trend in which performers become famous “only” for their voices, the way that anyone in the 1950s would recognize Bugs Bunny’s voice”, I agree. Yes, you are right with that the voice “will be all the aspects of a performance”, same case in Andy Serkis performance characters first “Smeagol” alias Gollum from J.R.R Tolkien epic fantasy novel and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, both of his characters are lifelike. New technology for movies is like a new field of creative opportunity.

  5. sophie | January 11, 2012 at 6:34 am

    In the end I can’t really understand if he likes The Artist or not, it is not clear. I was hoping it to be more enlightful ,so I can see if it’s worth watching it on my own -since I can’t find anyone who would like to accompany me to watch “a silent movie”-

  6. Chris | January 11, 2012 at 9:31 am

    SELMA Hayek? Come on, it’s SALMA!

  7. Tom May | January 11, 2012 at 10:50 am

    We love Eddie Murphy in Shrek because we have loved the visible Eddie Murphy in other films. Or we love the voice whether or not we have ever seen it – in that case we have radio. Either way what succeeds is story (call it narrative if, like Franco, you are erudite and have a critic/scholar’s comfort with the jargon. Narrative is a three-syllable word for story.) That’s all, folks…just story. Endless tweaking of story. The producer/writer of the hugely successful series “The Wire” said he stole “early and often” from the early storytellers Aeschylus, Sophocles, etal. I think this is Franco’s main point, isn’t it? The rest of it seems strained.

  8. Macy | January 11, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    I think that this is especially interesting, as are all of his reviews, because he never shares whether or not he’s a fan of the movies.

  9. Skeptic | January 12, 2012 at 12:01 am

    I think this article draws attention to another interesting juncture in media (aside from the actor/technology tension): the point at which The Paris Review is giving legitimacy to the sophomoric literary and critical efforts of James Franco. Why?

  10. Jimmy M. | January 12, 2012 at 4:58 am

    @Sophie I think it safe to say that he liked The Artist. He’s trying to be objective and fair in his critique of the movies he watches, that’s why he just does not come out and straight up say if he likes a movie or not.

  11. Jimmy M. | January 12, 2012 at 5:14 am

    @Skeptic Why do you think James is sophomoric when it comes to his literary efforts? Wait let me guess you think that because he is an actor and appears in big blockbuster films that he must be written off as a writer. Your logic makes no sense. I’m guessing The Paris Review publishes his articles ,one because he is of course famous and two he is going for his doctorate. He is an aspiring writer and has an M.F.A from Columbia and has published other works as well. There is no denying that an article from James will draw attention, but that’s a good thing for The Paris Review. I bet you hardly ever question the legitimacy of other writers of articles you read on here. Of course people will be skeptical of a celebrity who tries to venture into other fields but to me it seems as if James is taking writing seriously.

2 Pingbacks

  1. […] directed by Van Sant) and written a piece juxtaposing The Descendants with Breaking Dawn. Today, Franco’s latest piece arrived online, and this time he’s using the two movies that he saw over the holidays — The Artist and […]

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