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.