Going into Sunday night and the Oscars, a number of Oscar bloviators had their pants in a wad about the seeming inevitability of a best-picture win for The Artist.
These, of course, were the same people who bemoaned the victory by The King's Speech as the "safe" choice in 2011. To them, The Artist was cut from the same cloth: unchallenging, feel-good, appealing to the emotions rather than the head. It was the easy, mainstream choice, according to these observers.
Then I happened to pick up the New York Post the day after the Oscars (literally: It was left on the seat of a train I took). The lead paragraph for the Post's Oscar coverage story referred to The Artist as "a silent black-and-white film beloved by cinema snobs."
Cognitive dissonance time.
It's interesting because I had this same conversation with a friend in upstate New York, who lost it when I told him about the Oscar prognosticators who were referring to The Artist as the mainstream choice.
"Mainstream? It's a silent movie in black-and-white," he said in disbelief. "Most of the regular people I know wouldn't see that movie on a bet."
So which is it? Did The Artist win because it was the safe, least-challenging, most-reassuring choice? Was it chosen because it was a nostalgic gimmick? Or was it a plot by that snobby, elitist Academy -- so known for its obeisance to all that is trendy and cutting-edge -- to force the movie-going audience to conform to the demands of critics?
Well, for starters, critics aren't members of the Academy. That's why we have critical groups that give awards of our own -- because the Academy so often gets it wrong. The critical groups don't operate on the same agenda as the Academy. And yet we all gave the award to The Artist.
So why is it considered snobby to like a silent film? Particularly when the film is as entertaining and emotionally compelling as this film by Michel Hazanavicius?
Even for conservatives who seem obsessed with "traditional values," The Artist would seem to be a no-brainer. It is, after all, a nod to our cinematic heritage. All films used to be silent; obviously, it wasn't just snobs who went to see silent films in the first couple of decades of the film business. Yet, somehow, this return to "traditional values" is snobbish.
As for the actual snobs, how much rarer can a film be than to be able to play in any language because, almost exclusively, it works without language? Apparently, that's the problem: If anyone can understand it, if it can reach such a wide audience with the same pleasing result, well, how good can it really be? Because we all know how easy it is to create something that resonates with both audiences and critics.
Yet this is a tough film to actually convince people to go see. There's a built-in resistance to anything new -- or anything old. On the other hand, I don't know anyone who, once they were actually in the theater, didn't enjoy themselves thoroughly. Sure, there are probably a few who don't -- but generally speaking, if they can overcome that initial resistance, they'll be seduced by this film.
Was it the best picture of the year? There are arguments to be made for The Descendants or Moneyball -- or, I suppose, for The Help or The Tree of Life. But The Artist is the one that got the most votes from the Academy -- and it's hardly the travesty of, say, choosing Ordinary People over Raging Bull or Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction and Quiz Show. It's just a contentious victory by one film over several others.
What's amazing is the variety of spins that can be put on the same film -- everything from snob appeal to safe choice. Time to move on.
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