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Immersed in Movies: Oscar's Retro Vibe, from 'The Artist,' 'Hugo' and 'Midnight in Paris' to Animated Shorts

Thompson on Hollywood By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood February 24, 2012 at 1:13PM

I've been having a continuing conversation with William Joyce about this year's retro vibe among the Oscar contenders. How else do you explain the similarities between his animated short, "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore," and "Hugo" and "The Artist"?
The Fantastic Flying Book of Mr. Morris Lessmore
The Fantastic Flying Book of Mr. Morris Lessmore

I've been having a continuing conversation with William Joyce about this year's retro vibe among the Oscar contenders. How else do you explain the similarities between his animated short, "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore," and "Hugo" and "The Artist"? But he contends that it's more than simply rediscovering our cinematic roots: we're looking back to move forward in a more meaningful and nourishing way. Joyce now moves freely between books and apps and shorts. But in the end, it's not about the technology you use or how you experience the story; it's about understanding the past, capturing the imagination, and reinvigorating the storytelling experience, especially for a generation that's visually attentive but cinematically sub-literate.

"They did the Méliès stuff so beautifully [in 'Hugo']," Joyce suggests, "and that's when I realized that we were on the same wavelength in revering the past and revering the filmmaking of the past with using miniatures and the Fleischer brothers and the way they did their miniature work on their Popeye cartoons.

Dujardin & Bejo in "The Artist"
Dujardin & Bejo in "The Artist"

"There's something pure and innocent and hand-crafted about that that seems so direct and strong. It's just so strange how it's all come together this same year. And then The Artist comes out of nowhere. When I saw it -- [my partner] Brandon [Oldenburg] and I had studied the silent films when working on 'Morris' so intensely and really learned the language of the pantomime and the camera setups and all that stuff. And, my god, these guys have absorbed all the same stuff and it just felt strange like the zeitgeist had this undercurrent for everybody."

"And for both 'Hugo' and 'The Artist,' I thought they totally tapped into the thing that made them brilliant and emotional to begin with. And so form became function in a way, but it was completely true to the storytelling experience and that's rare. And it amplified the content. I think shot for shot, The Artist is probably the most thoroughly thought-out film I've seen in a really long time."


At the same time, Grant Orchard's animated short "A Morning Stroll" taps into this retro vibe as well. His inspired triptych is an ode to the durability of the old tale about the chicken that crossed the road. And he infuses it with the stuff of urban legend. The 1959 character looks, the 2009 character records, and the 2059 character roams aimlessly as a zombie.

"I don't hear many urban myths these days, or jokes," Orchard laments. "Usually someone has seen something funny as opposed to heard something funny. So if you're at a pub people will be watching stuff on their mobile phones that make them laugh. I like urban myths; they're like fairy tales for adults. They're compelling and funny and you're never too sure whether to believe them or not.

Midnight in Paris
Midnight in Paris

"Early animation pioneer Emile Cohl inspired the first section. I wanted it to be really simple but charming. In fact the whole idea was to make the visuals more sophisticated as the story went on, while the narrative and the suggested intellectual weight of the piece became less sophisticated. It became about the chicken and its routine being the one constant in an ever-changing city. The chicken was the ultimate survivor -- so in 2059 we just had to find the most challenging environment for it to be placed in."

Then there's "Midnight in Paris," and how Woody Allen nostalgically transports us back in time to a more glam and romantic City of Lights yet all the while cautions us against being nostalgic. But, ironically, it's his most commercially successful film to date, leaving us with a longing for Woody at his best.

But getting back to "Morris Lessmore," "Hugo, and "The Artist," perhaps their greatest legacy will be their educational value in inspiring the next generation of storytellers. This certainly took "Hugo's" visual effects supervisor Rob Legato by surprise.

"I was talking recently with someone who brought their six-year-old and he said that when his son got home he got on the internet and researched all the movies that were referenced in the movie and now has a greater appreciation for Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin," Legato relates. "And it opened the window to the past for someone to enjoy as it was enjoyed back then in the day. And I thought that's a wonderful by-product of what we did, which is: revere the people who came before us for their talent and originality and expose it once again to a new generation. And the kids who saw this movie really enjoyed watching the films of Méliès in the middle of this film: the imagination, the painted backdrops, the colorful costumes, and the outlandish action. They had never seen anything like it before and just responded to the pure imagination, which was very heartening. I'm not sure I would've predicted that, but they did."

Something to think about Sunday night…

This article is related to: Oscars, Awards, Animation

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.