By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 23, 2011 at 4:22PM
In a serendipitous bit of bookending this week, "The Artist" and "Hugo" both revisit the cinematic past to reclaim the present. Michel Hazanavicius makes a silent ode to Hollywood during the coming of talkies, going very old school with black-and-white and the original Academy aspect ratio, and Martin Scorsese evokes the magical world of Georges Méliès while paying homage to experimental French sound films of the same period as he pushes 3-D to new depths of dynamic immersion with the latest digital tools.
I'll be delving into the bold craftsmanship of each film as part of my expanding below-the-line-coverage this awards season, kicking off with "The Artist," which has not only received critical raves but also strong Oscar buzz. "The Artist" embrace isn't surprising, considering how timeless and timely it is. We can all relate to the bittersweet rise and fall of silent star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), especially in these challenging times. And the "adapt or die" message resonates deeply. Indeed, it's part of a larger cinematic trend that just happens to coincide with the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
But there was no uncertainty on this silent film journey into the heart of Hollywood for this mixed French/American crew. For them, it was a glorious opportunity to return to their filmmaking roots for a simpler and more abstract experience. They reveled in black-and-white and shooting on film in the midst of this digital paradigm shift.
"Michel introduced me to movies that I hadn't been aware of," admits production designer Laurence Bennett, who was in Philadelphia making "The Company You Keep," the political thriller directed by Robert Redford. "We worked together for five months; I was immersed in film through that whole era: Murnau, Lang, Vidor, von Sternberg. The Criterion collection of von Sternberg was especially eye-opening. When I realized he was shooting 'Underworld' on the back lot of Paramount in 1925, and it was the same real estate that we were using for some of the same facades for shooting downtown Los Angeles for 'The Artist,' it was a remarkable opportunity."
Of course, black-and-white posed the biggest artistic challenge, but Bennett and his colleagues quickly adapted to a monochrome world to visually convey Valentin's rise and fall in gradual shades of gray. In fact, cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman (who is currently shooting a movie in Paris) chose to shoot on color stock because today's black-and-white "is too precise, too sharp." "When you only have tonal contrast and pattern and solids for separation and to define planes, it's quite a challenge," Bennett continues. "It was [difficult] going back to basics. Stage sets that we created were part of the 'real world,' and the film sets that they were working in, which we did in black-and-white."
Bennett wanted to get a little closer to the stylistic decisions of various periods. For an early premiere he borrowed heavily from Fritz Lang's "Spies." And later on, after ingénue Peppy (Berenice Bejo) has risen to stardom, she is viewed on a set patterned after MGM's Cedric Gibbons from 1932.
"Michel and I talked a lot about trying to evoke the period with authenticity without being slavish to it," Bennett adds. "We wanted it to be emotionally accurate and the contrasts are great. The house which Peppy lives in when she's successful was Mary Pickford's house for four years. That was one of these magical bits of synchronicity. We found this little house in Freemont Place and the bedroom in which George is convalescing was Mary Pickford's bedroom. It doesn't get any more special than that.
"And when George moves into an apartment in 1931, which we did on stage, it was an opportunity for me to do a distillation of all the things I feel about the Los Angeles architecture of the time. It has a slight Spanish revival aura, and, ironically, the plaster work in all the gorgeous Spanish revival houses in Los Angeles in the '20s was only made possible because the plaster had been imported from Italy to Hollywood to work on the DeMille productions, which is a nice, odd circle."
Bennett says he's never collaborated more closely with a costume designer before. Mark Bridges (who worked most recently on Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master") made sure they were all in monochromatic sync. "I spent weeks pulling stock and clothing from all the wonderful places in Hollywood that rent and buy vintage clothes," he recalls. "And I went with clothes that spoke to me. It's a step-by-step process: a treasure-hunt, a research orgy, and just fun every step of the way because I love the subject matter, I love movies, and doing period."
It helped that the director storyboarded the entire film to chart Valentin's rise and fall. They went very high-contrast when he's on top and then used a medium value when he's reached bottom.
Bridges put Valentin in white tie and tails "to make sure we got a really strong Hollywood royalty feeling for George at the beginning. My personal favorite is the dress I designed for Peppy for her interview in the restaurant when George overhears her talking about silent actors being out of date. I worked with the cutter/draper and turned it into a deco masterpiece that's the showiest that Peppy ever gets in the film."
Obviously music plays a more pivotal role as well for a silent movie. Not surprisingly, composer Ludovic Bource (one of the director's regulars) looked to classical French composers for creative inspiration for his six themes, along with such legendary Hollywood stalwarts as Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Erich Korngold, and Bernard Herrmann.
"Waxman composed with many cycles or loops and then mixed them," Bource suggests, "Herrmann was a great melodist; for Steiner, each musical bar was important; and Korngold's music was like an opera. They were an extension of Europe."
In coming up with the wistful main title theme, Bource listened to the opening strains of Waxman's "Sunset Boulevard" along with Johannes Brahms' "Sapphic Ode."He needed to evoke an innocence, fragility, and dignity with the rise and fall of George and Peppy. He calls it "Like a Dew of Tears."
However, for the stirring climax, he literally lifted Herrmann's famous Wagnerian love theme from Hitchcock's "Vertigo." Hazanavicius used it as a temp track and asked the composer to conjure something similar, but it proved too daunting, so he paid the ultimate homage and it managed to fit perfectly. "I need time to step back and analyze my work," he confesses. "My version of 'Vertigo' is played under the titles. It's called 'My Suicide,' and it's dedicated to the director as a joke."
It seems that coming full-circle is just one of the many intended joys of "The Artist."