Thursday, 26 January 2012

Why The Artist Can't Speak

*This blog post contains spoilers!*

The Artist is, as I'm sure you've heard, a charming film; and it's certainly not the most philosophically complicated piece of cinema ever. But there is one thing that's not immediately clear in the film itself: why is it that George Valentin won't speak? It's not that, as in Singing in the Rain, his speaking voice is dreadful; and it's not like Sunset Boulevard where Norma Desmond's dying career seems like something that happened very much against her will. George Valentin is offered roles in the talkies, but he refuses, and it's never really clear why. Half way through the film, as his marriage is falling apart at the same time as his career, his wife confronts him, and says 'Why won't you talk?' It's a clever play on words: he won't talk to her about why he won't talk in the movies. And here's my theory: he won't talk to his wife for the same reason he won't talk in a film, because The Artist is actually a film about changing gender roles, with the shift from silent films to talkies a metaphor for a shift from a world where Men are Men and rule the world to a world where women are in charge and men are emasculated [Note: I don't actually agree with this version of the history of gender politics in the 20th century].

First of all, notice what happens when we shift from silent films to talkies: first, we shift from films headlined by George Valentin to films headlined by Peppy Miller. The specifically gendered nature of that shift just isn't there in films like Singing in the Rain or Sunset Boulevard. And the genre of films shifts too: all of Valentin's films are action films where he does the manly thing and rescues the damsel in distress, with plenty of swashbuckling along the way. Peppy Miller's films, by contrast, are all romantic comedies, that classic women's genre. In one of them, a man proposes to her and she looks shocked as well as pleased, only to wink at the camera over his shoulder - look, she caught him! Those crafty women with their emotional manipulation.

The exception to this rule is Valentin's last silent film, which ends as our hero sinks into the quicksand. The damsel tries to save him, but he won't accept her help: and this, of course, is exactly what happens to Valentin himself. Valentin has already saved Peppy twice: first when she clumsily and publicly embarrasses herself and he saves her by making a joke of the situation; secondly when he intervenes to stop her being fired from her role as an extra in his film. But George Valentin simply will not allow himself to be saved by Peppy: she rescues him after he nearly dies in a fire, offers to save his career, and buys up the things he is forced to sell when his money runs out. It's this last one which nearly proves the final straw for George: when he stumbles on the room with all his old furniture in he is so horrified that he runs off and tries to kill himself again: better suicide than salvation by a woman! Peppy has to come and save him again, and the least satisfying thing about the movie's end is that it's never really clear why all of a sudden he is prepared to accept her help, which has been so unacceptable up till now. They find, at last, a happy compromise between the two genres of film which lets them both be stars: tap dancing! And then the camera pulls away, and you see why the film's thesis about the end of male dominance is so terribly flawed: the studio crew are (still) all men.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Lacan on the Gospels

What is recounted by the four texts described as evangelical not so much because they are good news as good announcers for their sort of news... They write in such a way that there is not a single fact that cannot be contested in them ... but that these texts are nonetheless what go right to the heart of truth, the truth as such, up to and including the fact that I state that one can only half-say it ... In this style of things, you cannot say better than the Gospels. One cannot say the truth any better. That is why they are Gospels.

From Lacan's seminar Encore, as quoted by Cormac Gallagher.