Two very good films about the sadness of faded glory and the coming of a new era.
Of course, other than that, they have absolutely nothing in common.
- Michel Hazanavicius' exceptionally sweet The Artist aims not for a serious history of the frequently tragic consequences of the sound era for many actors' careers, but for a warm fable in the mode of a bubbly early comedy. As Peter Travers has already pointed out, the film's plot is "A Star is Born blended with Singin' in the Rain"--viewers will have a fun time spotting the allusions--and one might take it as either a comic version of the former (the old star gets a revamp and lives happily ever after!) or a dark one of the latter (what would really happen to Lina Lamont?). (The finale, though, I think is more of a shout-out to Fred Astaire's and Eleanor Powell's "Beguin the Beguine.") Our hero, George Valentin, must learn about the sin of "pride" and the power of unconditional love--that last embodied in the odd triumvirate of the appropriately-named Peppy Miller, who supplants him as box-office star; his devoted chauffeur, Clifton; and his wonder dog, a Jack Russell known as, well, the Dog. George, who spends his career churning out one action picture after another, is not actually done in by the new sound technology, but by his own refusal to speak--something referenced both comically and not-so-comically in otherwise unrelated dialogue. ("Why won't you talk?" wails his desperate wife.) The fault lies not in the new regime, but in an old star's unwillingness to change his marketing strategy. Peppy, by contrast, immediately embraces both the novelty and the new performance techniques it enables (the ones we're watching on the screen, as it happens). In fact, the film is joyously in favor of commercial art: George does action films, Peppy makes her mark as a sprightly comedienne, and the whole thing comes to a crescendo with the rise of the musical comedy film. Even when George sets out to make his "great" silent film, he's still doing his usual shtick. Despite the deliberately pretentious title, then, the film doesn't retread the usual high art/pop culture war narrative beloved of many filmmakers. (Of course, many viewers will be seeing this film in an arthouse cinema...) The Artist may suggest that the studio system can be incredibly cruel, but in the end, the system still supplies some awfully good escapism.
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is absorbing, but definitely not peppy. As an adaptation, it does not aim for the near-transcription-level fidelity of the Alec Guinness miniseries: events are moved around with a free hand, somebody dies who shouldn't (although, since the filmmakers are apparently adopting the miniseries route and jumping straight to Smiley's People for a sequel, it doesn't much matter), one character's sexual orientation has been altered, and so forth. I mentioned a couple of months ago that Le Carre's Smiley reminded me of Chesterton's Father Brown, but that's certainly not the vibe one gets from Gary Oldman, who is both edgier (in more ways than one--he's about half of Smiley's expected weight) and icier than either the original or Guinness' version. Unlike the novel, which consists almost entirely of Smiley retracing Control's steps through the documents, the film primarily emphasizes people looking. In particular, it frames scene after scene through windows. We see the action or look into the Circus through a window; characters spy on each other through windows; Smiley looks out a window and sees his wife having sex (possibly a tip of the hat to the second novel, in which something similar happens); little Bill Roach watches Prideaux through his caravan window. Etc. The windows simultaneously reveal (because we see the action) and conceal (because the characters frequently can't hear anything); the glass may be transparent, but it remains a barrier. This suggests the open-yet-distanced relationships amongst everyone in the Circus, as they're all "visible" to one another, yet permanently shut off. Of the film's changes to the novel, the only one I found troubling was Smiley's stunt with Toby Esterhase, which would make sense in the third novel (when Smiley effectively turns into his opposite number) but is out of place character-wise here. However, the film captures the novel's glum diagnosis of Cold War British malaise very well indeed, twisting the knife even further when Smiley makes it clear that British intelligence is not important--the entire stunt is to get access to the Americans. What's a superpower to do when it stops being super?