February 26th, 2012

Thinking of the Artist in an Age of Amateurs

Because Skylar's mom is away on a trip right now, watching the Oscars tonight began as a father-daughter affair. She and I had seen a number of the nominees together -- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II, War Horse, Midnight in Paris, and The Artist -- so I thought the experience would be fun. But somehow the absence of our household's resident film critic dampened the mood sufficiently that Skylar had to be prodded to pay attention.

Luckily, I decided to take her over to my parents' apartment halfway through. The combination of their much bigger television and the festive sense of being engaged in a family ritual drew her into the proceedings, about which she then proceeded to perform an at-times-humorous, at-times-passionate commentary that would have made her mother proud. Skylar even picked a film to get mad at for winning, as Kim traditionally does, Martin Scorsese's Hugo, which she refused to see with us despite the excellent reviews it received.

It was pretty exciting to witness Skylar rooting for Midnight in Paris to win for best screenplay and then see her delight when it won. I'm not the biggest Woody Allen fan, but that film was great fun to see with her. More importantly, he's an excellent role model for someone of her abilities, since she's good at so many different kinds of artistic expression and doesn't want to have to choose to develop one talent at the expense of others. Something clicked for her tonight. She now realizes that she could go into the film industry and be a "creative." As much as I was thrilled by this newly kindled desire on her part, though, I couldn't help but wonder whether the industry as we know it will still exist when it's time for her to try to make a career for herself.

I missed watching The Oscars last year with family, because I was on my way out of Los Angeles after the Pop Conference. I did get to hear and see some of the show at a cozy old-school Mexican restaurant on Melrose and had the surreal experience of watching the "Best Picture" award given out inside the booth at a gas station with the station attendant, an Iraqi immigrant, who was as excited to see who won as I was. Being in the city for Oscar week, I realized how important the show is, not only for the many people who work in the movie industry itself, but all those who benefit economically from its presence.

L.A., especially the portion west of the 5 and north of the 10, is very much a company town. That's why it makes total sense that The Artist took home the major awards, despite being a smallish, mostly silent film made by a bunch of French people. As someone said during the Academy Awards, it was the only one of the nine "Best Picture" nominees made entirely in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. In my piece for Souciant from a few weeks ago, I argue that it's the perfect film for Hollywood to celebrate at a time of massive crisis, one that may ultimately turn out to be even bigger than the passage to sound film or the rise of television:
The “creatives” traditionally employed by Hollywood are in danger of losing their livelihoods. It isn’t just that digital distribution and the piracy it enables are having an adverse effect on the industry’s revenue stream, one that is sure to increase over time. It’s that a sizeable portion of the viewing public, particularly young people, no longer feel the need for their spectacles to look spectacular.

This explains why Hollywood has been investing so heavily in 3-D and other technologies meant to make films more impressive, just as it did with Cinemascope and high-fidelity sound in the 1950s, when television was starting to siphon off market share. But the attempt seems more than a little desperate. When even “grown-up” character-driven dramas are being released in 3-D or, more tellingly, re-released in that format, it is clear that the industry is flailing about in a desperate bid for survival.

The Artist is the perfect tale for this “end time” mentality, because it shows us both how a professional is undone by the desire for novelty, and how his career is reborn. To be sure, the conclusion of the film, in which George Valentin gets to star alongside his onetime protégé Peppy Miller, ends ambiguously. We don’t learn whether audiences respond to the humbled star’s return to the screen. But we do at least perceive that he has survived the worst of his depression and the Depression it mirrors.
In other words, The Artist uses its historical setting to allow present-day creatives to come to terms with the crisis they face, while providing them the prospect of a happy ending that is hard to visualize given the trends the industry is facing.

In a world where amateurs desperate to do something that doesn't feel alienating take advantage of technological advances to turn out more and more content for potential public consumption, the professional artist who wants to get paid a decent wage for her or his creative labor is in grave danger of becoming expendable. Even though the Walter Benjamin-style Marxian thinker in me sees the reasons why we should embrace this state of affairs, I care too much about the actually existing artists of today and tomorrow, particularly my daughter, to celebrate the demise of professionalism in another media industry.