I don’t have much to say about The Artist, probably because my ride to the theater was much more interesting than the film itself.
Warned by my aunt not to take my bike into the city, due to predictions of rain, I nevertheless did it anyway, and got caught in the storm that descended over New York just as I was departing for the movie. From the depths of Little Italy, where I was visiting with Shark in his apartment, I rode over the Manhattan bridge to BAM in Brooklyn, buffeted by wind and rain.
I braved two storms at once. The first meterological, and the second a swarm of tourists who have flocked to the worst Italian restaurants in all of New York, to eat chicken parmigiana made out of rubbery cheese and cannoli’s de-frosting in glass cases on the sidewalks of Mulberry Street. They believe they are getting a real taste of the city. Of course, they are not, but if I were a tourist visiting New York for the first time, I have been right there with them.
I was decked out in Shark’s Antarctica rain suit. A silk black tank top tucked into lightweight waterproof pants. A stained pink J. Crew cashmere sweater. A pair of jeans, and my running shoes. On top of it all, a parka with a zippered pocket in the front. I laced my white Molami headphones underneath my coat, and put my new Versace Parfum bag, which I got for free at an event, in a garbage bag. I turned on Windsor For The Derby’s “Melody For a Fallen Tree,” and set off, my bike creaking, down Canal Street towards the bridge. After I had dangerously negotiated the traffic right before the entrance, I stood up, pedaling slower than I could walk, up the sharp incline that leads to the height of the bridge. The wind whipped me sideways, but it did not topple me over.
Five minutes later, after I had breached the land below, I found myself suspended over open water. I passed a Chinese man wearing a yellow poncho. A man, rain dripping off of the helm of his bike helmet, passed me. The city looked just as breathless as it always does, in any weather. To my right, the expanse of the Brooklyn Bridge stood solid in the rain. I won’t lie, I had a glass of wine at lunch. I was a little tipsy, and the tipsiness made me delightfully melancholy.
I took the slope downward slowly, afraid that I wouldn’t be able to stop if I rested my knee against the frame and free-falled down into Brooklyn, as I usually do. When I dismounted, “Melody For a Fallen Tree” became “Forever My Friend” by Ray LaMontagne. “Fuck you,” I said to my iPod. I would have disciplined it right there, on the street, but I couldn’t take it out of my pocket, for fear that it would drown in the rain.
By the time I reached BAM, at a distance through projects and parks, my tippsiness had faded. I parked my bike at a stand, and went inside to meet my friend, Back of House. I was 10 minutes late. I was soaking wet. She didn’t recognize me. “Hello,” I said to her, sitting on a banquette, looking pretty in her red lipstick and fashionable wellies. “Oh, wow,” she said to me.
(This photograph of us was taken, post-3-bottles-of-Sancerre, plus-Caleb, later in the evening.)
After I had stripped of my outerwear, right there in the lobby, we bought our tickets, and made our way to the theater. It was crowded with idle New Yorkers on holiday. “Let’s just hop over the seats in the back,” I said, as I threw my bag over the top row of the stadium seating. “You’re adventurous today,” she noted. To the left of where we planted, there was no one seated. In other words, we could have easily sat down like normal people.
The movie began. It was beautifully shot, and silent. It was about George Valentin, a silent film star, who is part Rudolph Valentino, part Errol Flynn, and entirely charming. He has quite a stylized moustache. He is a dream. The actor who plays him is fantastic.
At the height of his career, he stumbles (literally) upon a true fan, who breaks the police barricade on the red carpet, and falls into his arms. She is Peppy Miller, played by Berenice Bejo, and she is an aspiring actor. She doesn’t look a thing like a starlet from the 1920s, and that irked me. Nevertheless, she is beautiful.
After their chance meeting, which makes front page news in Variety, Peppy gets cast in one of George Valentin’s films, as a dancer. He catches sight of her legs tapping behind a screen, and falls in love. They have a scene together, and the chemistry between them in palpable. You can see it in the way George holds Peppy close. You can see it in the way that she presses her body against his tuxedo.
Peppy is kind of a psycho. After the filming wraps, she sneaks into George Valentin’s room, and puts one arm in his suit jacket. With it, she caresses herself, as if they are dancing together. “Thank you,” she writes on his mirror before he catches her. And then she disappears.
But not entirely. For as George Valentin takes a dive into obscurity, with the arrival of talkie films, Peppy Miller becomes a star.
Penniless and desperate after his fall from grace, George Valentin is kicked out of his mansion by his wife. He moves into a studio apartment in a bungalow, with a murphy bed, his loyal dog Uggy, and his chauffeur, Clifton.
He tries to produce his own silent movie, but it is an epic failure. He takes to the drink.
All the while, Peppy is becoming the Greta Garbo of Hollywood. Or the Jean Harlow, or Carole Lombard, without any of their gamine, back lit beauty. She never forgets George Valentin, however. For after that one dance scene at the height of his glory, she became his stalker for life.
The movie progresses on as you would imagine. Valentin falls to the brink of suicide. Peppy Miller tries to save him. The swan dive, and then the redemption. I don’t have to lay it out for you. If you put your mind to it, you can figure out what happens.
Everyone is loving this movie, because it is very good. But it’s not great.
The whole thing is a love song to the great films of the late 1920s, but it is kitschy, and rote. It’s been done before, and it’s been done better.
In my opinion, the only way to do silent films these days is if they are animated, a lá The Triplets of Belleville, or even better, The Illusionist.
I bet you’ll see it, and you’ll love it. But I was never teary eyed. I went to the bathroom once, which mean that I was medium-level interested. When it finished, I clapped, and then together with Back of the House, went back out into the rain.
There, I discovered I hadn’t locked up my bike. The lock was sitting in my basket. The plastic bag I had used to cover my bike seat was askew. Someone might have tried to steal it. But I would bet that the bag had shifted because it was laden with the heavy rain.
To leave your bike blatantly unlocked in Brooklyn, and then not have it stolen is a miracle. I won’t remember The Artist, but I’ll remember yesterday afternoon forever, for the small blessing bestowed on me and my bike, which is my lifeblood, the joy of my every day.