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Is “The Artist” Yet Another Political Allegory for Our Dire Economic Times?

Is "The Artist" Yet Another Political Allegory for Our Dire Economic Times?

In the year that “income inequality” became a household name, is the much beloved new French film (which I find utterly mediocre) “The Artist” just one more movie about our global economic troubles? I’m not sure I entirely buy the argument, but New Yorker critic Richard Brody puts forward an interesting proposition: “The Artist,” he writes, “is a movie of the moment because it’s about unemployment, specifically, about an employee who loses his job due to a technological change for which he’s unequipped.”

For Brody, the story of the silent film star who finds the world passing him by with the coming of sound is in some ways a political-economic allegory. Because, he argues, his capitalistic efforts to forge ahead by starting his own company are doomed to failure. 

“It’s as if [director] Hazanavicius were criticizing the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps-and-start-your-own-business model for escaping from unemployment, as well as the retraining-and-retooling model. The first is doomed to failure, he suggests, because of the lack of capital and the inability to conjure innovation from a hat; the second doesn’t work (the actor’s case is a halcyon romantic exception) because the retrained worker doesn’t usually have the connections to get into the new field. In short, while celebrating the cinematic mythology made in America, he’s debunking the societal myths that they package; he’s infusing styles he loves with his own political DNA.”

I think the theory holds some water, but I also think it suggests a subversive quality to “The Artist” that isn’t really there. It’s not like saying “Tower Heist” or “The Muppet Movie” are anti-capitalist revolutionary manifestoes, because “The Artist” does specifically speak to a moment of technological change and economic upheaval in the entertainment industry. But it doesn’t account for the fact that the pleasures of “The Artist” are fairly simplistic and middlebrow. Or that the film celebrates several very old-fashioned Hollywood myths — like a little heterosexual romance and a musical number can save the day. 

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