The Artist or The Sad Arse?

My grandmother recently asked me how my boyfriend was. I replied with something inane about how he was fine but a bit dissatisfied with his job and was looking for something else. ‘Well,’ she responded, knowingly, ‘it must be difficult for him, you being so successful.’ I was taken aback. Apart from anything else, I can hardly be described as successful. I have a part-time job in administration in an industry in which I have no intention of building a career. So far, so stellar! My boyfriend, by contrast, at least has a full-time job, a nice salary, and he’s working with computers, which he loves.

What my grandmother means is that, not relishing my job-market prospects, I’m thinking of going on to further study, and when I’m finished I may well have a few more letters after my name than my boyfriend. Now, while I forgive my grandmother her misplaced pride – and who doesn’t want their grandparents to think they’re successful, it makes Christmas so much easier – I’m fearful that this issue of success inequality - fine for a man to be better qualified than his partner, but expect some strife if the woman advances too far - is not just a figment of my grandmother’s 1926-vintage imagination, but something we still all blindly accept might be ‘a difficult thing for a man.’

What am I basing this fear on? Well, nothing scientific, I’m afraid. It’s just an idea that’s come to me more and more strongly in the recent furore surrounding the marvellous, prize-winning, new SILENT film, The Artist. Now, I’m quite a fan of silent films. There’s something about their intense ‘visuality’, their pace – no static shots of drawing room exchanges – and the need to keep up and work things out; ‘Do you think she kissed or killed him?’ you can ask your fellow viewers, without that excruciating fear of talking over any dialogue.

The Artist was beautiful. It was visual. It had pace. It didn’t, however, have much in the way of, well, intelligence: the plot is so sickeningly linear it insults its audience, unavoidably implying that in the age of the talkies, we can no longer handle complexity in a film without dialogue.

And what has really bothered me, more than any of those other things, is everyone’s casual acceptance of the leading man’s fatal flaw - his overwhelming Male Pride. 

Peter Bradshaw for the Guardian says: ‘It is an utterly beguiling love story and a miracle of entertainment, which unexpectedly says a good deal about male pride and emotional literacy.’ What does it say about male pride, Peter? That it’s really incredibly stupid to stop work and drink your life away because you were wrong about talkies being a passing fad, and that the actress you helped on her way to fame is now more successful than you? From the gushing tone of the rest of the article about this being the ‘first time I have actually wept tears of joy’ during the final scenes, I just don’t think so. Other reviewers have been equally blown away by the film’s ‘dazzling tale of love and loss’ (Philip French, Observer), that inspires ‘the most heart-swellingly joyful’ feeling (Robbie Collin, Telegraph). I haven’t read The Times and The Sunday Times reviews because they’re so much better than everyone else’s you have to pay to read them, but from the summaries they seem also to be exclaiming about ‘pure, unadulterated joy’. And that’s just a small selection.

No one seems to have noticed that there is something decidedly impure, something positively warped in a ‘love’ that means George Valentin spends most of the film making Peppy Miller feel bad about her own success. In the visually striking, metaphorical Staircase Scene, when Peppy and George meet as she’s ‘going up’ and he’s ‘going down’, George gestures jealously to Peppy’s handsome companions, waiting for her at the top. ‘Toys!’ She shrugs them off, putting down her friends to massage his ego.

Then there’s the fatal moment when, the day before the joint premier of Beauty Spot, Peppy’s first starring role, and Tears of Love, George’s self-funded attempt to show the world that silent films aren’t over, George overhears Peppy giving a radio interview at the next table in a restaurant. She is excited, a little full of herself, speaking volubly and answering a question about why she thinks she’s getting so much publicity even before the film’s release. She thinks it’s because it’s a talkie, it’s new, ‘Make way for the young!’ is her last unfortunate phrase. And George, not content to swallow his own chagrin and let her enjoy her success, gets up and cuts in: ‘I’ve made way for you.’ Her face falls, she is desolate, and sorry and guilty. She didn’t mean him any harm, but he’s ruined her moment of pleasure.

And, from this point on, Peppy’s nasty thoughtless crimes grow and grow and know no bounds.

Oh Peppy, how could you miss the premier of your own film by going to watch George’s, crying (seriously, how can she?) as he sinks into the quicksand at the end and an intertitle delivers the line, ‘Goodbye Norma, I never loved you,’ to his distraught side-kick? Oh, how could you drive over to his home to say you liked his film and were sorry for what you said? I bet you did that to rub his face in your successful film that he never even bothers to see. Oh, how could you buy all his belongings at auction, when, having lost all his money on his dud film, he needs some cash, and store them for him in your lovely big house? How could you employ his loyal chauffeur when George refuses to allow him to continue working for free? How could you nurse George when, in a peevish moment, he decides to burn his film collection and nearly dies in the blaze? How could you put your career on the line by demanding that your studio gives him a starring role alongside you in your next film?

All that love and help would drive any man to attempt suicide. Obviously. And all Peppy does is cry and run after him, probably saying as she goes, but thankfully we can’t hear her, ‘Don’t do it George, I’m so sorry, I didn’t think.’ And the music’s going, and we’re all worked up, everyone’s huddled down in their bouncy cinema seats as he puts the gun in his mouth, the popcorn munching’s halted, there are muffled sounds of distress in people’s throats, and we feel sad, so sad and sorry too!

Now, we could put our acceptance of the horrifying thing called Male Pride in this film down to our ideas about its historical context. Indeed, America’s silent-film darling, Mary Pickford, lived in fear that journalists might make the mistake of calling her and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks (one of the actors George is undoubtedly modelled on) Mr and Mrs Pickford. Apparently his face would darken and it would take her hours to win him back round to joviality. Screenwriter Anita Loos also found juggling her own success with her director-husband, John Emerson’s moods rather difficult. He made her put his name to every screenplay she ever wrote, as of course he played an important role as consultant, and dedicate her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), to him as the man who ‘taught me everything I know’. Even so, floored by the novel’s phenomenal success while he was piddling around in New York sleeping with other women and trying to set up a stage actors’ union, Emerson spent the rest of the 1920s as a confirmed invalid. Yes, men in this era found female success difficult – especially after the economic crash in 1929, when many were unemployed and suddenly found themselves supported by their wives. But a historical context does not explain OUR gooey, joyful feeling when it all works out well at the end of The Artist, and enable us to proclaim it the most marvellous, heart-swelling love story.

In fact - just to digress - all of this reminds me of something that happened on my first date. It was with two girlfriends and three boys we’d met at a school disco and we went to see Chocolat at the cinema. (Now there’s a great film about women’s struggles to carve out the life they want for themselves against patriarchal norms and succeeding – go Juliet Binoche and Judi Dench!) The film finished, we were waiting outside McDonald’s for our parents to pick us up, when a group of boys ran over and one of them stole my date’s cap. Without thinking (these were the days before 13-year olds carried knives) I ran after the guy, caught him by the back of the shirt and demanded the hat back. It was promptly handed over and, rather pleased with my heroism, I walked back to our group. My date grunted his thanks and would hardly look at me. A sudden taste of shame and uncertainty forced itself up my throat. I had somehow damaged his Male Pride, and I felt a bit disgusted with myself, and unfeminine, and big and oafish (I was a giant in my school year and finding boys tall enough to dance with at discos was a recurrent problem anyway). I was sorry too that I’d made him feel bad. Just like Peppy, I wanted to apologise and make it up to him, and I blamed myself when our three boys didn’t want to go out with us again. But really, looking back, what an idiot! Why should I have had to squeal and simper while the boys performed their own heroic deeds? I’m now ashamed of my 13-year-old self’s instinctive and unquestioning sense that I’d overstepped my arbitrarily imposed feminine line. 

Yes, it’s sometimes nice to feel protected, as a human, and equally to protect. I think we’re in a place now where giving and taking in all of its forms in a relationship has become an accepted part of love, rather than the definition of a power struggle. Likewise being proud of and encouraging each other’s successes in whatever form they come. Which is why I’m so desperate for everyone to see that The Artist is not a beautiful love story, but the story of a pitiful, self-centred man, only so nearly ‘tragic’ if we say that word in the tone school children use when a person dresses badly or does something uncool.