Sam Strange Remembers: THE ARTIST

 It was only a matter of time before someone made an Oscar winning silent film. Inevitably, that man would be Sam Strange.

With an increasing amount of people talking on cell phones and texting during movies lately, it seemed like a no-brainer to bring back the silent film. I've never actually seen a silent film, but my understanding is that they do not have sound. I can't think of a better way to accommodate 21st Century movie-goers. There's no need to stop an important conversation just to find out what's happening in the movie. You can simply read a title card.

Of course, the film itself needs to be pretty easy to understand, as viewers will actually only be looking up at it once every five minutes. You'll only be able to use the most concentrated, no-frills version of your story available. No curveballs or complications. The basics. To ensure the whole audience is on the same page, you'll need to make sure each new plot beat is both simple and long enough that someone reading a text message can look up at any time and understand everything that's happening in two seconds.

So I tried it out. It must have been a success because the other night I had a shit load of Academy Awards delivered to my house. I knew it'd be popular with the Academy because this is how they watch movies, too, but I didn't think it'd be quite this popular. It goes to show that you should ever underestimate 1920s nostalgia among old white people. That was a good goddamn decade: men were men, women were women, and negroes were neither.

The Artist (formerly knows as The Prince) is about a powerful silent film star, named Smiley Winky (played by Harry Shearer). He's a mute, but that's okay because no one needs to talk in movies yet. He just smiles and winks a lot. It makes for a strange human, but a knockout silent film star.

We first meet him at the premiere of his latest picture, The Ivory Jade, waiting for the film to finish so he can go onstage and smile and wink at people in person. I chose not to show much of Smiley's actual film because everyone knows silent films are boring. Instead, we fall in love with Smiley by watching him play with his dog for five-ten minutes.

This dog is amazing. His name is Ugg because whenever you see him you just want to jump through the screen and ugg and iss him. He can do all kind of things, like stand on two legs. He can also move his head around. His best trick is that he dies if you shoot him. Unfortunately, The Humane Society wouldn't let us show you this trick.

It was difficult getting Ugg's performance. At first we just used a cute dog, but it was too stupid. Then we put a cat in a dog suit. It was smarter, but chose not to listen to demands. Finally, we just hired Andy Serkis. He was superb, especially in the breakfast scene where he licks yogurt off Smiley's nose. 28 takes.

So anyway, on the set of Smiley Winky's new film, he begins to fall in love with a flapper named Patty Peppermint. He can't do anything about it, though, because he's married. His wife really hates him. She can't talk either, so she expresses herself by drawing devil horns on all his pictures. She actually does this all day long, every day. Smiley has no other reaction in his repertoire but winking and smiling, so that's all he can do when he sees this. But it's a sad wink and a sad smile. He remembers a time when they used to draw devil horns on people's pictures together.

Since he can't cheat on his hateful wife, he and Patty Peppermint don't hook up as fate would dictate. Their attraction to each other comes to a head when he catches her in his dressing room pretending to be him putting his hand on her ass. (That sentence is just as hard to read as it is to see in the movie.) They don't kiss, but he does get her a prominent role in another film. Even more important, he accidentally shoots her in the face with a bb gun, thus giving her a beauty mark that will go on to become her signature.

Suddenly, everything changes for Smiley Winky. His movie studio has shut down all silent film productions in favor of new talkies. No one bothers to tell Smiley, so he ends up driving to an empty studio and has to find out what happened by reading the newspaper. That should have been his first indication that he was fired, but it doesn't take. He marches into his boss' office and demands an explanation in blinky morse code. His boss is played by John Goodman, who luckily still sounds like John Goodman even on title cards.

Finally convinced that he really is fired, Smiley Winky begins a descent into depression that will take up the rest of the film, so I hope you enjoy watching dudes look sad. First he tries to make a new silent film so good that it would teach the world how stupid talkies are. That doesn't work. Then his wife kicks him out of the house. That also fails to make him happy. He loses all his money in the stock market crash. After that he's forced to auction all his statues and paintings of himself, and he has to move in with his chauffeur.

This chauffeur is a strange fellow. He works for Smiley even when Smiley can no longer pay him. Later, when Smiley tries to fire him he refuses to go, and not just because Smiley is living in the his apartment. This ardent dedication goes unexplained in the theatrical film, but if you buy The Artist on DVD, there's a deleted scene explaining that the chauffeur is actually Smiley's father. When Aaron Sorken and I wrote the script, we still thought we were making a movie with a normal amount of story complications. We later realized that we weren't trying to tell a story - we were trying to tell a movie. And the chauffeur/father stuff had to be cut.

At the bottom of his rope, Smiley gets drunk and sets fire to all his films. Despite having only one penis, with this action Smiley manages to pull off two boners simultaneously: he forgets that 1) fire will kill him, and 2) he's burning up the film he made with Peppermint Patty.

So now he has to save both his favorite film and his favorite life. Luckily, Ugg takes care of the latter by playing Lassie with a policeman, while Smiley dives into a pile of smoldering film stock to take care of the former. By the time he finds the film, smoke inhalation forces him to pass out. But even as he goes down, he's clutching the precious reel to his heart as though it were the ability to speak.

Meanwhile, hotshot movie star Peppermint Patty reads about Smiley in the newspaper and takes him from the hospital so he can recover at her house. When he finally wakes up, they reconnect and fall back in love. Everything seems great. But then a jealous Ugg reveals Peppermint Patty's dark secret. In a large, dark room Smiley finds all the items he had auctioned off collecting dust under sheets. It turns out she really was his number one fan, and it's really creepy. Behind him, Peppermint Patty's servants block his escape. They plan to break his legs with a mallet so he can't run away. Just then, Smiley's chauffeur swings in on a rope and forfeits his life to keep them occupied while Smiley runs away.

Back at his apartment, Smiley mulls over his horrible situation and decides to kill himself. Having just heard what happened, Peppermint Patty races over to stop him. As she drives wildly through the streets of Los Angeles, he puts the gun in his mouth and BANG! she hits a tree, the sound of which covers the report of Smiley's pistol as a bullet ends his life.

I thought the end might be a bit much, but I couldn't see another way to finish the movie. At least it doesn't end with him returning to John Goodman with his tail tucked between his legs, making a living as a mute dancer. This way he still has his integrity. The film is called The Artist, after all.

(three stars)