The Artist: a Meditation

Besides being wonderfully crafted and thoroughly engrossing, The Artist is a thoughtful meditation on the value of people.

The movie tells the story of a 1920s silent film star, George Valentin, who knows he has value. The applause, big checks, and adoring fans tell him so; doesn’t go any deeper than that. He frolics in the designer pool of his ego, pushing costars away from the waterfall of adoration that cascades over him. Even Valentin’s faithful dog (best movie dog you will see in your lifetime) and his chauffeur have no relational value to him. They are fully functional and expendable.

The same is true of the beautiful girl, Peppy, who literally bumps into Valentin. Ah, another moon whose purpose is to simply reflect his dazzling value.

But a monster of a storm is brewing – a technological one: sound is coming to the movies. One development is going to change everything for an industry; it will swirl new people into the picture and suck others away.

In that tech shift, Valentin suddenly finds himself among the losers. His value drops like a body from a bridge. Broke, unemployed, drunk, and discarded (by his wife and his studio), he is forced to sell his furniture and other possessions (which, by the way, some call “valuables”) and move out to Humbleville.

Have you noticed that life’s crucibles have a way of revealing authentic value? When entire way of living explodes in flames, the first human reaction is to try to save ourselves and preserve the old way. But, eventually, the people, possessions, motivations, and false measurements all get reduced to mere kindling for the blaze. Old (and false) identities, hopes, and values perish in the fire. And then, after time in the grave (could be days or years), on a shimmering new resurrection morning, a new life steps out of the tomb.

In that note, The Artist tells a story we have not seen very often: the redemptive (“buying back”) power of pure love. And Peppy is a character we’ve not often seen. She is beautiful, but her real loveliness is, in words from the Bible, her “hidden person of the heart…the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.”

The Artist is also a discerning look at celebrity. I once asked a young woman who had just become engaged, “Tell me what you most respect about your fiancée.” She twirled her hair, giggled, closed her eyes, giggled some more and said, “Well…” She didn’t seem to know anything about his integrity, faith, family heritage or traditions, sense of purpose, protective instincts, personal dreams or anything else foundational to life. They married and divorced quickly.

Like her, we can’t seem to locate respect for those we adore.

So our celebrity-driven culture splashes exotic intangibles – like cool or awesomeness – on the big screen in our collective head. We don’t define, require, or examine; we applaud, gush, and swoon. Don’t underestimate that power; America elected a President on that. The Artist thoughtfully considers the emptiness of image and the futility of building a life on applause.

Finally, The Artist is a great artistic achievement. In a medium marked by decibels and explosive visuals, The Artist is a splendidly silent and gorgeously black and white movie. It is like walking away from the flash and roar of typical movie entertainment and into a silent and majestic high country meadow.

The Artist dares to present and permit a quiet contemplation of who and what and why we value.

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