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Commentary: ‘The Artist’ proves too abstract for plebeian crowds

Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

This is what you should know about “The Artist:” it was made in black and white, it’s a love story set in 1920s and 1930s Hollywood, it runs for 100 minutes, has a cute dog in it and will probably win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

And it’s a silent film.

I had assumed this last fact was common knowledge by now, given the film’s stellar reviews. That’s why I was shocked to read that last week an audience of moviegoers in Liverpool, England, demanded a refund from the theater because they had not realized “The Artist” was silent.

There are so many things wrong with this, not least of all being that before you shell out $10 for a movie, you should know the basic premise of it. Movie tickets have only gotten pricier, which means people ought to be thoughtful about what they invest their time and money in. This was obviously not the case in Liverpool last week, so I have to assume that the people in the audience either selected the movie thoughtlessly, or they picked it randomly and were just disgruntled with their decision. But when did moviegoers become so timid? Spontaneity assumes the risk of disappointment, and they should have been prepared for that.

It’s not that the Liverpool audience thought “The Artist” was a bad film (they left after only 10 minutes, after all, which is hardly time to judge something reliably). Besides, at most places you can’t get a refund on a film just because you didn’t like it. God knows I would like to get my money back for “Twilight,” but to see it was a choice I embarrassingly made. Rather, the audience protested the film because it posed too much of a challenge for them.

I can’t help but be reminded of the similar backlash against Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” earlier this year, for which perplexed audiences demanded refunds from theaters because it was too confusing for them. Granted, I saw the movie months ago and I still don’t know if I could describe the premise of it, and I’m not even sure Malick could explain it. But one of the reasons I love film so much is that, for a couple hours, you get a glimpse inside someone else’s psyche — you are exposed to characters and stories of which you might never dream.

That’s why films like “The Artist” and “The Tree of Life” are refreshing, and also why they are often misunderstood by modern audiences who can be too shallow to open their minds to something out of their comfort zone.

There is a reason why “The Artist” has gotten so much acclaim: it is, quite simply, a great film, and its lack of dialogue is only one of the qualities that makes it so. Maybe if those Liverpool moviegoers had stayed in the theater for 90 more minutes, they would have realized it. Instead, they rejected the unfamiliar, thus proving their ignorance.

I applaud “The Artist” for breathing new life into modern cinema and exposing a new generation of moviegoers to silent film, a genre most consider outdated. The way the film is presented is different, but it has all the qualities that are at the heart of any good movie. I would rather see a silent film with a compelling story and genuine characters than a sound film with neither.

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