Meg and I saw the film, “The Artist” last night. A bit reluctantly, I confess. For months now, I have wondered whether a silent film in black-and-white would be worth an evening at the Cinema Arts Theater. But then a few weeks ago when it received the Academy Award for Best Picture, plus four other Oscars, I began to wonder if I was right.
Reading reviews like, “It’s a rocket to the moon fueled by unadulterated joy and pure imagination.” And “The Artist” is a small, exquisitely-cut jewel in a style everyone assumes is 80 years out of date.” So what could it be about, anyway?
“Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” It is literally true that I have taken these words from Beijing to Bratislava, from Los Angeles to Nashville to New York. They make sense to me, and they make sense of what I see and hear—whether reading a novel, watching a film, hearing a song, seeing a play, or thinking through a political vision, an economic paradigm, an educational program, or a social policy. Always and everywhere, the central question is “Who are we? What does it mean to be a human being?”
It was in his collection of essays, “Signposts in a Strange Land,” that Walker Percy set forth his vision, explaining what makes a bad book bad. And for the good of the world, the common weal, we would be a better people if we all listened, and learned from him.
Not only does his argument make sense of what we read, but of what we see. Percy is right about bad books–and bad films too. Most of all they lie about the human condition. What is remarkable and charming and true about “The Artist” is that it is a story that Everyone understands. Love lost and found. A consuming pride that finally falls. A great grace given. We all know those stories, because they are our stories.
Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are, we long for vocations that make sense of our longings, that allow us to imaginatively and responsibly engage the world—and we feel the great loss when that doesn’t happen, when our lives peter out and our hopes become like what the poet Hart Crane once said of love, “A spent match skating in a urinal.” To have a film focus on this difficult place in the heart is unusual, especially to do so without words—but that is what “The Artist” has done.
When a storyteller surprises us by drawing us in by the truthfulness of the tale, letting us live for awhile among people who long like we do, it is a good gift. Silent as they may be, in black-and-white as it may be, good films always tell the truth about the human condition, about your life and about my life.