After finally seeing The Artist (Hazanavicius, 2011), I admit that my first thought was “that’s the frontrunner for 2011’s best film?” I feel sorry for Hazanavicius’ film in a way. Perhaps if it had not been saddled with so much buzz, expectation, and praise, I could have appreciated the film for what it was: a charming but flawed work that doesn’t take anything too seriously. Filled with nostalgia for silent films, The Artist has plenty of pleasant moments and wonderful images. But, for most of the film, I was wondering why George’s eye for Peppy turns into a celebrated, triumphant romance, while his failed marriage remains mostly insignificant. The film’s nostalgia is not just for the silent film era, but for a kind of old Hollywood ethos as well.
On Tuesday, the 2011 Oscar nominees were announced, and it seems that one of the year’s pet themes is nostalgia. But if it is nostalgia we’re interested in, then we could look to a few of the other nominees for “best film”, rather than The Artist. Admittedly, I’m confused as to why this little film is being celebrated so effusively. Yes, nostalgia — by definition — feels endearing in itself, because it is seeking to alleviate a kind of homesickness. What, however, is the object of our nostalgia? Or, put another way, what makes us feel at home?
By virtue of the fact that this question matters, I’m more interested in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris than I am The Artist. Aspiring novelist Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is in love with Paris — the only problem is he has a fantastical love for 1920’s Paris, which was a magical time-gone-by in his eyes. In short, he longs for a place and time that is not his. Allen, in an endearingly dreamy display, brings Gil’s romantic imagination to life. Of course, what Gil soon finds out (I won’t ruin the details) is that over-exuberance for a time-gone-by — as if it is superior to one’s own — is folly. Our belief in what can make us feel at home can be misplaced.
A more comparable work to The Artist is Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a wonderful film that is also nostalgic for moviemaking in its love for film preservation. Scorsese’s motion picture, which is also better crafted, has more to offer beneath the surface. Hugo, an orphan boy trying to survive and find a place and purpose for himself in the world, finds solace in the hope of his life’s narrative circumstances. He recognizes that if he is to find “home,” he must pursue the mystery that is set before him. Through little revelations, he is piecing together a story that will make sense of his life and give his identity a sense of stability. Whereas The Artist’s movie nostalgia seems primarily concerned with alluring romanticism and renown, Hugo’s movie nostalgia seems to concern itself with a childlike faith.
Yet, in the aftermath of the award nominee announcements — and its focus on film’s dealing with nostalgia — I’m all the more intrigued with, what I termed in my review, the “nostalgia for the absolute” in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. My personal pick for best film in 2011 provides countless topics for discussion, but I’m still drawn to the film’s use of dream-like memory that Jack (Sean Penn/Hunter McCracken) conjures in the aftermath of his own family tragedy. Good and bad memories from his youth function as a bridge-way on his return-path to “home.” But while Jack’s memories take him back to his youth, his nostalgia is ultimately one for the “absolute” as he tries to find the way of his mother and brother: the way of Grace.
Ultimately, The Tree of Life’s nostalgia is a forward-yearning: a memory-infused hope that makes sense of the past’s hurts and losses. It does not ask us, like Allen’s film, to be nostalgic for the now, but it does give us reason to feel presently grateful. For this reason, when it comes to this year’s Oscar nominees for best film, I’m most grateful for the strange and profound nostalgia offered in The Tree of Life and less taken with The Artist’s relative triviality.