Monday, March 12, 2012

The Artist: Nostalgia or Metaphor?

Having recently seen the Oscar winning movie The Artist, I found myself thinking about it a lot more than I thought I would. Introduced as a nostalgic tribute to the silent film era of the '20's and '30's, The Artist is to my mind an unexceptional piece of film-making, okay, it is very good with excellent iconic acting from the stars, Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller and fine supporting roles played by John Goodman as the movie producer Al Zimmer and James Cromwell as Valentin's chauffeur, Clifton. All the cliched elements of Hollywood movies are here, from the beautiful people of movies and the exaggerated gestures of the silent film to the happy ending of enduring love winning out and the integrity of the protagonists maintained at the last. All this is expected and present. For those who wish for some work of homage to great actors of the silent film like Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, this is not it. This is not nostalgia about the silent movie era; it is about navigating our way in a rapidly changing world.

The real value of The Artist is that it is a metaphor for our time. This is where The Artist becomes true art. Values, technology, and institutions are all undergoing dramatic shifts. For many of us who lived adult lives in the post-Viet Nam era and witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain, the rise of modern Asia and the incredible modernist growth of financial and economic globalization, the possibilities were endless. One political theorist even had the temerity to write a book entitled "The End of History and the Last Man" in which he argued that "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." (Francis Fukuyama, 1992)

Now having endured the first decade of the 21st century and witnessed the trauma of the post 9-11 era characterized by the extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crash of 2008, the ecological crisis and technological change, the ground seems to be shifting underfoot and the institutions incapable dealing with changing circumstances. My generation has become less trusting, more partisan and inflexible, wondering if there is still a place for the traditional or time-tested ways of living and contributing to our society. Churches especially are undergoing a testing time. Will we as churches and denominations adapt or, like George Valentin, try to resurrect our "greatest hits" and by repeating them stave off change, ultimately finding that our culture has left us behind? Quo Vadis? Where to now? Like Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz, we're finding out that we're not in Kansas anymore and yet we're not sure where we are or where we're going. Can we adapt? Will we recognize the church decades from now? Who knows? But somehow, I don't think we should expect or want a Hollywood ending.