‘The determinant lay, he believed, in those values which the society in question was lacking, for it would love in art whatever it did not possess in sufficient supply within itself.’ – Alain De Botton, paraphrasing Wilhelm Worringer.
So, the title of this blog post is one of my more controversial statements, but how can it possibly be true? Well, it isn’t. Not in the sense that The Muppets and The Artist are literally the same film, more in the sense that they both draw on exactly the same narrative conventions and are prototypes for an emerging genre of film. Sorry I misled you. I’ll explain a little about how I reached this conclusion, and you can see why The Muppets and The Artist are pretty much the same film.
Both frequently break the fourth wall – The Muppets does so explicitly, with Statler and Waldorf (the grumpy old men) talking about ‘important plot points’ and ‘the audience’. Both Gary and Mary comment on the strangeness of the fact that they’ve just broken into song. The Artist messes with the fourth wall in a slightly more subtle way – Peppy occasionally winks at the audience, and characters sometimes appear to be addressing the audience, only for the camera pan away to reveal their true target. In itself, this is not unusual – plenty of films break the fourth wall, but it’s worth noting now that both films are highly self referential and hypertextual.
Both of the plots are nostalgic for the ‘golden age’, of Hollywood and of America. The Muppets’ Smalltown is stuck in the 1950s, resembling a polished version of the decade usually reserved for posters in diners and the memories of reminiscing pensioners. The Artist presents a similarly idealised version of the 1920s and ’30s – the women are beautiful, dog is man’s best friend and everybody smokes but nobody gets cancer. Both films stick with American dream-y ideals, and document a nobody (Walter and Peppy respectively) who manage to make it big for no reason other than some good luck, their quirky personality and their dedication to a cause.
This is where it starts to get interesting. Both movies are concerned with comebacks – of The Muppets, and silent movies. When I say they are ‘concerned’ with comebacks, I mean not only that they are about them but also that they are them. ‘They don’t make them like that anymore…well, they do now,’ quipped one bumbling spectator on a television advert for The Artist. The Artist is a film designed to generate a sense of nostalgia, ironically one for a period during which most of its viewers weren’t even alive. The same is true of The Muppets – in one scene Walter takes in the sights of Kermit’s office, including pictures of Kermit on magazine covers, with celebrities, presidents etc. The message is clear – The Muppets were a big deal. If you don’t remember them, just look at all this cool stuff they did. Through combining all of the conventions of silent movies (albeit often in a clever way), The Artist does a very similar thing.
The really strange thing? Both films are about comebacks for something that never really went away. The Muppets appeared on Weezer’s Keep Fishin’ video in 2002, had a Christmas special in 2008 and have popped up in various straight to video features. And remember a few Christmases ago when Tickle Me Elmo was THE Christmas present everybody wanted? (Mind you, he’s a Sesame Street-er rather than a true Muppet). Although it’s difficult to argue that the same is true of silent movies, any film course worth its salt has at least one silent film module. And, more generally, 1920s culture is far from forgotten – recent fashion collections have been heavily influenced by the era, electro swing has been sweeping clubs across the nation for the past couple of years and last Christmas
I gave you my heart saw dancer Darcy Bussell paying homage to dance numbers from old timey movies.
Both films are based on such narrowly structured plots and tropes, that they’ve actually been beaten to the punch. By cartoon shows no less. The ‘punchline’ of The Artist (the reason George Valentin is so unwilling to speak) appeared in a Family Guy skit years ago. Enjoy this terrible quality video -
As for The Muppets? Well, it’s not exactly the same situation, but after Krusty gets kancelled (sorry.) Bart and Lisa run around town trying to recruit celebrities to appear on his comeback special. No video of the show itself, but it does feature someone getting shot out of a cannon Gonzo-style…
If the Worringer quote, alluded to way up at the top of this post, is correct then the implications are a little worrying. The fact that self referential comeback films about…comebacks are currently in vogue (like…Oscar in vogue) would suggest that not only are we out of ideas for ‘new stuff’, but also that we all now hate the society we live in. Happy Sunday.