'The Artist' and the 'Vertigo' score: separating theft from tribute

Posted by · 5:57 pm · January 9th, 2012

Ah, the trumped-up non-controversy. It’s a kind of hazing ritual that many a certified Oscar frontrunner has to go through: remember the accusations of child actor neglect levelled at the makers of “Slumdog Millionaire,” the supposed military inaccuracies (not to mention poor producer etiquette) of “The Hurt Locker,” or even the revelation that a key set in “The King’s Speech” had previously housed a gay porn shoot? These mildly tangy stories tend to be forgotten as quickly as they flare up, and rarely do much lasting damage, so it’s just as well “The Artist” is getting it over with now.

I’m speaking, of course, of the ludicrous full-page Variety ad taken out against the film by, of all unexpected people, veteran Hitchcock blonde Kim Novak, who may not have made a film in 20 years, but is still gifted with an Oscar ballot — one she presumably will not be using to vote for the French silent film she has more than a little melodramatically accused of “raping” her “body of work.”

A little translation is required here. By “her,” she actually means “Alfred Hitchcock’s and Bernard Herrmann’s.” By “body of work,” she actually means a single film, “Vertigo.” And by “raping,” she means “legally, with due permission and credit, interpolating the music score of.” If that doesn’t sound quite as offensive as what Novak is implying, that’s because it isn’t: this is a case of sincere artistic tribute being rather unfairly dressed up as dishonest creative appropriation.

If Novak weren’t so rash and insensitive as to use the unnecessary alarm word “rape” — a term that should surely be put to rest in anything but a literal context — she’d find a number of critics rather sympathetic to her point. Right from “The Artist”‘s premiere in Cannes, informed viewers have debated the merits of one of director Michel Hazanavicius’s riskiest artistic gambles: at a crucial low point in the protagonist’s psychological unravelling, Ludovic Bource’s substantial, already eclectic score gives way to a direct lift of Bernard Herrmann’s legendary love theme from “Vertigo.”

Novak protests that the sampling idly “use[s] the emotions [Herrmann’s music] engenders as its own.” Many critics, meanwhile, have complained that the use of a famous 1950s cinematic theme is both distracting and anachronistic in a film that specifically celebrates an earlier Hollywood era. Others find the noir-tinged selection thematically at odds with the film’s sprightlier narrative of artistic decline and redemption. Others, more simply, feel that Herrmann’s work is something you don’t touch. 

All of these are sound starting points for a critical debate; none of these point to any intellectual violation perpetrated by Hazanavicius or “The Artist”  — a work so purposefully built as a pastiche of past cinematic forms that to complain about it referencing existing films is a little like complaining that Andy Warhol stole the Campbell’s Soup logo.

I’ve already had several long debates, both in person and on Twitter, about how effectively or otherwise Hazanavicius’s film is served by his postmodern magpie instincts: for me, it makes as much sense for a film explicitly about the future of cinema to borrow sound from the 1950s as any other era, while others think he could make his point more subtly by sticking to a more rigorous silent-cinema aesthetic. (In which case Bource’s entire score, itself a hodgepodge of vintage Hollywood scoring styles across 30-odd years, is an anachronism in itself, with or without the “Vertigo” loan.)

Two opposed viewers can argue about all of this without either of them thinking the film has done anything unethical. As critic Anton Bitel, himself unconvinced of the success of Hazanavicius’s “Vertigo” tribute, so succinctly put it on Twitter: “Just being bad at sex doesn’t make you a rapist.”

Hazanavicius is hardly the first director to pull such a stunt, either. Quentin Tarantino has frequently filched from the soundtracks of existing films, though never ones quite as well-known as “Vertigo”: are some films more sacred than others in this respect? Or does the greater recognizability of the “Vertigo” score make it fairer game for poaching? (Yes, there will always be those viewers who haven’t seen “Vertigo” or don’t recognize the source — is Hazanavicius also to blame for going over their heads?)

Do the rules change when it comes to pre-existing music from outside the cinema? Lars von Trier, Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese are just three of the major auteurs who have incorporated major classical themes into the scores of their recent films — if the difference between cheating and intelligent citation lay solely in whether or not an artist finds their reference points within their own medium, we’d also have to take Steven Soderbergh to task for splicing scenes from a Ken Loach film into “The Limey,” burn Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty” for “raping” an E.M. Forster novel and vilify pretty much every hip-hop artist in recorded music for sampling others’ tracks. 

Hazanavicius hit on the sound he wanted for a section of his film; he could have asked his composer to vaguely replicate it (an approach that would have been far more dishonest than directly quoting it), but found instead that using the very piece he’d imagined could strengthen and color his film’s relationship to its own medium. He got the required permission, and made the required acknowledgement. We may or may not think it a deft or beneficial move, but it’s a reference to be discussed rather than denied. End of non-story, as further demonstrated by Hazanavicius’s gracious response to Novak’s ad: 

“‘The Artist’ was made as a love letter to cinema, and grew out of my (and all of my cast and crew”s) admiration and respect for movies throughout history. It was inspired by the work of Hitchcock, Lang, Ford, Lubitsch, Murnau and Wilder. I love Bernard Herrmann and his music has been used in many different films and I”m very pleased to have it in mine. I respect Kim Novak greatly and I”m sorry to hear she disagrees.”

Well, that was fun. It’ll be interesting to see if this kerfuffle has any impact on Ludovic Bource’s sizeable shot at the Best Original Score Oscar — I suspect it won’t, given that it was hardly his decision to go with Herrmann — but anyone hoping to dent the film’s overall campaign will need to try harder than that. Anyone got any dirt on Uggie?

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