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Movie Theme Showdown #1: "The Artist" vs "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"

In the continuing spirit of coming up with an idea that could be a recurring feature and arbitrarily slapping a "Part 1" at the end of it, today I'm going to pretend that two movies are cage-fighting for the title of Best Representation of a Theme.  I guess it's kind of like a nerdier, more literary version of that old Grudge Match website.

(Holy shit, Grudge Match stopped doing updates?!  Wow, I should check up on my favorite websites more often.  Next thing you know, Spamusement's going to be dead, too.)*

Today's theme:  Reflections on Aging Gracefully



Contender #1:  The Artist


The winner of the 2011 Oscar for Best Picture, The Artist portrays the later years in the life of a silent movie star who fails to make the transition to The Talkies.  George Valentin is one of the best-known actors in Hollywood in the 1920s, but when new technology pushes producers in the direction of sound, Valentin scoffs and rejects it, calling it a gimmick and nothing more.

At the same time, a young starlet named Peppy Miller (incidentally, this is also the name of my mother-in-law's dog) is becoming a huge success.  She and George have an occasionally tumultuous, but overall solid, friendship.

When the Depression hits, George is forced into bankruptcy.  He spends his evenings getting drunk and lamenting that the success of his past is out of his grasp.  His depression first leads him to burning all of his old films and, consequently, setting fire to his home. Then, while recovering under Peppy's care, he (sorta) attempts suicide.

In the end, his friendship with Peppy wins out and he is brought back into the Hollywood fold to star in a dance movie.  The film ends happily.

Also, he has a dog.


Contender #2:  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan


Perhaps the best-reviewed Star Trek movie to date - and certainly a front-runner for the best ST movie - Star Trek II addresses the cataclysmic face-off between James Kirk and his most fearsome nemesis, Khan Noonian Singh.

The film covers several themes and anchors Kirk in multiple arcs, which include learning to handle failure, accepting loss, and growing old.  When the movie opens, Kirk is an Admiral and is tied to desk work.  He yearns for the days of his youth when he was out flying missions and doing battle with rubber monsters.

He gets a chance to relive his more spirited adventures when he accompanies a crew on a training mission and things soon go sour.  While orbiting... you know what?  This is the Internet.  I don't need to sum up Star Trek II to you.  Kirk fights Khan.  It's his greatest challenge.  Have you really not seen this?

The Winner...



Khan nails it.

Granted, I'm a young'un at 30, but I know enough about aging so far to realize that growing old only sucks if you're living wrong.

Sure, change is always hard, even when it's good.  And physical deterioration or financial burdens or strife will always crop up to give you a new roadblock.  But ultimately, as you grow older, you just get better at things.  You have a better idea of how to handle problems, and you're more able to realize when you need help with things, and you have less of a problem asking for help when you need it.  You learn ways to cope, and even if you can't change to keep up with the world, at the very least you learn to stop giving a shit.

The Artist eschews these ideas for the sake of telling the story of a man with deep flaws.  George is portrayed partially as a short-sighted egotist and partially as the hapless victim of an uncaring world.  His misfortunes are set off by his reluctance to accept the new film format, but they really only exist because he so foolishly insists on doing things his way.  Sure, he lost money, but that's not strictly because of his declining career - it's because he doesn't want to adapt.

Contrast this with Khan, where Kirk starts out being miserable about aging, but then he learns a lesson about loss through the death of Spock.  This reinvigorates his desire to be active and live life fully.  He even ends the movie by saying, "I feel young," for Christ's sake.  It's a bittersweet ending characterized by personal growth.

Where The Artist succeeds is in creating a cautionary tale.  George approaches life with a miserable attitude and never really makes an attempt to grow as a person.  In this sense, it is an important tale because it demonstrates the dangers of trying to make the world fit your own vision.

But where it fails is in its ending.  George's conflict is resolved practically by happenstance.  "Oh, yeah, I forgot that I can dance.  Whoops!  Guess we can go make a musical or something."  Things just work out well because he's got such a nice friend who's looking out for him.  He doesn't earn it; he makes no attempt to be a good person.  In fact, he tries to kill himself - which, in context, is the most selfish and ungrateful thing he could do at that moment.  His problems are solved by entirely external forces, and as such, the story has a much weaker message than the proactivity of Khan.

More to the point, Kirk has his arc as a side effect to the central narrative.  Khan isn't even framed as a story about aging.  It's an intergalactic revenge story, and all the stuff about mortality is pretty much just shoved into the beginning and end.  The Artist, on the other hand, is explicitly about the passage of time.  George's arc is the story.  And yet, even with a full 100 minutes, it never really gets to the point where George grows up.

In other words, Khan tells a more relevant, realistic, and important version of The Artist in about 10 minutes of its overall run time than The Artist manages to do in its entire existence.



*I feel kinda dumb clarifying this, but I was recently informed that some of my readers take everything I say literally.  In that case, please re-read this paragraph with Alan Rickman's deadpan in your head.  Thank you.