Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Paradox of ‘The Artist’



A nod from the Oscars is a sure shot ticket for any film to achieve celluloid immortality and this year the big winner is the unassuming film ‘The Artist’, a well deserved winner grabbing the coveted Best Picture, Best Director and the Best Actor awards along with a few other awards. Not able to contain my excitement I managed to catch the film playing on a big screen nearby. Not a single word was spoken in the movie yet by the time I came out of the auditorium a thousand words filled my mind.

Interestingly, the storyline of the movie can be summed up in one line; in fact it can fit into one tweet of less than 140 characters. I doubt if any other movie in recent times has such a simple story.

‘A superstar of the silent film era fades away from public memory as the advent of talkies makes him redundant.’

This one line story set in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s has a theme that keeps recurring throughout human history, especially relevant to us in current times more than ever. In this post I am not going to write a review about the movie but speak about the thread that remains common between the film and the evolution of human innovation and also highlight what I think is the biggest take away from the movie, a PARADOX of sorts wherein lies the true beauty of the film. So here it goes...

Survival of the Smartest!

It is popularly said that the only thing constant in this world is change and the truth is not really far from that. We tend to embrace change whenever we see that there is a better way of doing things or a better technology to make our lives easier or more entertaining. How else would one explain Kodak filing for bankruptcy due to the advent of digital cameras, how else would one explain the process of extinction of the LP records, Spool Tapes, Cassette Tapes and now slowly CD’s. There are many such examples like the above, the world is changing and changing fast.

The protagonist in the film faces a similar dilemma, change is happening around him, silent movies are not that hot anymore; people want to see talking stars. When the first signs of change appear he goes into denial mode and almost laughs off the new challenge much like how Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft laughed when he was asked about the iPhone before its launch. Pride and arrogance are two qualities that are attributed to this kind of a rigid behavior which turns into the undoing of many individuals and corporations. Blackberry and Nokia can be termed as two modern day examples of this same phenomenon, both market leaders not too long ago but now struggling to survive.

The Arrogant Genius!

Speaking of Blackberry and Nokia, the one person who they must be cursing today for their current fate is none other than Steve Jobs. If only he did not conceptualize the iPhone, life would be so routine today; that one innovation disrupted many industries and created new ones. The genius or the madness of Steve Jobs has been dealt with in great detail by Walter Isaacson in his biography of Jobs. While reading the book, Jobs comes across as an obnoxious and arrogant personality yet he succeeded where the others struggled. There was something that he possessed which very few leaders in this world possess, the ability to out cannibalize oneself.

Jobs built the iPhone knowing very well that it will affect the sales of his iPods and built the iPad when he knew that it would eat into the market share of his iMacs. He was not afraid of change and was ready to embrace it, even better, he was ready to imagine and invent the future, because if he did not do it then someone else would certainly do it. This one trait separated him from the others and pushed him to such an iconic state that we consider him to be in the same league as a Newton or an Edison; history books will speak about them.

Imagine the Future and create History!

Sounds great, right? Not entirely right, there is more to it, a paradox of sorts.

Heart of the matter!

No matter what great technology Jobs used to create his great inventions, it was not the hardware or software that made the products great but the thought behind them. He focused on the core issue of usability and the needs of the end user.

He did this by stripping away the extras and going to the heart of the matter. He got rid of the need for people to write code to use a computer when he built the Macintosh, he got rid of the tedious navigation options of conventional remotes when he introduced the scroll wheel in the iPod and got rid of the entire key pad on the iPhone, a phone without buttons to punch in was unimaginable at that point of time. The key ingredient was simplicity and the core function of the device was his main focus rather than the peripheral tools that added to the mystique of the device.

This behavior requires great clarity of thought and understanding of the true nature of innovation. Innovation does not mean slapping a 41 Mega Pixel camera on a phone and expecting people to lap it up; yes, Nokia just came up with a camera phone 'Nokia 808 PureView' which does just that. Wonder what people will use it for, maybe for astronomical studies?

This also reminds me of a popular internet meme doing the rounds currently.


It is often said that out of limitations arises creativity and it is not something that relies on abundant availability of resources but works to the contrary, a paradox of sorts. Take the examples of the most famous works of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, you will get to see how brilliant they were under constraints.

So where does the movie ‘The Artist’ stand in this context?

Back to the basics!

Just the way Jobs focussed on the basics of consumer products and their usability, disregarding existing conventional wisdom, ‘The Artist’ does something similar.

In the age of 3D and Visual Effects extravaganzas ‘The Artist’ dares to be a film in black and white and that too without any dialogues or sound mixing except for a simple background score; it focuses only on the core of the message and manages to deliver it to perfection. Herein also lies the PARADOX of the movie:

'The Artist’ successfully tells us a story about adapting to change, yet, to tell its story, it employs an ancient version of a medium that has changed beyond recognition today!

Like a saint attaining inner peace once he strips himself of all worldly distractions, ‘The Artist’ achieves the same by shunning the attachments. It is story telling in its purest form and never has a dull moment in the process.

Eventually it does not matter how many mega pixels our cameras have or how good our iPods are as compared to a film roll based camera or an outdated audio cassette, what matters is how well the photograph is shot or how well the music is composed. Same applies to storytelling too... 

The medium does not matter as long as the heart is in its right place and that is the sign of a true artist, everything else is a digital distraction!

If you haven’t watched the movie yet, do yourself a favor, go watch it right now and don't fret about the lack of color or sound, the soul of the movie will somehow manage to reach your heart!!!

Till then, cheers!!!
Kartik Dayanand