Mutual Admiration Society

Editors’ note: This week we’re featuring two posts on the 84th Academy Awards. We had hoped to run them closer to the awards ceremony taking place earlier this year, but technical issues delayed the Blog’s launch until recently. Nevertheless, we think both posts have some interesting things to say about the last year or so in movies, so we’re running them now.

The Age of Freedom Fries is over, at least in Hollywood. The 84th Oscars ceremony served up more than a soupçon of cheek-kissing, from both sides of the Atlantic.

While the French-made Best Picture winner, The Artist, was a love letter to Old Hollywood (and the only major nominated film shot entirely in Los Angeles), the American-made co-top awards-getter, Hugo, proffered a valentine to the French pioneer of special effects, Georges Méliès. Baguetted in between was Woody Allen’s Best Original Screenplay for Midnight in Paris, whose Hollywood screenwriter’s romance with the City of Love derives as much from the American expatriate artist colony of the 1920s as from the allure of the present-day French capital.

More than nostalgia, or a fanciful rewriting of history, is at play here. A key to the phenomenon was voiced by Artist director Michel Hazanavicius, a Frenchman of Lithuanian Jewish extraction, whose acceptance speech concluded with three thank-yous—not to his mother, his agent, and Harvey Weinstein, but to Billy Wilder, Billy Wilder, and Billy Wilder.

Wilder, an Austrian Jewish émigré to the U.S. in the 1930s, was among a raft of German-speaking Jewish filmmakers driven by Hitler to Hollywood. Along with Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer, and Max Ophuls, among others, Wilder helped jump-start the 1940s crime cycle retroactively labeled film noir (black film) by postwar French critics. He directed its most paradigmatic example, Double Indemnity, nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1944 (starting him on an Oscar-nomination run—for writer and director—Woody Allen would finally break in 2012).

Most of the Jewish émigré directors, including Wilder, had stopped off, and made films, in France before crossing over to the U.S. A further French connection comes from Wilder’s cowriter on Double Indemnity, Raymond Chandler, and the writer of the novel on which the film was based, James M. Cain. Chandler and Cain headed a group of so-called hard-boiled novelists the French included in their roman noir (black novel) category, from which the term film noir sprang and on which several other classic noir films were based.

French filmmakers got into the transnational game in the 1960s, when nouvelle vague (new wave) directors such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard used film noir as a springboard for their early cinematic experiments. And a countercultural generation of home-grown U.S. directors returned the favor in the 1970s, incorporating new wave-style technique in their early neo-noirs, such as, notably, Hugo director Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976).

The noir chanson in the round stops with Hugo, however. A far cry from Scorsese’s signature blood-spattered gangster sagas, Hugo’s mix of history and fairy tale allows Melies’s life to end on a 3D- and CGI-enhanced note of virtual triumph rather than with the poverty and relative obscurity to which the last decade of his actual existence consigned him.

In this way, Hugo is in harmony with The Artist, Midnight in Paris, and the 84th Oscars themselves, all of which, like Hazanavicius’s Singin’ in the Rain inspiration, posit an Umbrellas of Hollybourg happy ending for the industry’s latest crisis of confidence and a postmodern conflation of reality and illusion as antidote for our mounting real-world troubles.

Author bio:

Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, USC, Cal State LA, and Pierce College. He is the author, most recently, of Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir (Rutgers Press, 2006). His newest book, on Los Angeles, is due out in early 2013.

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