Nostalgia isn’t a business model

On a whim, we went to see The Artist last night, and enjoyed it a lot. It’s a nicely-made, cleverly-written, amusing movie about technological transition in a media industry — the switch from silent movies to “talkies”. It stars Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a matinee idol of the silent era who cannot come to terms with the fact that the technology has moved on, and the stunningly beautiful Bérénice Bejo as a young actress who adapts easily to talkies and becomes as big a star as Valentin once was. There are three other memorable performances: George Goodman as Al Zimmer, the boss of Kinograph Studios — an archetypal Hollywood mogul; James Cromwell as Clifton, Valentin’s faithful chauffeur; and Valentin’s entrancing dog, played by a canine named Uggie. Personally, I would have given the dog an Oscar.

Two things struck me about the film. Firstly, it took me back to Tim Wu’s book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Borzoi Books), in which he surveys the history of the great US communications industries of the 20th century. Al Zimmer is clearly a version of Adolph Zukor, the mogul who created the modern studio system by industrialising movie production and vertically integrating the business so that he controlled everything from the actors’ contracts and production budgets down to the cinemas in which the products were screened. Wu’s contention is that the history of the telephone, movie, radio and TV industries displays a common feature: they all go through a cycle, in which they start out chaotic and gloriously creative (but anarchic), until eventually a charismatic entrepreneur arrives who brings order to the chaos by offering consumers a more dependable and technologically superior product, the popularity of which enables him to capture the industry. Zukor did that for the movie business, just as — in our time — Steve Jobs did it for the music business. And in The Artist Zimmer immediately grasps the significance of audio and goes for it like an ostrich at a brass doorknob (as PG Wodehouse would have said).

The story line of the film is centred on Valentin’s obstinate refusal to accept the reality created by the new technology. It’ll never catch on, he sneers. People don’t want to hear actors talking. And here I was immediately reminded of the way print journalists reacted to the Internet — and the way academics reacted to Wikipedia. The only difference is that Valentin is rescued from his own obdurate torpor at the last minute, and learns to turn a new trick, whereas some journalists and academics would sooner die than change their minds.

But then, that’s life.