Harvey Weinstein plays to Hollywood’s nostalgia with ‘The Artist’

The Academy should have an Oscar honor named for Harvey Weinstein, the mega-producer whose name has become synonymous with “Oscar” and who is widely credited for transforming the way campaigns are played.

Thus far this year, Weinstein’s Oscar buzz is coming in the form of the black-and-white silent-era homage, “The Artist” which screened before a group of Academy voters last Monday night, reports Michael Cieply in The New York Times.

An audience packed with awards season voters heard Mr. Weinstein tell how even his brother Bob, a partner in the Weinstein Company, thought he was crazy to risk “a lot of millions” on a black-and-white valentine to Los Angeles, and to the movies, and to an industry that was packed into the Academy’s own theater to see what the mogul behind last year’s best picture, “The King’s Speech,” had wrought.

If they gave an Oscar for best campaign moment, Mr. Weinstein could have taken his home that night.

Weinstein can sometimes be more entertaining than his movies. He has a way of upstaging his product with his popularity; his legend—some of which radiates, some of which repulses—is a presence that infuses everything he does. In some sense, Weinstein is The Artist he’s promoting. And it is precisely that egocentric approach to campaigning may prove fortuitous for “The Artist,” which, as Cieply suggests, appeals to Hollywood’s sense of itself.

Hollywood’s professional Oscar campaigners — who generally do not discuss their craft publicly, for fear of diminishing its effect — are privately buzzing about Mr. Weinstein’s bid to outmaneuver films that are bigger, broader and better positioned for the general audience. He is doing that by playing to the movie industry’s wobbly sense of self, exactly at a time when it is fretting about declining attendance, weak economics and constant pressure from other media.

In other words, pump them up with nostalgia. Reminding Oscar’s eldest elders of the way things used to be, especially at a time when those things seems to be fundamentally changing or dying out altogether, may prove an effective tactic at winning one. But the appeal of the past carries more weight than the eight-and-half-pound statue Weinstein could add to his collection.

As A.O. Scott wrote in a recent Times think piece, movies are by nature, objects of nostalgia. They are things of the past; by the time we watch the scene playing out before us, it has already happened.

[T]here is also something about cinema’s essentially modern character that makes it vulnerable to fears of obsolescence. The camera has an uncanny ability to capture the world as it is, to seize events as they happen, and also to conjure visions of the future. But by the time the image reaches the eyes of the viewer, it belongs to the past, taking on the status of something retrieved. As for those bold projections of what is to come, they have a habit of looking quaint as soon as they arrive.

Nostalgia, in other words, is built into moviegoing, which is why moviegoing itself has been, almost from the beginning, the object of nostalgia.

A spate of recent articles have explored dying mediums—the death of movies, the death of the sitcom. The general complaint being, they don’t make ‘em how they used to. Part of that is a product of the times and changes in technology, and part of it, I suspect, is a lost ingenuity in filmmaking that has become so greatly overshadowed as an artistic medium by its commercial possibilities.

For the Academy itself, it represents a confrontation with mortality. Hollywood is not what it once was (and neither are they) because the industry is older. In some ways it is better and wiser, in other ways, it begs for a youthful rediscovery—a Harvey Weinstein passion for all the sight, sound and story possibilities that made film so wondrous in the first place.