The Artist (2011)

Director/Screenwriter: Michel Hazanavicius

By Marilyn Ferdinand

They’re back again. The creative team behind the successful OSS 117 spy parodies—filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, his wife and leading lady Bérénice Bejo, and his leading man Jean Dujardin—have turned their talents not only to another subgenre, but to film history itself. The Artist is a backstage Hollywood story made as a black-and-white silent film, complete with title cards and music score. Modern silent films are more numerous than many people think, though The Artist will be a novelty to the majority of people who go to see it. Unfortunately, as a silent-film fan, I found myself quite confused by this film and feel it distorts the record on the transition from silent to sound pictures in a way that further offends John Gilbert, a silents legend who ended up unjustly on Hollywood’s ash heap.

The film begins unlike any real silent film: a spy is shown in extreme close-up being tortured with electroshock treatments by some Russians who want him to spill his secrets. He refuses to talk and is tortured to unconsciousness. Fortunately, the spy’s faithful dog comes to the rescue, the baddies are beaten, and the spy returns to the arms of his lady love. This sequence, the climax of the new George Valentin (Dujardin) film “A Russian Affair,” is intercut with an audience in a large theatre and George and his costar Constance (Missi Pyle) sitting behind the screen waiting to take their bows at this, the film’s premiere. This clever opening signals the modernist sensibilities that will be brought to bear on a film era spanning from 1927 to 1931, from the Roaring Twenties through the 1929 stock market crash and into the Great Depression and the rise of the movie musical.

Following the (silently) thunderous applause of his appreciative audience, George mugs with Dog (Uggi) on stage like the old vaudevillians they must have been, as Constance fumes about not being introduced until the very last moment. George exits the theatre, and one of his fans, while trying to retrieve the autograph book she drops, stumbles into George. He forgives the intrusion, and the young lady, Peppy Miller (Bejo), makes herself an overnight sensation by posing for the newspaper photographers and giving George a kiss that makes it to the front page of Variety. George’s disaffected wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) refuses to believe the innocence of the encounter, particularly when she sees George with Peppy at the studio, where the aspiring starlet has wormed her way into a nonspeaking cameo on George’s new picture. The pair signals their attraction by repeatedly flubbing their brief moment together on camera; studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) wants to fire her, but George uses his clout to keep her on.

In a classic reversal of fortune, Hazanavicius produces credits for several films showing Peppy moving from the bottom of the list, through the common variant billings of the time (“Pepi”), to top-billed star as the studio switches to all-sound pictures and new faces to usher the new era in. At the same time, George, scoffing at talking pictures, heads toward ruin. He loses his fortune in the stock market crash, his wife leaves him, and the studio drops him like a hot potato. He and Dog move into a small apartment, along with his loyal chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell), who works without pay until George fires him for his own good. After George has pawned everything of value and become a full-fledged alcoholic, Peppy rescues him after he has nearly died in a fire of his own making and resurrects his career by turning him into a musical comedy star alongside her. Their final number, a tap dance routine reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell’s “Begin the Beguine” turn in Broadway Melody of 1940, is the only nondream sequence with sound, as the stubborn silent “artist” embraces light entertainment in all-sound pictures.

The character of George is a compilation of classic silents stars, including Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, but he seems most modeled on Greta Garbo’s regular costar John Gilbert. Dujardin’s appearance mimics Gilbert’s, and George’s reason for refusing to make talkies, “Nobody wants to hear me speak,” alludes to the myth that Gilbert did not make the transition to sound because he had a poor speaking voice. Gilbert also got an assist out of obscurity from Garbo, who insisted that he was the only man she’d play with in Queen Christina (1933), and Gilbert was an alcoholic. However, making George an egoist who declared his own film artistry as the reason to reject sound, not to mention a laughable voice test by Constance a la Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), undercuts the real reasons behind Gilbert’s problems and those of other silents stars—high salaries and more power than the studio bosses cared for them to have. George is reduced to an actor whose pride is his only impediment, and that includes having the hubris to declare himself an artist when Hollywood insists that it will support only happy campers who churn out light entertainment for a downtrodden nation.

Filming The Artist without sound seems a very confused choice to me. The big reveal at the end that George has a French accent would seem to confirm his fear of sound due to his voice, but what exactly does the choice do for the rest of the film? I’m afraid I don’t really see the point as anything other than some high-concept conceit that seems a particular attraction of The Weinstein Company, which picked this film up for American distribution. Is it fun to see modern acting styles done without sound or color, or to pick through the film references placed like Easter eggs throughout the film (e.g., the breakfast table scene between Charles Foster Kane and his wife in Citizen Kane [1941] or the verbatim score for Vertigo [1958] in the fire sequence)? Honestly, I felt these were cheap attempts to engage my cinephilia instead of giving me a film that was well conceived with a strong point of view.

The area where this film shines is in the incredible talent and likability of Dujardin and Uggi. The pair works very well together, particularly in the gripping scene when George is overcome by smoke in his apartment and Dog barks desperately at him to get up and leave, finally exiting the scene and racing down the street to attract a policeman (Joel Murray) to the conflagration. This scene plays remarkably true to silent film conventions and maintains its own integrity, with the exception of a comic moment when an older woman (Annie O’Donnell) waiting for a bus tells the cop he probably should see what all the fuss is about.

The extremely crisp look of the film gives a hint of what a new nitrate film might have looked like to audiences in the silent era, though even restored films from nitrate we see today don’t look quite this good. In general, the costumes were a treat, but I was a bit disconcerted to see Peppy in full flapper regalia for a 1930s film she was starring in. The Artist was also surprisingly chaste by both 1920s and pre-Code standards; George and Peppy never act on their attraction, making the relationship one of mentor-protégé despite plot developments that assert it should have been more, for example, Peppy buying all of George’s personal effects at auction and saving them in her mansion for a time when he could be reunited with them.

I enjoyed various components of this film and thought the performances were generally quite good, but perhaps I am too much of a silent-film buff to really give it my full endorsement. And if I’m not the target audience for this film, then who is? This talented team should have thought this one through a little further, as I feel there’s a first-rate film in here somewhere straining to come out.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    21st/12/2011 to 5:38 pm

    The target audience needs to know nothing about silents. They’re the ones that have disposable income, not unlike the Great Depression. Oops, too close to home. There’s an indirect slap at Charlie, for those of us in the know, though – that won’t go down well with the Chaplinistas, or maybe it will, since it’s more aimed at poor Gilbert. Dujardin looks more like Fredric March, don’t you think? At least in the parts I’ve seen. I’ll dutifully troop down to the megaplex, but it seems to have missed the actual silent performances, as well as the pre-codes. Pastiche, after all.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/12/2011 to 6:19 pm

    Pastiche indeed. I don’t know about Chaplin as a comparison except as the silent film that ends with sound. There’s nothing else that matches up, in my opinion. March? Yes, there’s a resemblance, also to Conrad Nagle. There was kind of a generic leading man look back then.

  • Rod spoke:
    21st/12/2011 to 7:02 pm

    My word am I fed up with hearing the weaknesses of films being dismissed on their target audience.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/12/2011 to 7:07 pm

    ? I’m not sure what you mean by that?

  • Rod spoke:
    21st/12/2011 to 7:27 pm

    I don’t think it’s too opaque a statement but I will expand: I’ve seen and heard a lot of argument lately where the dread words “target audience” are deployed as a kind of shibboleth which can be used to excuse a critical mind from taking apart something not “intended” for it, as if, you know, you have to make excuses for whichever “target audience” we’re talking about; it both lets the laziness of the audience or the laziness of the critic, depending on the moment, off the hook. It’s not an entirely new concept in approaching movies, but it is a new variant on it that sees us playing the same cynical game as the movie execs.

    Which is not meant, I should add, as a critique of your use of the phrase. I’m just making a general bitch.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/12/2011 to 8:08 pm

    My use of the term had to do with trying to understand who the filmmakers thought would enjoy this film. Obviously, a filmmaker wants everyone to see their film, but they must think that people who like silent films will be a special draw, as would cinephiles in general because of the many inside references. If they didn’t care about us, then fine, but then they misrepresent the era to people who don’t know about it.

    But I think you understand that. I felt the need to explain myself.

  • Rod spoke:
    21st/12/2011 to 8:16 pm

    Indeed: for a film of this sort it’s obvious that at least some sort of presumed cinephile knowledge is presumed, so it should expect to be judged by those standards, rather than according to the insights of some mythical not-that-knowledgeable-but-not-entirely-neophyte audience. Anything else is a cop-out.

  • Jon spoke:
    22nd/12/2011 to 7:24 am

    Marilyn,

    I appreciated your writing here and really enjoyed the breakdown and especially your apprehensions. I must admit that just based on the conceit laid out here, that I would be going in very skeptical. I haven’t seen it of course, but I bring a lot of film knowledge and baggage to something like this. I really like John Gilbert, especially with Garbo. Flesh and the Devil is a great silent film and I even really like him in Queen Christina, which is arguably Garbo’s best film. They were electric together in my opinion. I’ve yet to read anywhere a good explanation for what the silent aspect brings to this film other than novelty. I will try to withhold judgement until I see it. Try being the operative word there.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/12/2011 to 7:39 am

    Hi Jon – That, I guess, is my biggest concern. Why is it silent? Is George only living half a life because he made his name in an outmoded film technique? Peppy says to a radio interviewer that the old must make way for the new. Adapt or die, in other words. But then that’s just a guess. As I said, my overriding emotion at the end of this film was utter confusion.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    23rd/12/2011 to 8:10 am

    As the target audience for this comment thread I feel that… oh, sorry.

    Unfortunately, as a silent-film fan, I found myself quite confused by this film and feel it distorts the record on the transition from silent to sound pictures in a way that further offends John Gilbert, a silents legend who ended up unjustly on Hollywood’s ash heap.

    It saddens me to read that. I’m sure what will happen is this: As the film makes its way around the country and more people hear about it, there will be short print stories informing the modern viewer about this guy named Gilbert and how squeaky his voice was and no one will make the necessary corrections (or if they do, it will be someone in a comment section that everyone else will refer to as “cranky” and tell them to “lighten up.”).

    I have to agree with Vanwall: The target audience is people who’ve never seen a silent film. They’re the ones that can see it and be soooooooo amazed and say things that I’ve already started to hear as holiday parties from people who don’t know jack about movies but have that snobbish, art-house dilitante mentality (like, say, the Diane Keaton character in Manhattan) which is, roughly, “I don’t even like silent movies and I loved it which should tell you how good it is.”

    There’s so much wrong with that sentiment I’m not even sure where to begin, other than pointing out the obvious fact that if someone is not an expert or afficianado of a particular art form then their opinion of its worth is meaningless, but mainly, I would argue this:

    Not having dialogue isn’t the same as being a silent movie.

    There’s a style, a sensibility and a true understanding (and necessity at the time, of course) of how to tell a story without recorded dialogue. Being silent isn’t a gimmick, any more than being a comedy or a drama is a gimmick.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/12/2011 to 8:54 am

    Greg – I wouldn’t say that this film lacks skill in the making. In fact, the opening sequence is brilliant, as is the fire sequence. The big problem for me is that being silent amounts to a gimmick because I still have no idea why the choice was made. The modern audience will breathe a sigh of relief that George finally accommodates to the modern world (hey, isn’t that the supposed moral of the story of Midnight in Paris, even though Woody Allen doesn’t believe it himself) and that they get to hear something, the way they always do. How can anyone appreciate the many pleasures of real silent movies if they’re propagandized into thinking that things go better with sound from a modern silent movie?

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    23rd/12/2011 to 5:32 pm

    THE ARTIST has opened wide, after several weeks of glorious validation nationwide. A best actor winner and Palme D’Or nominee at Cannes, the talk of film festivals around the world, named best of 2011 by critics groups in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., and nominated for six Golden Globes, it’s the current front-runner for the best picture Academy Award. Is it this good, and does it really speak to the serious silent film cineastes? Yes and no. It will not quite make my Top 10 of 2011 (my Number 1 film with only a week left is Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE) but if I opt to do a Top 20, it’s there. Any film that can bring such an underexposed and relatively unappreciated form to the mainstream with this kind of panache deserves after all the highest praise. A few friends thought that the film was a charming pastry, but it never captured the deeper elements at play in the silent cinema we have come to venerate. (Like you Marilyn, I adore this period in film so much that I’d say it is my favorite in the entire run of the cinema) As to your final question to Greg Ferrara in response #11, I am not convinced that Hazanavicious was looking primarily to achieve that. In fact he seems to suggest otherwise in interviews. The main point as I see it as posed is that ‘The passage of time may well alter but never really erase the unmitiagted simple joys of the past, which manifest themselves in this film in the romance of a chareming hero and a lovely ingenue. Yes, the opening sequence is indeed brilliant, and yes the fire sequence is superlative, but there is really so much more here. By channeling the frothy aspects of the kind of silent cinema that really flourished with audiences of the period, Hazanavicious brought to the fore a persuasive honesty to the emotions that dominated nearly a hundred years ago. THE ARTIST looks to encore the infectious exuberance through song and dance and physical actions of a period that of course also featured darker themes. So I have rejected the notion of a few others who lower the film as lightweight, when in fact that’s really the point.

    I loved the score by Ludovic Bource, a score that brazenly cribbed from others, and personally I relished the borrowing of Herrmann’s VERTIGO score from the famed tower scene near the end. I can well understand why you feel the film is largely a gimmick and even a cheap stunt, and I know you are a passionate silent film fan (your amazing work and exposure in this genre speaks for itself) but I see this film as a love letter, as a celebration of a time and a form that has been resurrected in spirit with the conventions of the present.

    Your review as always is truly exceptional and expertly argued. I just can’t agree. The film speaks to the silent film novice and to those who have fair exposure. It may not in fact speak to the silent film fanatics like you and I, and frankly that is how it should be.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    23rd/12/2011 to 7:52 pm

    “There is no disappearing of the true Dhamma, until a false Dhamma arises in the world. When the false Dhamma arises, he makes the true Dhamma to disappear.” – Samyutta-nikaya (II, 224) I’ve read the last line translated elsewhere as the false Dhamma subsuming the true one, and this may be truer than just disappearing – the facts of silent film become less real than the purported or newly interpreted “facts” – offered for your amusement, but not elucidation; pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Certain newer war films use the cloakings of verisimilitude – the right guns, tanks, airplanes, uniforms, what have you, along with pseudo-realistic gore, and meld it with bits and pieces of other, better works, and voila! – it becomes, deep down inside the un-informed, more factual than the real horrors. “The Artist” strikes me as a sort of false cinematic Dhamma regarding silent film. Sic transit gloria mundi, I guess.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    24th/12/2011 to 2:52 pm

    “The Artist” strikes me as a sort of false cinematic Dhamma regarding silent film.

    Nice, but for me the summary argument and application ring hollow.

  • Pat spoke:
    30th/12/2011 to 2:21 pm

    Marilyn -
    I am late to this party, but only just saw THE ARTIST yesterday, and I find myself largely in agreement with you on all points. It’s a charming and very well-made film, but ultimately seemed a bit pointless to me. (I was particularly puzzled by the choice of having the Lina Lamont-esque character doing her bad speaking voice in a silent scene.) All the films referenced in THE ARTIST are easily and widely available – and, in nearly every case, better than this one – so why not just watch those instead?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    31st/12/2011 to 8:53 am

    Sam and Pat – I’ve been silent on your comments because I’m still conflicted about this film. Sam, I know what a huge silents fan you are, and I have to take your love of The Artist seriously. Of course I’m not bothered by it being lightweight (though George’s suffering is certainly drawn out and not at all fun); I just didn’t understand why this was a silent film done as a silent film. Maybe all they wanted to do was make a silent film to continue their genre “studies”. Perhaps the fault is mine.

    Pat – I guess you understand where I’m coming from with this film. Particularly since I do watch modern silent films, I don’t understand this return to a previous form of them.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    1st/01/2012 to 9:39 pm

    Well, I don’t want anyone to feel obligated to respond to this comment because I think Marilyn and Sam have both explained their positions thoroughly. I am here simply because, having now seen it and having put a comment up prior, I wanted to state my position. Basically, I find myself in almost complete disagreement with Marilyn and Pat, to my surprise. As you can tell by my first comment, I expected to NOT like it. That was not the case.

    I was confused and/or puzzled by nothing. The “Lina Lamont” type scene makes perfect sense. It’s a silent movie and we can tell by the expressions that her voice stinks. That scene, right there, is showing the power of silent film: We can understand how bad a person sounds without hearing them! I wasn’t puzzled, I was impressed!

    I also feel he was physically modeled almost exclusively on Douglas Fairbanks so your considering him to be a reference to John Gilbert seems more like a preconception you had going in. There is no reference to his voice being squeaky, like the vicious smears against Gilbert. In the end, we discover he has an accent so he would fall more in the Emil Jannings mode where his nationality becomes a liability in sound. So, again, I don’t see how you got John Gilbert out of that unless that was foremost in your mind going in because it didn’t seem to be on the movie’s mind from my perspective.

    I also don’t understand the confusion over why this was silent. Telling the story without recorded dialogue, for me, and I suspect many others, immerses the viewer in the world that our lead had to contend with. For instance, when I watch the great SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, and I love it, I don’t get immersed in the world of silent film. I get immersed in the story, yes, but not in the world of silents. It simply doesn’t have the same effect and, importantly, doesn’t want to because it’s a musical using the silent period transition to sound as a backdrop. THE ARTIST isn’t doing it as backdrop, it’s the whole damn story. So, necessarily, making it silent puts us right there, in that world and makes it urgent and emotionally powerful.

    I thought it was just terrific.

    So, that’s my official take that I just wanted to put up here. Thanks for listening.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/01/2012 to 10:10 pm

    Greg – I’m glad you know my mind better than I do and understand all the preconceptions I bring with me into a film. What brass!

    I had no problem with the Lamont take-off myself. What was a bigger problem was all the famous films – most especially Citizen Kane – this film quoted from. The film’s choice to be silent just didn’t make sense to me.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    1st/01/2012 to 10:55 pm

    So, again, I don’t see how you got John Gilbert out of that unless that was foremost in your mind going in because it didn’t seem to be on the movie’s mind from my perspective.

    That does sound brassy, I’m sure. My apologies. I’m just trying to say that I can’t see a Gilbert connection unless you’re thinking about that. We all have preconceptions, I’m just trying to say, clumsily I suppose, that I think you brought that more than the movie did.

    Sam’s mind I know much better. Right now, he is thinking, “Tomorrow, buffalo wings for breakfast.”

    When I watch a silent film about an actor who feels he can communicate to the audience without dialogue and it’s in a silent movie, the underlying fears and beliefs that he has are illuminated by the movie itself. When his accent is revealed at the end, it’s meant to express that we have been watching him all this time in a silent world and we totally understand him! So when he speaks, we can think, “How ridiculous that such a thing kept him from the leading roles he once had.”

    They could just tell us that, in a sound movie, or fully demonstrate it in a silent movie. I think the choice is sensible as well as paramount to the telling of the story itself.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/01/2012 to 11:00 am

    Greg – The instant I saw him, I thought, “He looks just like John Gilbert.” Then as his story unfolded, it tracked fairly closely with Gilbert’s.

    Your explanation for the choice the filmmakers made seems reasonable. Again, I know you and Sam are silent film fans, so maybe it’s just me, but this would be a “you understood” notion for me and have little impact – which is, in fact, what happened. For someone without that background, I can see it being a revelation. The addition of the many film references, however, make it seem like an homage to old movies, and that felt aimed at cinephiles. The film was, therefore, confusing for me.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    2nd/01/2012 to 3:35 pm

    Looks-wise, he definitely can be a John Gilbert, so I will definitely concede that point. I am eternally grateful that they went the “foreign accent” route instead of the “squeaky voice” route because foreign actors in silents was a larger condition than bad voices and that would have played, to me, as a cheap joke if he had delivered his only two words in a high-pitched voice.

    I don’t necessarily see why it can’t be about the silent transition to sound and be an homage to old movies, but maybe I’m misreading you. Anyway, I enjoyed both aspects very much.

    Also, I just wanted to add my praise for Jean Dujardin, who I thought was just marvelous. I watched the OSS 117 Rio film last year, before I ever knew there would be an “Artist” movie and liked him a lot there too. He has incredible charm and charisma. I hope this film gives him more clout to do films on both sides of the Atlantic.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    8th/01/2012 to 10:56 am

    A lot went on here and just now read everything after days MIA. Much enjoyed Greg’s take and splendid elaborations.

    Yep, I find myself liking it more and more, and after seeing it a third time this past week with two more of my kids, I now have it in my Top 10 films of 2011. It’s just so irresitible.

  • Jim spoke:
    26th/01/2012 to 5:31 am

    Why is this film silent? I’d guess because the OSS 117 films bombed in the Anglo world when they really should have been massive hits, and they bombed because the sort of people who would love them wouldn’t dream of going to the arthouses where they were shown, while a large number of the arthouse crowd don’t go in for fun films.

    So how do you get English speakers to come and watch the brilliant Jean Dujardin? A silent film seems the obvious answer. Now let’s hope that both OSS 117 finally get the audiences they deserve.

    And if you understand French then try checking out a few clips from the long running series “Un Gars, Une Fille” that Dujardin and his wife Alexander Lamy did together for years on French TV. In substance it’s not a great deal, five minute long sketch shows on various themes about married life (aka old mother-in-law jokes if you want to be brutal) but the performances really make it.

  • Jaggers spoke:
    26th/02/2012 to 10:39 pm

    I dunno if anyone’s paying attention to this thread anymore, but I thought Mr Dujardin looked like William Powell, since that’s my pencil-mustache man of choice.

    I just thought THE ARTIST was a fun night at the movies. I’ll admit I haven’t seen that many regular silent movies, but after watching THE ARTIST I felt like I was walking on a cloud. Yeah, some of the allusions were corny and the ripped the Vertigo music wholesale, but if this gets people even vaguely interested in older movies (and possibly raising money for older movies’ preservation), how could it be a bad thing? Sure, people will soon find out that the picture quality in old movies isn’t usually this good, and there are some real stinkers in terms of acting and plot, but that’s okay. Not every movie is perfect. Just for people to know that such movies really exist is good.

    Also, what sort of other silent movies are being made today? I was unaware of very many that were feature-length, and even the silent shorts being made today aren’t very easy to find outside of the festival circuit. Could you give some examples, perhaps with links to where to see them on the Web?

  • Rosie spoke:
    12th/03/2012 to 9:39 pm

    “THE ARTIST” isn’t a bad little film. Honestly. It has some interesting moments. But for the likes of me, I cannot understand how it managed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, let alone win the big prize. I’m also stumped that it won the BAFTA Best Picture and the César Best Picture Awards.

    Why? I don’t believe it is that good. It’s a charming little film about the transition from silent to talking pictures . . . with two gimmicks – namely no sound and black-and-white photography.

    It’s a mildly entertaining film, but a bit too overrated.

  • Adam spoke:
    25th/05/2012 to 7:00 am

    I don’t suppose there’s any chance you or Rod’ll write an essay on the OSS 117 flicks? They interrogate their source material much more thoroughly than this film and are very funny besides.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/05/2012 to 8:30 am

    Adam – I can’t speak for Rod, but I won’t be writing up the OSS flicks. I only saw the first one and found the joke wore out its welcome for me. I agree that it is a more cohesive piece with a definite point of view, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the spy spoofs I grew up with, the Flint movies and Get Smart.

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