Tag Archives: Movies

The Oscars: A Partisan Rant

I wasn’t intending to do this; it’s over, it’s all been said, and even I’m tired of it. Except, movies matter to me, and as the major art form of our time they should matter to everyone, they should be understood as more than a superhero distraction. And now the Oscars.

I mean come on.

So first off, I’ve been examining my own reactions on viewing Green Book, which I admit I greatly enjoyed. It’s an endearing, well-written, and finely acted movie. I want to say I had qualms, and I did, but they weren’t specific; it was more an overall unease. Green Book is also a manipulative, feel-good film, but what, exactly, did I feel so good about? Today, having examined my response, I think it comes down to pride. If you identify with the white character, the movie is a congratulatory slap on the back. When it comes to racism you can be proud of yourself. That’s why I left the theatre with that happy-ending glow.

Well, crap.

While I have certain issues with Roma, it’s an incredible, beautiful film, and wonderfully acted. But of course it’s in black-and-white, and in Spanish, and about a housemaid, and worst of all from Netflix, that upstart challenger to the way things are clearly supposed to be. The Favourite, for all its admitted brilliance, irritated me; I don’t take pleasure from watching women at each other’s throats. I don’t find that particularly funny. So I understand the limited recognition given the first, if I can’t forgive it. And I don’t too much mind the partial snubbing of the second. And then A Star is Born, an ostensibly serious film, neglected to endorse any social cause whatsoever, instead promoting authenticity. Hollywood was not amused.

Netflix also financed the restoration of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, for over forty years the legendary “greatest film never made” and included on many top ten lists this past year, including my own. Its completion was nothing short of miraculous, granting us a new masterpiece from a filmmaker still far ahead of his time. Unfortunately it takes a fortune to campaign for an Oscar these days, and Netflix chose to support Roma. That’s understandable, even admirable; what isn’t is the rumor that the Academy was approached about some special recognition for the TOSOTW team but rejected the idea.

What can be said for either Bohemian Rhapsody or Vice, two films that aren’t even good enough to be considered mediocre? How could they be nominated for Best Picture? And why weren’t all ten of the available slots taken? Did no one see the wonderful Shoplifters? Or Zama? Or Burning? Are we only allowing one foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture, and that only once every couple of decades? Then what about Support the Girls, or the luminous If Beale Street Could Talk? As to the latter, it’s worth noting that James Baldwin’s novel wasn’t particularly successful when first published back in 1974. No one then was interested in hearing about a falsely imprisoned black man, or police racism. We’d moved past all that.

I imagine the final Best Actor voting results as a list with Rami Malek’s teeth on top, right over Christian Bale’s prosthetics, then Viggo Mortensen’s weight gain at third, and Bradley Cooper’s beard coming in fourth. Willem Dafoe was so outclassed in the ostentatious disguise category.

So let’s consider the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has spent the balance of the past year royally screwing up in its attempt to revive viewer interest in its broadcast. Forgetting, I suppose, that the Oscars aren’t the People’s Choice awards, but have something to do with rewarding excellence. Remarkably enough, they somewhat succeeded in boosting viewership; I think people tuned in hoping for a train wreck. Or possibly it was that Bradley Cooper – Lady Gaga thing.

Popularity is all very well when it comes to finances, but it tends to chase excellence out to the art houses. I can name exceptions: God knows Dunkirk or Get Out should have won over The Shape of Water last year. Anything should have won over The Shape of Water, even the terrible Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. (In case you’re interested, the actual best picture of 2017 was The Florida Project, which wasn’t even nominated, what with fortune favoring the financially fortunate.)

All this rambling discourse because something about all this both infuriates and scares me. It might be the general dearth of excellent, provocative movies, although as I say, they do exist. Black Panther was so close, if ultimately just that tiny bit too comic book; it inspired earnest discussion – imagine that! Maybe it’s the unabashed divide between superhero fans and art house patrons that disturbs me, or the recent influx of similar films advocating for preapproved purposes like drugs or conversion therapy. Maybe it’s the insidious idea that popularity really does signify quality, or maybe it’s the equally stupid notion that it means the exact opposite. Maybe it’s all the new Oscar voters with their own agendas, decisively shoving forward or pushing back, or the preferential ballot system, or the people who, as a SAG voter friend of mine once told me, “usually just find something they love and stop there.” Why bother to see all the films nominated? Did Olivia Coleman win over Glenn Close because not enough voters bothered to watch The Wife?

See, it’s not just me, we’re all so everywhere anymore, and this year’s Oscar results reflect our fragmented reality. Obviously too many of us are in whatever place voted for Green Book as Best Picture. Maybe it’s only surprising that we were surprised. Maybe movie goers were always crass and self-indulgent; people do want fun and thrills and self-affirmation and that’s fine, except that too often it’s all they want. And again, all this really matters to me, and should matter to everyone. Movies are not incidental to contemporary culture, they’re central, only these days too many other things come first, and art for art’s sake, that hoary bromide, is an afterthought at best, and at worst righteously overruled.

And that’s what’s wrong; that’s what’s driving me crazy. That, and the fact that not enough people seem to care. But we have to care, and we have to try harder, especially now that everything’s so available for streaming. Even if there are subtitles, even if there isn’t a heartwarming happy ending, even if we actually have to think. Even if we have to put our own presumptions and prejudices and passions aside for one entire minute and just listen.

Art is supposed to lead and astonish and question and enlighten and overthrow.

Not placate. Not pamper. Not even, necessarily, please.

Movies matter, and we need to honor them properly.


NOTE: The Reader Alert for Worthy of This Great City remains up on the Home page, so check it out, along with the Prologue on the Excerpts page. The Kindle sale, alas, has ended.

Photo credits: Oscars, David Torcivia (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Global Panorama, Oscar Award Image Courtesy Davidlohr Bueso (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Filmstrip by Mike Jennings (CC BY 2.0)

About Anne, and about Oscar

(Originally posted October 7, 2018)

Last week I was browsing in that bored-at-work way when I stumbled on the topic of Holocaust films, specifically Sidney Bernstein’s lost documentary German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. The project was shelved because its recorded horrors clashed with Britain’s post-war policy regarding Germany, and perhaps also due to a fear of further inciting Zionist fervor. One article led to another until I found myself deep into a consideration of Hollywood’s near-obsession with prestige Holocaust movies, despite the arguable obscenity of creating something beautiful out of a topic that should, by all that’s decent, remain irrefutably ugly.

That intricate dilemma caught my attention.

I know there are libraries of literature on this topic, but this is just a blog, and anyway I’m about talking popular culture here, the moral and aesthetic impulses that rule the entertainment business. Easy enough to understand why these movies exist: Hollywood is Hollywood is the rest of the film industry, and these are important movies, right? They force us to remember, and we have to remember, so a well-deserved pat on the back to the filmmakers and the filmgoers, too. No need to rudely dismiss such noble efforts as self-serving and pretentious Oscar bait.

Take my own introduction to the genre, the film version of Anne Frank’s fairly typical teenage journal, and the sublimity of its final expression of faith in the essential goodness of man. How beautiful is that declaration, repeated as it is at the finale against that poignant score, and that shot of seagulls soaring free above the deserted secret annex? Or how about a little girl in a bright red coat? It’s a beautiful shot. Life is Beautiful!

Should such horrors be transmuted into beauty? Is it simply a matter of degree? And what exactly does it mean, anyway, to make something beautiful? What, if anything, is objectively accomplished? Does beauty by definition make the terrible more acceptable? Does it somehow encompass and make manageable its subject? Does it reveal truths we never realized before? The below from Ruth Askew in my own novel Worthy of This Great City:

“Whatever the medium, a statement is just that – a statement. Art requires more.” The taunting was mitigated by obvious fondness but still uncomfortably acerbic. She might be furious.
There followed a lengthy pause, but Thom must have tacitly, graciously encouraged a renewed assault, because she resumed her argument with that same condescending, outsized patience. She was wearing a very unfortunate shade of bright blue. “Art has a purpose: it’s about making things beautiful so they can be grasped, incorporated, and left behind. That’s what beauty means. You can’t just appoint something art if it doesn’t work. You do not have that prerogative.”

Well, a questionable opinion from a questionable character.

Holocaust movies often invite us to identify with a victim; after experiencing one, we dutifully struggle to multiply our empathy by many millions, but the fact is we can’t, our minds refuse such alien numbers. Fictionalized accounts humanize the inhumane solely on an individual basis; documentaries that study the whole speak only in the tolerable abstract.

We’re told these films serve as a necessary reminder – but of what, exactly? Not of the events leading up to the main action: the significant political ploys and poisonous resentments that no one understood or anyway checked. And they rarely if ever visit the minds of the perpetrators, because who would pay to see that, who would dare to identify, and yet what other information is more urgently required? Movies are all about the dramatic culmination, the visual horror, the ovens and the careless piles of emaciated bodies and the extracted teeth. The possibilities, I suppose. Valid enough.

But here’s what I think: If everyone in the world were legally required to watch every Holocaust film ever made on a regular basis it would not in the least mitigate the global recurrence of genocide. Granted, probably not everyone in Rwanda caught Sophie’s Choice, but even so I feel pretty confident here. As promulgators of tolerance, as cautionary tales, these movies are utterly useless.

And I suspect that’s because it’s impossible to make the Holocaust itself beautiful. I can’t imagine what it would mean for humankind if we could: would it signify our salvation, or instead lead to the extermination I sometimes think we seek? Maybe it would it make no difference whatsoever. I wish I could claim that history offers hope, but an optimistic example eludes me right this minute.

Not that it matters: artists have a job to do, and they’re relentless. I know; I am one.
Based on which admittedly shallow analysis, supported by natural inclination, I don’t think it’s at all unforgivable to pull a work of art from a Holocaust story. For one thing, history demands constant verification these days. And movies show that this terrible thing really happened, and that it was really terrible: Anne Frank, that’s the Holocaust; that was awful, she died, but she thought people were basically good, so that makes it all very sad.

It’s only Anne’s story, you see. And it’s inadvertently, tragically beautiful, which is why we remember it.

Photos: Anne Frank; Auschwitz TSAI Project CC by 2.0