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Oscar Grouching #5: the aftermath

I’m going to keep this short, since I feel like if I hear or say the word “Oscars” again, I’m going to lose it. It’s fun while it lasts, but if you keep it in mind too long, it’s like having Christmas lights up in March. (Which, yes, plenty of silly Minnesotans are doing.) Or like being angry about Avatar months after its release. I streamed them online, with Ashley and I exchanging snarky comments, especially when Kristen Stewart came onstage. I also kept tabs on the AV Club’s live blog, which was very entertaining.

I haven’t watched the Oscars since like, oh, when Jon Stewart hosted in 2006, and I found this one an overall pleasant experience. Of course, it was poorly paced, often perplexing, and usually unfunny, but that’s the whole point of the ceremony, right? Thus enabling us to make our snarky comments? I laughed during the weird interpretive dance segment that interpreted Up as having a robot in it. I also laughed during Sean Penn’s incoherent mumbles as he approached the stage. These are the kind of absurd moments that make it worthwhile to watch 4+ hours of Hollywood patting itself on the back.

These Oscars also came with the interesting implication that John Hughes is apparently far, far more worth remembering than everyone else who died last year, especially great character actors like Ricardo Montalbán and Henry Gibson, who didn’t get any kind of recognition. Well, whatever. This is what low expectations are for. Besides that, I’ll go on remembering Gibson’s contributions to cinema far more than I will with Hughes, so that’s what counts. Which would I rather watch again: Pretty in Pink, or the Haven Hamilton scenes in Nashville? Listening to him sing “200 Years” during the film’s opening will win out every time. (Even if Pretty in Pink does make Harry Dean Stanton seem paternal.)

Aside from those details, the ceremonies were pretty much entirely without note. As for the awards themselves… well, no real surprises there either. The acting quartet of Waltz, Mo’Nique, Bridges, and Bullock won, just as everyone thought. (And I reassert that Sidibe or Mulligan were infinitely more deserving than Sandra Bollocks.) Mercifully for our collective sanity, Avatar didn’t exactly blaze a path of victory, gathering only a few obligatory technical Oscars, while the big ones (Original Screenplay, Director, Picture) went straight to The Hurt Locker.

Quick disclaimer: The Hurt Locker was not the best movie of the year. I still have to catch up with a lot of real contenders (A Single Man, Moon, Un Prophete), but I’m pretty confident that Up, A Serious Man, and The White Ribbon at least were superior. That said, The Hurt Locker‘s victory sends some nice messages about the failure of shininess alone to secure awards, as well as the viability of female directors – and in making war movies, no less! Ultimately, I suspect that Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar is as much a symbolic blow for equality and progress as it is representative of her true talent, formidable though it is.

But still, good for Bigelow; she made a damn good movie, and she had her naked gold man coming. If last night had a story of its own, I think, Bigelow could’ve been the action heroine, taking a stand against the megalithic corporation, run by the silent-but-omnipresent James Cameron. For that matter, wasn’t it satisfying when Best Foreign Language Film winner Juan José Campanella took a little jab at Avatar in his acceptance speech? It’s always fun when the Goliath seems so likely to win, even though it sucks, and then gets taken down a notch. Who’s king of the world now, motherfucker?

So that’s my pretty superficial post-Oscars analysis. For the record, I think Up in the Air‘s screenplay was better than that of Precious, and ditto for A Serious Man (or even Basterds) against The Hurt Locker. But, well, that’s how the night had to turn, wasn’t it? At least we were able to see a historic first black screenwriter win. And then Tom Hanks climbed onto the stage, quickly announced that The Hurt Locker had won before any suspense was able to build, and the night was over.

For more Oscar-related reading, you should check out this hilariously moronic misinterpretation of The Hurt Locker by Tom Shillue; this snappy breakdown by the AV Club; and the assuredly ongoing discussion over at The Film Experience, led by the entertaining and Julianne Moore-obsessed Nathaniel Rogers. With that said, we now return to your regularly scheduled blog. Hopefully film and Simpsons analysis will be forthcoming from me, as well as some special new posts by Ashley. If we ever get around to writing them. Hooray for Hollywood!

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Oscar Grouching #4: Precious & The Blind Side

Time is rapidly running out. The Oscars are tomorrow night. So I’ve decided to condense my discussions of the nominated films somewhat. And since race is apparently a favorite topic this year – so far as I can tell, only Up and Up in the Air are all about white goys – I opted to go for two radically different films, both of which put issues of race and racism on the forefront. These are Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire and John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side. Here’s what I wrote about the two of them in the Carl:

“Another cheap, dirty film to be nominated this year, buoyed mostly a slew of fiery performances, is Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. (And if you don’t add the subtitle, you’re not doing it right.) It’s a blistering tale of poverty and abuse, anchored by Gabourey Sidibe’s performance as the spat-upon title character. I could run down her laundry list of suffering, but that would give a false impression of the film, which is more about Precious coping with, and eventually escaping from, an environment where illiteracy and negligence are the norm. Daniels’ storytelling is hypermelodramatic and sometimes nauseating, as the stench of pigs feet permeates the screen. But it’s necessary to handle the story’s excesses, and is only appropriate for filming likely Oscar-winner Mo’Nique playing Precious’s violent, self-obsessed, and manipulative mother. Precious is hard to stomach, but far more satisfying than the sugary pap served up by another Oscar nominee…

That film, naturally, is the barely watchable The Blind Side. Granted, I’m not the audience for this film: I’m bored by football, can’t stand hyperactive little children, and don’t believe the South should rise again. This makes me a poor match for a movie that glorifies – nay, Jesusifies – the Tuohy family, led by brassy matriarch Sandra Bullock. Based on (a highly fictionalized version of) a true story, it follows the Tuohys’ valiant sacrifices as they take in and nurture a homeless 17-year-old black boy named Michael whose previously unexploited athletic prowess eventually makes him a sought-after property amongst college football teams. The Blind Side shamelessly incorporates every cliché from the feel-good sports movie playbook, right down to the giddy preadolescent mascot “S.J.,” whose every high-pitched word cut through my skull like a power drill. So bland and condescending to its protagonist that not even the underused Kathy Bates could save it, The Blind Side is just the kind of treacly, mediocre shite that the Academy loves to vote for, just to show that they’re ordinary folks, too. However, it’s not a good movie.”

On first glance, the movies seem strangely similar: both involve black teenagers (Precious is 16; The Blind Side‘s Michael “Big Mike” Oher is 17) who start out in the midst of poverty, abuse, and illiteracy. Then well-educated non-black folk take interest in their futures, and the receive educations that enable them to pursue their dreams. Yet despite this shared general storyline, the two could hardly be more different, both in how they’re told and what they communicate to the viewer.

Precious, frankly, is hard to talk about. It’s loaded, it’s controversial, and I go back and forth in deciding how to look at it. Is it sleazy ghetto porn, sensationalistic and exploitative, creating a picture of life in Harlem as a violent, disgusting freak show? (See Armond White’s review.) Or is it an original approach to a very real type of tragedy that leads to a satisfactory conclusion without denying its brutal truths? I tend toward the latter. Admittedly, I was at first pretty skeptical about Precious; ads kept mentioning the names Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, neither of whom are really known for putting out quality products. (OK, maybe Oprah can endorse Faulkner and Middlesex after the fact, but she also unleashed Dr. Phil on the world…)

I was also dubious because inner-city dramas like Precious are frequently formulaic and obvious. If its creators had been less talented, I can easily imagine Precious becoming routine and gratuitous. Instead, through the combined expertise of Lee Daniels and his ensemble, including newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and the fiery Mo’Nique, Precious is a firecracker of a movie, mixing volatile music video aesthetics with the gaudy extremes of Douglas Sirk. It’s this coupling of directorial style and volcanic acting that makes the movie so effective, right up to the open-ended catharsis of its final moments. Racial politics aside (although fully setting them aside is impossible), it’s loud and hyperbolic, yet at the same time sincerely emotional. It’s a rare balance of spectacle and personality.

Precious‘s racial politics are tricky to fully figure out. Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher don’t use as many clever dodges and fake resolutions to questions of racial identity as Tarantino or Cameron do; they tell their story and stick to it. But there’s still a lot going on this movie, some of it subtly manipulative. Precious envisions herself in her fantasies as thin and light-skinned and has to be taught to love her appearance, while the only people who support her are thin and light-skinned. Sidibe as Precious is described by Armond White as an “animal-like stereotype,” while Sam Wasson at Forced Perspective says that “[h]er size is not acting; it’s a directorial idea, and a particularly facile one at that.”

These criticisms may have some credence to them, but I disagree with their overall judgments of Precious. This is decidedly larger-than-life filmmaking, with Sidibe and Mo’Nique giving performances to match. I read a fascinating article by Jim Emerson about how Daniels takes cues from the drag queens and camp cinema of John Waters (also Robert Aldrich, Pasolini, and a little Gus Van Sant), and I think that taking queer sensibilities into account is important when evaluating Precious. You can’t possibly accuse Daniels of stark realism; his film, his style, and his leading ladies are all enormous, yet open to moments of frightening intimacy.

On paper, Precious looks like a catalog of Dickensian traumas made flesh. On screen, however, you see just Sidibe’s numbed, swollen visage, surviving through indifference, her head full of competing memories and daydreams. And it’s the voiceover that, for me, confirms Precious not as the Other, but as an objectified victim fighting for her own self-determined identity. This is the war she has to win, on her own, and the ending makes it unclear whether she has, but hopes that she will. Being HIV-positive is only another lost battle. Compare this to the incredibly superficial level on which every conflict in The Blind Side functions. Precious, however gross it becomes (in every sense of the word), however questionable its little details may be, is at least the story of an marginalized, animalized human being pushing for her own subjectivity.

In The Blind Side, there is only one point of view, and that belongs to miracle-working do-gooder Leigh Anne Tuohy, played effervescently by Sandra Bullock. As opposed to Precious, there’s not a whole lot to talk about with The Blind Side. It’s an oppressively boring movie. It starts out with Michael, lost and homeless, being enrolled in school; before long, he’s noticed by the Tuohys, and Leigh Anne sharply insists that he stay with them.

The Tuohy clan, as the film sees them, are one big, self-sufficient, endlessly generous family unit. The father, played by good-ol’-boy country singer Tim McGraw, doesn’t do much other than own the Taco Bells that provide his family with a stream of income, watch football, and agree with his wife. Their children are Collins, a dead-eyed cheerleader, and S.J., the beloved child who never shuts up. Together, they can do no wrong, and if you don’t totally agree, this movie wants nothing to do with you.

What follows is a series of predictable training montages and “tough” personal decisions, as Leigh Anne stands up for Michael against his football coach, against her own bourgeois friends, and against the gang members in his old neighborhood. Because what else is she going to do? Have a single shade of nuance to her behavior? If Bullock wins that Oscar in a couple hours, I won’t be surprised, but I will be disappointed; her emotional range goes from high-strung enthusiasm to high-strung indignance. Either she’s yelling at someone for mistreating Michael, or she’s congratulating herself for protecting Michael. This is a 2+-hour-long celebration of the kindness of rednecks, a mundanely shot exercise in self-approval.

I’ll be shortly off for work, and then off to watch the Oscars. It’s been fun to blog about, even if as Armond White points out, the red carpet drama often supersedes any appreciation of actual art. (Granted, that article also praises ET and This Is It, but it’s Armond White, what do you expect?) The Academy Awards are an institution shallow and pandering enough to give The Blind Side two nominations, yet one which sometimes recognizes and encourages greatness. (As when they gave the Coen Bros. enough raw Oscar power back in 2007 that they could go on to make the sublime A Serious Man.) They’re not quite meaningless, but not all that meaningful. They’re also something we as film lovers and writers have to deal with.

So let’s go watch the Oscars tonight, and see what happens. Roger Ebert, who’s awards-obsessed, tweets that “something about the Oscars this year gives me the eerie feeling there will be big surprises.” Hey, what can you do? Awards ceremonies are an obligatory part of having show business in the first place. And maybe The White Ribbon will get Best Foreign Language Film, and we’ll get to see Michael Haneke disapprovingly stare down the entire crowd.

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Oscar Grouching #3: Inglourious Basterds

Continuing my discussions of this year’s Best Picture nominees, I move on to an especially fun and interesting entry, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Shortly after I saw it on opening night back in August ’09, I wrote a short and rather bitchy post about Basterds and Tarantino in general. While I don’t exactly take back everything I said, I would like to rephrase and reconsider a lot of it; I think I gave short shrift to the undeniable mastery that underlies a lot of Basterds and deserves to be appreciated. There are some very good reasons it’s received 8 nominations, the third-most of any film this year, and I think it’s more artistically and aesthetically stimulating than much of the competition (like Avatar). But before I launch into all of that, here’s the snippet I wrote about it in my Oscars article for the Carl:

“But Cameron and Bigelow… don’t have a monopoly on war; everyone’s favorite 46-year-old enfant terrible also had plenty to say about it in 2009. Adverts for Inglourious Basterds claimed that ‘you haven’t seen war until you’ve seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino,’ and that tagline reveals more than I think it’d care to admit. Basterds isn’t really about war, but about how Tarantino sees it, and his vision of World War II is a hodgepodge of The Dirty Dozen, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Italian war movies of the ’60s. But Tarantino’s cinephilic, perpetually adolescent interpretation of history is still far more ambitious and, ultimately, interesting than Cameron’s anti-imperialist tract. His dazzlingly amoral revisionism probably won’t get Best Picture, but at least we’ll get to Christoph Waltz receive his bingo as Best Supporting Actor.”

This is a movie that ends with the words “I think this may be my masterpiece.” It’s not the kind of staid, artful film that usually wins lots of Oscars; it’s irreverent, sometimes sadistic, and often inflammatory, in both literal and metaphorical senses. Yet it epitomizes Tarantino’s crafty way of concealing an art film like a Jewish refugee in the basement of an action-packed blockbuster. The ads, typically inane and dishonest, made it out to be two straight hours of Eli Roth clubbing Nazzies to death, and this certainly accounts for a large part of what Tarantino’s up to. However, the meat of the film is the ongoing conflict between Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jew hiding out in Paris, and Hans Landa (Waltz), the diabolically eloquent “Jew Hunter.”

It’s these confrontations with Landa that make the film what it is. Tarantino could’ve made one big, perfectly acceptable war movie homage, and we’d all have forgotten it by now. Instead he went for a series of magnificent set-pieces where words (in English, French, German, and even Italian) are hurled like daggers. The first of these is the best, a carefully composed tribute to Sergio Leone that sees Landa visiting the owner of a dairy farm in rural France. Waltz smiles as he asks for a glass of milk, smiles as he plays the innocent bureaucrat, and smiles as he forces the farmer to tell him where he’s hiding the Dreyfus family.

Waltz, as Landa, is always fascinating. He’s merciless, but polite. Brutal and willing to kill, but about the most cultured villain to [probably] garner an Academy Award since Hannibal Lecter. He’s an efficient Nazi officer, but he’s also cowardly and more interested in self-preservation than in the longevity of the Reich. And Waltz’s English has a perfectly accented lilt to it, so that he can put his enemies off their guard with a silly malapropism one second, then land the death blow with a few well-selected words the next. We always see him from someone else’s POV, and we never quite identify with him, but he’s a compelling and fully realized nemesis – certainly not one of the caricatured “Nazzies” the Basterds are after.

This is one area where the film deploys its many ethical tricks. Landa is worldly, self-aware, full of contradictions; the Basterds, led by Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine (a play on the name of actor Aldo Ray), are the film’s sideshow, occasionally popping up to brutalize and scalp some more terrified Nazzies. Raine himself is a one-note joke which Pitt does wonders with, a jingoistic, torture-happy southerner charged with leading his all-Jewish troops in a mission of revenge.

In the Basterds’ portion of the movie, Tarantino gleefully employs (and exaggerates) every formula he’s culled from the likes of 1960s-’70s American and Italian WWII movies, and it’s fun – especially for him – but it gets old fast. By the time he’s thrown together techniques cribbed from his beloved blaxploitation, kung fu, and spaghetti western genres in order to tell the back story of Nazi prisoner Hugo Stiglitz, the ultra-referential aspect of his style has almost grown wearisome, and the viewer is thankfully treated to a storyline that’s no less violent, but far more substantive: Shosanna’s systematic, single-handed, Kill Bill-style vengeance against the entire Nazi elite.

It’s here where Tarantino’s genius with suspense becomes more pronounced, as do his moral difficulties. All his parlor talk about comparing the treatment of African-Americans to King Kong might as well be about whether foot massages count as sex, since outside of these glib, well-written passages of dialogue, he’s totally unwilling to take on hard questions of race and genocide. Despite the film’s premise, the Holocaust turns out to be a non-factor in the characters’ actions, since for example, Landa’s by-the-book elimination of Shosanna’s family motivates her in much the same fashion as Bill’s coma-inducing attack does for the bride. Shosanna has a vendetta against one man, generalized to the Nazi ruling establishment.

And as for the Basterds, well, they’re killing the Nazzies because they’re Nazzies. The film’s overarching thesis is that this is Tarantino’s war, as he perceives it filtered through decades of Robert Aldrich and Riefenstahl and Samuel Fuller, and the Basterds’ attitudes reflect this. They blissfully criss-cross Europe scalping Nazzies due more to the propagandistic cultural significance of their targets than because of any actual wrongs perpetrated by the government of Nazi Germany. Tarantino sets up his elaborate racial revenge fantasy, but elides the instigating event, and this produces the film’s great strength and weakness, its utter amorality.

The real question, I suppose, is whether you read Basterds as a thoughtful self-critique or not in its tendency to unhinge all its actions from their historical and ethical contexts, until each scalping or machine-gunning becomes just the act of an individual tagged as a “Jew” against one who’s a “Nazi,” labels with as much significance as the Union and Confederate soldiers in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. (Tarantino’s favorite film, and another which strips events of their historical meanings – like the existence of slavery – for the sake of the story.)

Is it a sly commentary on the nature of cinema to desensitize us both to violence and to the complex origins of wars? Or is Tarantino doing just that as a matter of layered pastiche, with no commentary intended? I think the answer – which would take closer viewing than I’m able to perform now – would reveal a lot about Basterds‘ level of profundity, though I remain skeptical. However, I think its merits as an example of high-intensity postmodern filmmaking are as great as any of Tarantino’s other work, up to and including Pulp Fiction; here, the battles are won and lost not by Raine’s clownish marauders, but over strudel on the café tables of Paris.

As for Basterds‘ Oscar chances, I’m fairly optimistic. I think Best Picture is extremely unlikely, but Tarantino’s bravura directing and endlessly quotable screenplay – his specialties, as opposed to political or emotional depth – are certainly laudable, and at the very least remain in the running, even if The Hurt Locker could sweep those categories. Luckily for Christoph Waltz, though, he has no real competition: his first publicly visible screen outing will indeed turned to Oscar gold, thanks to his mesmerizing screen presence – and to Tarantino’s sharp dialogue. While Inglourious Basterds may not authentically engage race or history, its cinephilic reveries are nonetheless a welcome sight at this year’s Oscars, and its engagement of film history is as daring as anything in recent memory.

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Oscar Grouching #2: The Hurt Locker

So, I am persistently continuing this series of posts about this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees. I think it’s a very interesting – and for that matter, historic – race, as I detailed in the previous post. And, as evidenced by the film I’m about to discuss, it stands to say a lot about the current state of the American consciousness. This film, which ties Avatar with its 9 nominations, is Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. By way of introduction, here’s what I had to say about it in my recent article on this year’s Oscars:

“But then, [with regard to Avatar‘s chances] you have to consider the ex-wife factor, because Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is rampaging through awards season like a humvee filled with soldiers who specialize in defusing bombs. Like Avatar, The Hurt Locker is about conflicted soldiers, but these ones – led by Best Actor nominee Jeremy Renner – don’t fall easily into character types. Instead, they’re just ordinary guys in an extraordinary, very dangerous situation from which they’re unable, or maybe even unwilling, to escape. Capturing the addictive trauma of war with its journalistic style, The Hurt Locker is a difficult and deserving movie. It immerses the viewer so long in the grit and gunfire of Iraq that the shops and homes of suburban America look as alien as the floating mountains of Pandora.”

I could look at The Hurt Locker and its role in this contest from a lot of angles. It’s a damn multifaceted film. First of all, let’s think about the impressive woman behind it, Kathryn Bigelow. This is the only one of her film’s I’ve seen, though I’ve long yearned to see her 1995 dystopian sci-fi thriller Strange Days. Since the ’80s, she’s specialized in intense genre movies, from the vampire western Near Dark to the more standard action movies Blue Steel and Point Break. She’s been designated an auteur of sorts, and one of these days I’d like to look deeper into her work. She is also James Cameron’s ex-wife (1989-1991), throwing a very fun wrinkle into the mix. They seem amicable, but it’s very fun to have such a close rivalry – over both Best Picture and Director – between two people with such a once-strong bond. Gives some real drama to the Oscars, don’t you think?

But personal life aside, Bigelow is a formidable woman, at least judging from her most recent film. It smashes any silly preconceptions that great female filmmakers automatically have to make films about women’s issues. The Hurt Locker is an well-structured, unrelenting time bomb of a movie, whose only significant female character only appears for a few minutes at the end. The lack of obvious feminist discourse in Bigelow’s filmography reminds me of another important female director, Ida Lupino, the only film by whom I’ve seen has been The Hitch-Hiker. It’s a brutal little noir with no feminist subtext in sight – like The Hurt Locker, it’s about the relationship between three men trapped together in stressful circumstances. Lupino’s never really gotten her due; maybe the Bigelow’s sudden success will cause her to be rediscovered? I can only hope.

The point is that Kathryn Bigelow is a very rare animal and a very talented director who will hopefully open the floodgates for more acceptance of female directors. It’s so great to see a group of nominated directors who aren’t totally pale and male; a quick glance shows that the last variations in race or sex were Alejandro Iñárritu, nominated for Babel (2006), and Ang Lee, the winner for Brokeback Mountain (2005). Historically, the Academy likes their directors white and penis-having, trends that are temporarily halted by Bigelow and Precious‘s gay black director Lee Daniels. More on him later, more about The Hurt Locker now.

It’s a film that scores the tricky feat of being both extremely topical and universally applicable. Superficially, it’s about the ongoing Iraq War, based directly on Oscar-nominated screenwriter Mark Boal’s experiences while embedded there. This is pretty damn timely, especially considering that Apocalypse Now wasn’t released until four years after the Vietnam War had officially ended. This timeliness is both a curse and a blessing: The Hurt Locker pays absolutely no heed to the historical context or consequences of the war, but this gives it a feeling of immediacy; it’s not about the war so much as the soldiers, who have to live from skirmish to skirmish. Whereas Apocalypse Now was all about deconstructing the war’s accumulated mythologies, The Hurt Locker regards Iraq as a work-in-progress, and focuses unblinkingly on a specific unit.

Bravo Company’s bomb disposal unit consists of three men: the leader Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), and his subordinates Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). As I observed in my article, one beautiful element of this film is the way they’re characterized. Avatar dealt in the language of total moral legibility, where every character can be categorized as “good” or “bad” based on the first glimpse. The Hurt Locker doesn’t really provide portentous snippets of dialogue as signposts for who we’re supposed to love and hate. All we’ve got is three flawed and confused men. James makes frequent poor decisions of which Sanborn, with frustration, takes note, and tensions run high both as a result of his behavior and the possibility of an explosion at any given second. Eldridge usually watches the proceedings with quiet interest, nodding along with Sanborn’s grievances but saving his real feelings for his last scene in the film.

If I haven’t made it clear from all that, this is a very different kind of war movie. It’s character-driven and episodic, following the unit from one potential bomb site to another; the repetition almost leads to feelings of deja vu and an uncertainty of where, exactly, the movie is going. By the time we come to the last shot, which takes every badass image of warfare from recent cinematic memory and turns it on its head, we realize that we haven’t been following a narrative arc, but an emotional arc within James’s psyche. Bravo Company isn’t trying to “take the anthill,” as Adolphe Menjou would’ve said in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. We have no linear progression to an achievable goal. The film’s structure resembles that of a video game (like, say, Gears of War, which Eldridge is seen playing). It doesn’t end. It just circles back around to the next level. The influence of video games has been mentioned in numerous discussions of The Hurt Locker, and it’s very visible – this is a truly 21st century war movie, in its style and story.

The gaming aspect of the film’s visuals also connects to a common criticism, which is that The Hurt Locker functions more or less as a two-hour advertisement for the thrill and intensity of military service. I’m not saying that this point has no validity, but I do think that both the articles I link to are somewhat wrong-headed in their readings of the film. It’s always funny, with a work as ideologically ambiguous as this, how critics tend to either decry it as jingoistic and hawkish, claiming that it only shows the “fun” side of war, or else condemn it as anti-American for daring to show the inner strife of combatants.

The truth is more difficult than that, because The Hurt Locker is hardly unassailable in its politics, but neither is it as unequivocal in its presentation of war-as-a-game as some would have you believe. The second of the articles I linked to, Tara McKelvey’s “The Hurt Locker as Propaganda,” describes James’s brief furlough home during the last portion of the film as “a dull, dreary world,” complete with a cereal aisle that ostensibly signifies “American consumerism gone amuck”; it adds that upon his return to Iraq, James is “filled with a sense of purpose, courage, and even nobility that does not exist in suburban America”.

While this isn’t strictly false, it does force The Hurt Locker into a dualistic box where it doesn’t belong. Yes, suburban America looks dull and dreary when compared to the thrilling scenes of war that preceded it, but that’s not because of some inherent superiority of the former. It is, as McKelvey observes, all about the contrast; the film’s real point is that after so much time becoming acclimated to the stresses of warfare, James can’t perceive his home life in the same way. In this department, The Hurt Locker resembles Apocalypse Now, wherein the “wisdom” that Colonel Kurtz reaches through the horrors of war makes him retreat into the jungle while his family waits back home. The moral isn’t “Join the military – it’s so much more fun than home”; it’s “Join the military and you’ll become unable to enjoy being home.”

The Hurt Locker, after all, is a film with a definite thesis, its first onscreen image: “war is a drug.” The point of a drug is that the addict craves more, and that all other pleasures in life are diminished until the drug becomes an all-consuming means and end. (Look at Trainspotting, where the choice is between “life” and heroin.) When James goes home, he isn’t disappointed by the rampant consumerism or the tedium of tearing leaves out of gutters. He’s in withdrawal, totally incapable of relating to family anymore, and it’s utterly tragic. The next and last scene, with James suited up and strutting down a Baghdad street, reads almost as a parody of army propaganda. It’s anything but noble.

This is a talented man, the best at what he does, who’s been reduced to a junkie, and by the end of the film, he is the suit. He’s gone from a full human being to a video game character, compelled to cycle through until he runs out of lives. Yes, The Hurt Locker viscerally and even quasi-sexually depicts the dismantling of bomb after bomb, and this yields several scenes’ worth of decidedly pleasurable cinema. But this is part and parcel with any war movie, so much so that François Truffaut once commented that no movie is truly anti-war, since they’ll always communicate some fun, thrilling aspect of war. Just look at Apocalypse Now‘s helicopter attack to the tune of “The Ride of the Valkyries,” which is the textbook illustration of this effect.

But Bigelow and Boal don’t just passively accept this. They cleverly and insistently undermine it. This is a very smart war movie, and far from being a recruitment ad. I don’t know if it’s the best movie of 2009 – I’ll have more to say about that later – but I am glad to see all the critical approval. Unlike Avatar, it doesn’t just let the audience sit back, identify with a protagonist, and then applaud themselves for being such wonderful people. If we see ourselves in James, Sanborn, and Eldridge, we have some hard questions to confront. That Iraqi’s just filming you dismantling the bomb, after all. Would you be justified in shooting him? And James’s climactic attempt to free an innocent man just throws in an extra layer of difficulty.

I think it’ll take some time to figure out what The Hurt Locker‘s front-runner status really says about America/Hollywood’s willingness to talk about and understand the Iraq War, but love it or hate it, it’s out there. I also suspect that the close proximity between the film’s release and the start of the war has a lot to do with its lack of a clear political stance, and that murkiness in turn has probably buoyed its popularity. As the criticisms show, you can read a lot into this movie based on your own inclinations. When faced with populist bullshit like Avatar and brilliant, original filmmaking like The Hurt Locker, despite its few flaws, I’ll take The Hurt Locker every time.

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Oscar Grouching #1: Avatar

The Oscars are upon us. Another gaudy, self-congratulatory ceremony; another barrage of fashion coverage; and another bunch of nominees to spur discussion. What do the Oscars even mean, anyway? They’ve never been intended, after all, to really select the finest achievements in film from the preceding year. They’re far too mired in the politics of the industry, the current state of society, and all sorts of discourses totally unrelated to the quality of the films at hand. And yet, the Oscars are still a fun and worthwhile gateway into a year’s worth of (American) filmmaking. They show us how the public perceives different artists’ achievements, and try to throw together some kind of crude consensus that negotiates between popular mediocrities, inaccessible art films, and the occasional crossover success that maintains its aesthetic integrity while also having mass appeal (e.g., The Dark Knight – which was snubbed in 2008).

So instead of moaning about how the Oscars are bullshit, no one cares about the Oscars, they have no legitimacy, etc. (each of which have elements of truth and falsehood to them), I find it far more useful to look at the Oscars for what they are. Yes, they’re an awards show, they’re superficial, and they want ratings. They’re often a way for the film industry to more or less fellate itself. But they’re also a peek into the dark soul of Hollywood, and they often recognize some genuinely great movies (like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment). Overall, they’re a very mixed blessing, far too rich and complex a part of film history to be dismissed with a simple declaration of “They don’t matter.”

That said, I still have no interest in the dresses – unless they involve Amanda Palmer’s near nudity, as this year’s Golden Globes did. Nor am I particularly interested in making odds on nominees and winners, which seems pointless to me. I’m more captivated by what the choices say, and what leads up to them. Thus, this year I actually decided to pay attention and watch all five ten Best Picture nominees. The nominees are always a snapshot of a historical moment, complete with all the mistaken inclusions and exclusions that will become obvious as the years pass. They’re not really meant to be the ten best movies of the year. But they do mean something. I saw four of this year’s nominees in various theaters (Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, and District 9), while I pursued the other six through various not-as-kosher means. They’re a pretty diverse collection of movies, and together, I think, they narrate the scope of popular taste in 2009.

As part of this Oscar-observing project, I also wrote an article for the Carl entitled “Confessions of a Celluloid Junkie: Oscar Grouch Edition.” Here’s what I had to say this time around about Avatar:

“I might as well as start with the film that’s first both alphabetically and financially, James Cameron‘s Avatar. After stealing the hearts and minds of American moviegoers for the past zillion weeks (the number “zillion” can be applied to most aspects of this movie – budget, profits, amounts of Pandoran blades of grass and sci-fi action clichés), the big blue blockbuster appears poised to also seize the collective consciousness of the Academy. Will shininess alone be enough to net Cameron another naked gold man? Considering the accolades heaped on his Titanic, not to mention Return of the King, it looks very, very possible.”

I’m not going to go into any depth about Avatar‘s merits (or lack thereof), since I’ve already talked extensively about just that. Instead, I’m going to address its broader significance in terms of the Oscar race and beyond. As I see it, Avatar is a giant monolith of a movie hovering over the rest of the competitors, like the mothership in District 9. It’s fully saturated the pop culture du jour, and Cameron has massive plans to heighten that saturation, from an already-released video game to a novel prequel to (at least) two film sequels. And if the average American can’t block it out, how could the Academy?

After all, people love spectacle: this has been a truism about film since the Bros. Lumière projected a train approaching a station and the audience dived to avoid it. Or ever since William Wellman’s WWI epic Wings won the first-ever Best Picture award. Or ever since 1953 when, against all good judgment, Cecil B. DeMille’s overlong circus melodrama The Greatest Show on Earth was given a Best Picture statuette as well. These are the fruits of The Dark Knight‘s rejection, you see. The Academy ignored Nolan’s incredibly profitable yet cerebral superhero movie, prompting popular backlash, prompting the addition of five new slots for Best Picture nominees, and voilà – the Academy has no excuse not to nominate Cameron’s big-ass movie.

I don’t actually have much else to say about Avatar; it all feels pretty self-evident. It’s got some good precedent going for it: the oft-compared Dances with Wolves, Cameron’s earlier (and similar) Titanic, and Peter Jackson’s equally gigantic The Return of the King all had oodles of Oscar success. Maybe, for all we know, Avatar will sweep its nominations, with the Academy content to let everyone else scramble for acting and writing awards. The voters are about as fickle as paralyzed veterans put in blue alien bodies. Or maybe a little something called “the overall quality of the movie” will trump $300 million worth of exotic, artificial flora and fauna. I have no real way of knowing this – like I said, I’m not an odds maker. I’m just laying out possible scenarios for how March 7 could go down.

Avatar, I think, is especially interesting for the spice it adds to the mix. As I hinted earlier, in a way it’s the glue that holds the nominees together, a potential point of comparison for the other nine. For example, I believe that a large part of its popular appeal is because it’s a feel-good story, like The Blind Side and unlike District 9. (My thesis for this year: the contest is all about race and war.) Even after all its climactic-upon-climactic confrontations, everything in Avatar turns out OK, and the Na’vi go back to their emphatically environmental way of life. (Ah, the ol’ invocation of the zeitgeist.) And sure, part of the moral is ostensibly “Humans Are Bastards,” but thanks to some narrative shiftiness, the real moral you take away is that humans are bastards, but redemption is possible for one flat, empty protagonist (i.e., YOU) who has “a strong heart.”

In other words, the moral of the film each viewer takes away isn’t that he or she is a bastard, but that he or she, put in the same situation, would be just as valiant and brave as Jack Sully. Obviously, the real bastards are those military-industrial fuckers who are bombing the Na’vi in the first place; the viewer would naturally have nothing to do with that system of oppression. Because every viewer identifies with the Na’vi, not the soldiers, and therefore all the blame gets displaced onto some nebulous but definitely evil “Powers That Be.” Avatar is an inherently self-congratulatory movie, and this admittedly makes it a pretty good fit with the Oscars.

Yes, the Oscars love movies that claim to show ugly truths, then double back and sugar-coat everything with a dose of sappy liberal sentiment. (Consider the whole point of the 2005’s dark horse, Crash, or 1994’s beloved Forrest Gump.) And that’s a large part of why Avatar‘s been so successful: its audience is encouraged to eat its cake and have it too, by condemning corporations and embracing a natural lifestyle while shelling out to 20th Century Fox to see a totally unreal world designed on computers. So if, a week from Sunday, Avatar takes away some serious hardware, I believe these will be a lot of the reasons why.

I’m cynical about it because it’s a damn cynical film. It’s covered all of its bases, and is full of so many beat-by-beat storytelling mechanisms that it looks more like a Rube Goldberg machine than a movie. I’ll grant one thing: conceding the visual beauty feels obligatory at this point, but it is pretty beautiful. Maybe if the same financial resources had been in the hands of someone more capable of telling a less run-of-the-mill story with less offensive racial politics (I’ll get to Up later), then I’d be less reluctant to give Avatar any praise at all. This is why I prefer Star Wars and its wide-eyed awe to any piece of Avatar, whose usage of its own fictional landscape feels more like a series of money shots than the vicarious thrill of Luke gazing up at the double sunset.

So there’s yet another diatribe against Avatar. (I really need to stop doing that.) It may well win Best Picture; it’s got all the right attributes going for it. But, frankly, if it does I’ll be disappointed. The Best Picture Oscar is not sacred; it’s been given to a lot of worthless shit over the years. But I’d love to see something of quality awarded and encouraged, as I’ll probably discuss further over the next few days: maybe a movie with the intensity of The Hurt Locker or the sheer spunk of Inglourious Basterds, both of which live in dangerous territory that Avatar doesn’t even approach. But I’ll leave that for another day.

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