Oscar’s ideological throwdown

Slavery vs. torture vs. mental illness vs. death: This year's contenders make award season a lot more interesting

Topics: Movies, Oscars, Academy Awards, Movie Awards Season, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, django unchained, Kathryn Bigelow, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Silver Linings Playbook, amour, Editor's Picks,

Oscar's ideological throwdownStills from "Amour," "Lincoln," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Zero Dark Thirty"

Hollywood could be getting an unexpected gift this season: An Oscar race that isn’t completely boring. With an impressive number of high-quality and high-visibility movies in the mix, movies that offer markedly different worldviews, interpretations of human experience and dramatized real-world events, the Academy Award struggle of 2013 ought to be a heated cultural imbroglio with all sorts of ideological overtones, one that lays bare some of the fault lines in American society.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama-hunting thriller “Zero Dark Thirty” has already been proclaimed the year’s best film by several critics’ groups (including the New York Film Critics Circle, to which I belong), and become the object of a left-wing counterattack, all before its official release. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” depicts our most revered president as a shrewd political manipulator, and has itself been mired in historical controversy about its presentation of the struggle to end slavery. Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” takes on our nation’s “peculiar institution” from a different angle, spinning an outrageous tale of a freed slave taking garish and bloody revenge on the antebellum slave-owning class, with the director’s usual indifference to accuracy, plausibility or taste. Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” a front-runner in the foreign-language race and a likely contender in other categories, tackles a subject that may be even more taboo than torture and slavery: The realities of old age and death that we will all face.



Even the less overtly “political” titles in the upcoming Oscar race feel more contemporary and connected to larger cultural questions than is often the case. David O. Russell’s audience-friendly “Silver Linings Playbook” may be viewed by many Oscar voters as a conflict-free safe haven, but that movie can also be understood as an attempt to reinvent the tired romantic comedy genre and invigorate it with real-world issues and dramatic heft. Tom Hooper’s star-studded screen version of “Les Misérables” gives the movie musical a similar makeover, with its actors singing live (rather than lip-syncing to prerecorded tracks) and Victor Hugo’s epic melodrama rendered as full-bore, big-screen CGI spectacle. As for the first installment of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” – well, no, I can’t argue that offers anything new and different beyond its creepy-looking 48fps video projection. Which is why Jackson and his fans will likely be watching the Oscar race from the outside.

In perhaps the most remarkable Oscar-season twist of all, those are (mostly) good to excellent movies, well worth seeing and talking about. (I’ve now seen almost every plausible Oscar contender, with the conceivable exception of Juan Antonio Bayona’s tsunami drama “The Impossible,” starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor.) Of the ones I’ve listed, only “Les Miz” has the high-prestige, middlebrow thrum of classic Oscar bait. But while that definitely isn’t my personal favorite among the contenders, Hooper handles the combination of cheese, schmaltz and old-school moral conflict with tremendous gusto. I won’t feel horrified or outraged – or at least I don’t think I will, right now — if it wins the big prize. As you may have noticed over the years, the Oscars is more of a popularity contest or an industry trade show than a gauge of lasting artistic merit.

Arguably it’s always most fruitful to regard the Oscars in symbolic terms, as a struggle over the barely-left-of-center heart of mainstream culture. As an actual election – one whose voting population disproportionately consists of old white people living in Los Angeles County – they can be pretty darn disappointing. Generally speaking, the results can be seen to expose the shifting and complicated ideological rifts within the American movie industry. It’s just that most of the time those rifts aren’t very interesting. Sure, last winter’s exceptionally tepid Oscar campaign offered competing visions of film aesthetics and film culture, as presented in “The Artist,” “The Descendants,” “The Help” and “Hugo.” But did anybody, excepting those deluded cultists who held out hope for “The Tree of Life,” really care? Of those choices, only “The Help” – a movie that became fatally contaminated by racial controversy – seemed to offer any commentary or reflection on larger cultural and political questions.

In 2010, we had a juicier showdown between “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network,” one that pitted movie critics against industry insiders, and revealed an all too predictable generational divide. But did defenders of either film – or partisans of “Black Swan,” “Inception” and “Toy Story 3” – ever argue that they had something to say, some X factor that stayed with you after the movie was over and moved them into the larger cultural debate? Leaving aside the half-serious argument that “Toy Story 3” was a Holocaust film, I don’t think so.

You have to go back to Kathryn Bigelow’s last appearance in the Oscar race, the 2009 collision between “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker,” to find any significant degree of real-world resonance. Both pictures seemed to capture leading American filmmakers struggling with our precarious position of global dominance. One was a gorgeous but ludicrous eco-fable set on another planet that was one of the most successful pictures ever made, and the other was a morally ambiguous war story that became the least lucrative Oscar winner in history. And that’s without getting into the fact that the two directors used to be married to each other!

Before that it’s back to 2005, when Paul Haggis’ “Crash” won a surprise victory over “Brokeback Mountain,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Munich” in an Oscar season that will and should live in infamy. But since at least 1990, and probably earlier than that, the Academy Awards have felt increasingly disconnected from larger cultural and political debates, even when the contest was hot and the movies were good. I mean, “Forrest Gump” vs. “Pulp Fiction” vs. “The Shawshank Redemption” – with by far the worst of those three winning – tells us a good deal about the backward-looking state of Hollywood in 1994, but not much else. (See also: “Shakespeare in Love” vs. “Saving Private Ryan,” 1998; “Dances With Wolves” vs. “Goodfellas,” 1990.)

This year’s race, with all the promised riches it offers to Op-Ed columnists and television pundits, could merit comparison with the epochal Oscar seasons of long ago, when the movies themselves seemed like much bigger events and came freighted with all kinds of cultural and political baggage about who was watching them and what messages they carried away. No period in Oscar history was richer in that respect than the stretch from about 1971 to 1976, with the first of those years offering a contest between “The French Connection,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Last Picture Show,” and the last including “Rocky” winning the Oscar over “All the President’s Men,” “Bound for Glory,” “Network” and “Taxi Driver.”

It’s not coincidental, of course, that those were also years of immense turmoil in American society and explosive creativity in the American film industry, and the two phenomena were inextricably connected. We’re not dealing with that level of change and ferment at the moment; all the filmmakers implicated in this year’s race are old pros, and at the level of cinematic art and craft, their movies are fairly conventional. But I do believe that all the social conflict and division that has paralyzed American politics in the last four-plus years, coupled with an economic recession that has forced many of us to reconsider long-held assumptions and downsize our lifestyles, has driven mainstream film in a more serious and contemplative direction. (Quentin Tarantino is laughing like a hyena right now — startlingly like a hyena, in fact — but it’s nonetheless true that the geysers of blood shed in “Django Unchained” are meant to have an ideological purpose.)

What will actually happen this year? Well, let’s put off the horse-race analysis for a while, shall we, and focus on the fact that it ought to be both meaty and fun. We’ve got plenty of time to spar over whether Dick Cheney will love “Zero Dark Thirty” (my verdict: He might, but he shouldn’t) and whether “Lincoln” offers more than a hokey Great Man view of history or a lesson in political compromise (yes, much more). Is “Amour,” with its wrenching tale of an older couple facing the end, simply too much for the geriatric Academy electorate? Is “Django Unchained” a work of disruptive brilliance or an undisciplined crap-fest? How bad is Russell Crowe’s singing voice in “Les Miz,” exactly? (Honestly, not all that bad.) Will whatever movie you hate the most from this list probably win? Well, you know the answer to that one.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>