Sunday, October 25, 2020

Dark Oscars

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

The Kodak Theatre was alive with energy as Martin Scorsese left the stage clutching his long overdue Oscar for Directing. The glamourous audience had been through a lot and after nearly four hours, the end was in sight, only one award remained. But as Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton made their way to the stage, there was great uncertainty as to which film would be taking home that last little Golden Boy.

Normally the film with the most nominations is the shoe-in for Best Picture, yet for the first time in Academy history, the most nominated film wasn’t even in the running. Despite its impressive eight nominations, the long gestating adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls had failed to secure the most important one. Though Babel had the second most nominations with seven, victory seemed unlikely as it had failed to win a single award all night. It was truly anyone’s race. Who would come out on top?

Would it be Clint Eastwood’s year again with his Japanese language, WWII film Letters from Iwo Jima? What about The Queen? The Academy famously loves Brits. Or maybe the feel-good Little Miss Sunshine would follow in the tradition of Marty and Rocky to become the little film that could?

Though it had already racked up three awards over the course of the evening (editing, adapted screenplay and director) few saw The Departed as a real contender. It was a genre picture, it was violent, and it was cynical. This was the same Academy that had only one year prior singled out the maudlinly hopeful Crash for Oscar glory. Surely they wouldn’t give their highest honor to a film that the director himself later described thusly:

"It has to do with the nature of betrayal. The nature of a morality which, after 2001, has become suspect to me. I'm concerned about the nature of how we live, how we're living in this country and what our values are. This new kind of war is going to continue. Our children are going to inherit it. It's not going to be over with by the time we're dead. It's like a whole worldwide civil war. How does one behave in that context? What's right and what's wrong in that war? On the street level of The Departed, no one can trust one another. Everyone's lying to each other. It fueled me in a way. It got me angry, it got me going."

Going purely off the applause as Diane Keaton read the nominees, it seemed as though Babel might end up walking away the victor. But then again, this is the Academy Awards, not Opportunity Knocks. Jack Nicholson didn’t even wait for The Queen's applause to die down before tearing into the envelope. Once it was open, everyone fell silent. Keaton seemed giddy with anticipation. Who would it be? After a moment to examine the contents (and with an oh-so-subtle grin) Nicholson proudly announced the winner.

Just like that, the delusional optimism of Crash was obliterated and the rage of The Departed reigned. And this was only the beginning.

The Oscars are no stranger to darkness (The Reign of Reagan/Bush ended with the double-whammy of Silence of the Lambs and Unforgiven) but even during times as dark as The Great Depression, World War II, and Vietnam, the movie that took home the Best Picture trophy at the end of the night, was invariably something either feel-good or harmless. Film Noir was indicative of something dark going on in the culture, but unless you count The Lost Weekend, those films didn’t win Oscars. Neither did the Paranoid Thrillers of the post-Watergate era. One of the most glaring examples of missing the mark came at the1990 ceremony when Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture while Do the Right Thing received only a Best Original Screenplay nomination.

Darkness hovered around the edges of the ceremony honoring the films 2005. The Best Picture slate included Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Munich, and Goodnight, and Good Luck. But as we alluded to earlier, The Academy opted to take the easy way out via the mirage of depth that is Crash, with its myriad tales of intersections and O. Henry revelations. A whole lot of sound and fury, which in the end signified nothing.

Many like to claim that Scorsese’s Best Director win the following year for The Departed was “a gimme” for all the times he was passed over in previous years, but that doesn’t address the win for Best Picture. They didn’t have to give William Monahan’s screenplay an Oscar. They didn’t have to give Thelma Schoonmaker her third award for Best Editing. But they did. It was the most awarded film of the night. And even if these were all a means to show love to a respected Auteur, they sure picked a hell of a movie to do it with. And no such claims of favoritism can be made with regards to 2007’s slate.

2007

By the time the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their nominees in late January of 2008, seven Democrats and seven Republicans had already withdrawn from the Presidential Race which would eventually come down to John McCain v. Barack Obama. And the two issues that would come to define that election (the Troop Surge in Iraq and the Global Housing Market) were already topics of hot debate. Seven years of George W. Bush (and all that entails) can really start to weigh on the National Psyche. Is it any wonder that we ended up with Michael Clayton, Atonement, No Country for Old Men, and There Will be Blood as Best Picture Nominees? Oh, and Juno was also nominated

Movies take a long time to make. Of course there are stories of Spielberg or someone cranking out a film in a matter of months, but for the other 99.9% out there (those who cannot simply will a Green Light into being) development can be a long and arduous process. The screenwriting alone can take months, if not years. Then you have to find someone to finance it, find a cast, and find a crew. Once you’re in production there are still myriad tragedies (man-made and otherwise) that can befall your film. And then there’s editing, test screenings, re-shoots, etc. By the time of release, a film that was once very, “of the moment” can suddenly be passé. So when a film is able to really resonate with the zeitgeist, it’s sort of a miracle. When four out of five Best Picture nominees are able to achieve this, it’s time to really step back and take a long hard look at both the films and the world that spawned them.

Michael Clayton

Regardless of what André Bazin, François Truffaut, and Andrew Sarris would like us to believe, it is possible for a film to have more than one author while still functioning as a coherent work of art. Of course Michael Clayton is writer/director Tony Gillroy’s film. One need look no further than the fact that it centers around the dogged pursuit of an ominous organization doing very bad things, to find parallels with the Bourne Trilogy that Gillroy had just finished writing that same year. His interests and obsessions permeate both works. But this is also George Clooney’s film.

After transitioning from TV to film in the late 90’s (and after a few misfires), George Clooney was able to enter the New Millennium as a bonafide Movie Star. As a Movie Star, he was no longer required to accept any job that came his way simply to put food on the table. He could suddenly afford to be picky and choose jobs that jived with his interests and politics. And that is precisely what he did with Section Eight, a production company he co-founded with filmmaker Steven Soderbergh in 2001.

Through Section Eight, Clooney and Soderbergh were able to champion filmmakers they respected, help new voices get established, and package their own passion projects. For Clooney, this meant political films that both directly and indirectly addressed the wars, torture, and Crony Capitalism of the Bush Era. Some of these films he directed (Good Night, and Good Luck.) others he just produced and acted in (Syriana). The eight films he acted in at Section Eight really form the basis of what we think of as a George Clooney movie.

Michael Clayton was his final film for the company, and it was one heck of a note to go out on. The way Michael’s car ride at the end of the film is undercut by paranoia and unease is a perfect encapsulation both of an artist about to step out on his own with a new company, and of a Nation on the eve of an election.

Atonement

As the novel of Atonement was published nearly simultaneously with the events of 9/11, it’s impossible to argue that this was meant as any sort of allegory for the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, but there are still some interesting parallels. Both narratives are littered with instances where history could have gone differently. If only Robbie had given Briony the correct note. If only the Bush Administration had taken the PDB about Bin Ladden more seriously. If only Briony hadn’t incorrectly identified Robbie as Lola’s rapist. If only Colin Powell hadn’t insisted Iraq had stockpiles of WMDs.

Now of course it’s silly to equate the lives of two, physically attractive, fictional Brits with the thousands of Military and civilian lives that have been lost during America’s unending War on Terror, but it is undeniable  that both stories are about traumatized/scandalized characters who think they have all the answers, making decisions that result in people getting killed. These are both stories about regret and accepting the consequences of one’s actions. Briony attempts to atone through her writing. George W Bush now paints portraits of wounded Servicemen and women. Neither effort brings back the dead, or even a limb, but it’s something.

There Will Be Blood/No Country For Old Men

It’s fitting that the two films that took the biggest swings at W were both shot in Texas. Marfa, Texas to be precise. The same place where George Stevens, Sr. did the location work for Giant a half-century before. Not only were both films shooting in the same town, they were shooting at the same time! One day of filming on No Country for Old Men was even interrupted by the There Will Be Blood crew testing out the oil derrick explosion in the far distance.

These two films form a yin and yang of The Bush Years. While they both contain elements of the other, one film is overwhelmingly preoccupied with greed, and the other with violence. They also both center around symbolic characters who represent those preoccupations. Anton Chigurh and Daniel Plainview are forces of nature who exemplify humanity’s worst impulses, but most crucially, they are still humans.

Often with parables and allegories, it is easy to dismiss the moral because the characters are clearly constructs, invented to behave in certain ways, in order to impart a lesson. There is no free will. Anderson and The Coens were wise to make sure that their symbolic characters still retained some element of humanity.

In Plainview, it is the need for human connection (both with HW and Henry) which he constantly suppresses with drink in order to continue his quest for wealth. With Anton Chigurh, it is the fact that he can be wounded. The scene of him performing field surgery on himself in the hotel room lets us know that he can in fact feel pain, and that he is willing to put himself through a great deal of it in order to accomplish his task. Such scenes sympathize otherwise unsympathetic characters. We cannot dismiss them as something “other” because we too have felt pain and yearned for connection.

It’s like discovering that you and a serial killer love the same band. You now share something in common with an “animal”. That’s because they are not an animal. They are human and you are human. What they did was something that humans do. Humans can do all sorts of ghastly things.

Sure you can blame Government and Business for committing us to two wars that killed thousands, but Government and Business are not sentient entities. They are run by people. And even if we are not part of Government or Business, we aided and abetted them. We were so wounded and afraid after 9/11, we allowed them to “shock and awe” women and children half a world away on the flimsiest of evidence. And if anyone raised the possibility that this was over oil? Oh well, gas prices are too high anyway.

Anton Chigurh and Daniel Plainview are not nightmarish because they are inhuman, they are nightmarish because they are all too human. To put it into psychological terms, they are our collective id, unregulated, run amok. Laissez-faire, right?

2008 and Beyond

While it would not officially win its Best Picture Oscar until February 2009, the die was already cast for Slumdog Millionaire on November 4th, 2008 with the electoral victory of Barack Hussein Obama.

Produced with George W. Bush still in Office and set a world away, this film was the perfect balm for America in 2008. With two wars raging and an economy collapsing, we were in desperate need of some "hope" and "change". Jamal was our collective avatar and his candy colored fantasy (set to a pulsing soundtrack) allowed us to dive into some serious "shit" (murder, torture, prostitution, etc.) and come out on the other end both victorious and unscathed. Who cares if it’s 100% fantasy!? More than any campaign ad, this film screamed out, "Yes we can!"

Unfortunately this victory would be short-lived. Merely one year later, we found ourselves back in Iraq (no metaphorical stand-ins this time) for The Hurt Locker. Had we lived with war for so long that we no longer knew any other way of life? At least we got our first ever female, Best Director win out of it! But in our rush to leave The Bush Years behind (and thanks to our nostalgia for The Clinton Years) we inadvertently allowed a fox back into the hen house.

After five years in the wilderness, following his ousting from Miramax, the back to back wins of The King’s Speech and The Artist solidified the return of Harvey Weinstein as a force to be reckoned with. Thankfully this period would not last for long. But now we are in this sort of amorphous time where narratives have yet to form. Or will one ever form?

For the remainder of The Obama Years, The Academy  feels like an organization being pulled in a million different directions. There’s the self-congratulatory Academy awarding Argo. There’s the respectable and socially responsible Academy recognizing 12 Years a Slave and Spotlight. And then there’s Birdman and The Shape of Water off in left field.

This is also the period in history that gave us #OscarsSoWhite. Is Hollywood really as progressive as they think they are? Moonlight would seem to indicate that they are. Green Book  would seem to indicate that they are not. At least it’s motivating them to diversify their membership. And maybe that’s how we got the last great thing to happen in 2020 - Parasite winning Best Picture! But is consensus even possible these days?

With the abundance of streaming platforms and social media networks out there, nobody is on the same page anymore about anything. There’s too much to watch, hear, read, etc. And we will never catch up. And there will always be something new to get angry about. And there will always be another hill to die on. We will all be separate-together in our own little worlds that occasionally overlap like a Venn Diagram.

The era of consensus is over. The defining word of this era is coalition. Can enough people find enough things in common to do the right thing for right now? And if you couldn’t already tell, we’re no longer talking about awards. With climate change, a pandemic, and an election all bearing down on us simultaneously, we’re talking about the future of this country and the future of this planet. So let’s hope we can build those coalitions, and fast!

2 comments:

  1. You mentioned the Best Picture winners of the Great Depression largely being sunny "feel-good" movies. I wonder if part of this was simply because films back then were far more constrained as to what they could show? That is to say, the studios didn't want to push big pictures that risked offending people?

    That said, your point still stands. Filmmakers have had far more leeway since the '60s, so it stands to reason that some of the award winners since then would more explicitly deal with the various fears and outrages of our time.

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    1. Well famously Shirley Temple saved Fox because America wanted happy stuff. The plot of Sullivan’s Travels centers on a comic filmmaker wanting to make a serious film only to discover the importance of laughter for people in dire situations. But the fact that the production code limited content could also be a contributing factor. Films about dark subjects were being made but they weren’t the big awards winners.

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