Sunday, February 24, 2013
THE ACADEMY AWARDS AND OSCARS (Revised)
Last night the Academy Awards presented Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and so on, with the implication that this would be done on a purely aesthetic basis. That is, that the best of its kind would merit the Oscar because it's better than the other contenders. I haven't seen all the contenders, but have seen Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln (3 times), and Silver Linings Playbook. I know something about the film Argo, but very little about Amour (which hasn't played within fifty miles).
What do the major contenders have in common?
Lincoln is about a man who stands up to a nation divided on the question of slavery and dies to reunite the country. Against him is the entire South armed and combative, and determined that neither legal nor physical force will make them give up their slaves. Lincoln, through both legal and military means, defeats them. He is killed, but his ideas triumph.
Zero Dark Thirty is about a woman who stands up to Islamic terrorism. She participates in the torture of Islamic terrorists, and uses information extracted from these murderers to find and kill Osama bin Laden, the top Islamic terrorist of the last twenty years, and the main financier of Al-qaeda. But the story is also about how this woman stands up to the male-dominated CIA and her vision triumphs.
Les Miserables is about a man who is on the run due to poverty. He has committed a crime and is hunted indefatigably by a fellow member of the lowest classes (Javert) who is determined to work for the government, and hunt down insurrection at any and every level in order to preserve the law. At the end of the film he dies, but his vision of a better world triumphs.
In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean helps a woman played by Anne Hathaway to bring her daughter to safety. He adopts her, and carries her through. So there is also a sense in all the top films of one person helping another to safety.
In these first three films, law itself is at stake, and law is explicitly seen as tied to the creation of a better world. Lincoln isn't quite certain that he has the legal right to go to war against the southern states. He has bundled together a number of presuppositions in order to ferret out a constitutional right to confront seceding states ostensibly to "preserve the union," in a sense using God (and his own personal disgust about slavery) to trump states' rights. In one key scene he discusses his misgivings about the law, and his own past history of flouting it: doing what he felt right, rather than honoring the letter of the law (he helps a woman escape from a Courthouse rather than be subject to the law for the killing of her husband). In the same way he's helping slaves escape their masters. He's obeying a higher law. Although he dies, laws are discovered that make for a better world.
Zero Dark Thirty centers on the legal restrictions surrounding "coercive interrogation" which meant waterboarding (experts differ on whether the scenes in the movie accurately depict what happened in CIA black sites). As the laws change with the new and supposedly improved president (Obama), the use of "coercive" techniques (a euphemism for torture), is slated for termination. But the information received (described as being a Costco-sized warehouse bulging with folders) is used by Maya, a cobbled entity, to ferret out the identity of OBL's courier, who is then traced to a small fortress in Pakistan. There are further legal problems when the Blackhawks descend illegally on the house, and snuff out the lives of OBL and his bodyguards. With OBL gone, we will presumably now have a better and safer world.
Legal versus religious law confronts one another in all the major films up for awards.
The oddest of these stories and the least momentous on the world stage is Silver Linings Playbook. This film is about a bipolar guy whose wife has ditched him. In a fit, he beats up the new lover and is sent to an asylum for his trouble. The legal status he endures there shifts, and he's permitted to return home on a probation deal. He then hooks up with another mental case, and they participate in a dance contest, which they then win, earning themselves enough money to open up a restaurant thanks to a bet (I think bets of this nature are illegal). The legal status of the bipolar whack job is always in question, and at times we fear for the people around him, as he doesn't seem stable. However, he finally appears to find his match, and everything turns out for the best.
Argo, the one real contender I haven't seen (and which eventually won Best Picture) harkens back through its title to Jason and the Argonauts. Jason, in quest of the Golden Fleece, sails out of Greece, and brings back not only the fleece, but some buxom babe by the name of Medea. She's a witch who's helped him get the fleece, killing her own family in the process. Once they return to Greece, they have two kids, but the drama doesn't stop there. In Euripides' sequel to Apollonius' adventure tale, Jason then dumps Medea, and mates with a princess in Corinth. Medea, furious, kills their two children in spite, and flees Corinth for Athens, where she has been promised sanctuary. This film doesn't delve into all that, but shows us six Americans stuck at the Canadian Consulate as they attempt to leave Tehran during the heady days of the Iranian Revolution. In most of our films there is a sense of triumph. But in the original Medea, there is only disaster. Unmitigated disaster ruled the prizes handed out by the Greeks. Medea helped Jason, and all she got is kicked to the curb.
Today our prizes go to positive thinkers: people who don't quit even when the odds are against them. They triumph. This is the American story. We help others and by gosh, they appreciate it.
Aesthetic merit doesn't preclude moral merit or what we call stick-to-it-iveness. The two must reinforce one another. Day-Lewis won best actor. The major moral issues are settled, and we can feel good we were on the right side, but there is something ennobling about the contemplation of Lincoln as a character. Day-Lewis said he had the privilege to live with "Lincoln's beautiful mind body and spirit." I wasn't sure about "body" but the other two seemed accurate. ZDT is less certain as Maya's character was dogged, to be sure, but also somewhat ballistic. The character doesn't take the party line. What's missing in that film is a sense of character arc. Where had Maja been to be what she was? What drove her through those nights of archival research? Without this, it was impossible to relate. There were no Academy Awards for ZDT. Les Miserables is about the French struggle for human rights. Jean Valjean had a torturous road in front of him, but he walked it nobly, and did what he could until his dying breath. From the exhalation of his dying breath he burped up the Statue of Liberty. Silver Linings Playbook argues that we ought to be more inclusive of the mentally ill. After Newtown, I wonder if this is a sound policy. We don't want to become a nation of freaks who lash out and destroy others. We want to assert norms. And yet neither of the two main characters is a quitter. They do what they can with what they've got and even if they're only mediocre dancers, they at least do their best in the final dance contest.
The movie I think I might have liked best is Amour. It's about the extreme elderly (from the glimpses I got I believe they are ninety plus) and helping one another through the last stages. It's that stick-to-it-iveness that we appreciate. Go, old people! From what I've seen the film indicates that the initial getting-together-scenes of amorous life as they are depicted in Silver Linings Playbook are not as beautiful or touching as the final ones.