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A strange crowd of contenders: picking Best Picture, Part 1
Do the nominees for the Academy Awards' Best Picture category reflect the best film making going on in any given year? The answer, as always in life is 'sometimes yes and sometimes no'. Acknowledged classics like Casablanca (1940), On the Waterfront (1954), and Midnight Cowboy (1969) have all had their day in the LA sun, but the Oscars have also frequently pandered to the crowd. Thus, Rocky (1978) KOed Taxi Driver and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) outgunned High Noon. Overall, though, the winners of Best Picture are a fairly respectable group.
That said, in recent years the pandering seems to be winning out over quality more and more. It's doubtful that winners like Slumdog Millionaire and Crash are destined to be remembered as great films fifty years from now. This year the nominees for best Motion Picture at the Academy Awards are a strange and diverse blend of nominees: Avatar, The Hurt Locker, The Blind Side, An Education, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, and Up in the Air.
This is the first time since 1943 that there have been ten (instead of five) nominees. Consequently, it's to be expected that there will be a little bloat in the ranks. What's interesting about this year's group is the way that many of them reflect what's going on in the American unconscious. Two pairs of contenders illustrate this point nicely.
First off we have two films that are uncannily similar: Precious and The Blind Side. Both are about overweight, illiterate black adolescents trapped in hellish, hopeless lives. Both protagonists are saved thanks to forces both internal and external. Internally, both protagonists share a deep instinct for protection: the aspiring football player in The Blind Side is driven to protect his teammates while the teenage single mom in Precious is motivated by a desire to protect her children from the horrific abuse she herself suffered. Both characters are also saved by outside forces: in The Blind Side by a rich, white family and in Precious by a 'high yeller' (look it up) social worker. To some extent both of these films are morality plays designed to salve the conscience of White America in the year of Barack Obama's election: wish fulfillment strategies in which the most downtrodden people imaginable are saved by the system—Christian charity in the one case, socialized education in the other. Precious, her social worker predicts, will complete high school “and then college”. But how many survivors of abuse and poverty do? Not many.
You can sum up either of these fantasies in three familiar words whose charm is already fading: 'yes we can'. Of course, for untold millions of non-celluoid people, the reality is 'no you can't', but who wants to talk about that when there are tears of joy and redemption to be shed in the privacy of one's rec room?
That said, The Blind Side is something of an abomination—a 'true' story that rings false, devoid of legitimate conflict and dramatic tension and featuring the antics of the smarmiest, mouthiest kid sidekick this side of Danny Partridge. Many commentators can't believe that such a piece of tripe was nominated: I stand alongside them, face contorted into a scornful grimace. Precious, at least, has the virtue of dealing unflinchingly with the savage realities of such desperate situations and is well-filmed and edited.
Our next odd pairing of films is Avatar and District 9, both of which were reviewed in Lone Sheep newspapers when they first came out. Both are science fiction films positing an encounter between humanity and an alien species—and in both human beings turn out to be the bad guys. In Avatar, human beings are corporate employees sent to another planet to rape and pillage its resources. In District 9 a ship filled with insect-like aliens is stranded on earth and the humans lock them up in ghettos and generally treat them like...insects.
This self-hating trend is interesting. It speaks to an unconscious frustration with a military and economic system that we all know is doing massive damage to the world and its inhabitants. How to be good guys in such a situation? Identify with the aliens!
Avatar, of course, is a technical marvel, as impressive, in its way, as a Mars rocket or an aircraft carrier—and just as expensive. As a story and piece of acting, it's not terrible. Kind of 'meh', as the kids say. District 9 is a cute and fairly kitschy piece of sci-fi, enjoyable in the theatre but in no way a serious contender for best film of the year.
All four of these films share one quality in common: they attempt to salve guilty consciences through identification with the victim, even as they do nothing to expose or halt that victimization. Neil Postman famously wrote that 'information without context is entertainment' These four films, at the end of the day, mostly fall into the category of entertainment. I have no problem with entertainment as such, but to make entertainment out of serious, really serious, issues strikes me as sort of disgusting.
That said, I'll grant a pass of sorts to Precious. It honestly offers up a vision of Hell designed to make the viewer think twice, and while the escape it offers its protagonist is an unrealistic one, the need for any escape is so convincingly proven that we can forgive the filmmakers for grasping at any straw. In other words, Precious, at least, earns its fantasy wings.
Next week I'll look at the remaining contenders for Best Picture.
Have an opinion? Vote in the Telegraph's 'Best Picture 2010 poll' and help see if the West Kootenays can outguess the rest of the world.