Monday, February 28, 2011

Thoughts after another boring Oscar show

This year’s Oscars “celebrate” yet another mostly dull year for motion pictures, with about as much drama as a glass of milk; most of the major awards were in films I never heard of, and won’t ever. This past year was such a snore that the only film I found worth wasting good money on was “Machete.” I figured it must be good if a white person told me that he didn’t like it; it was also the only film this year that had a socially trenchant message: Take the bigots names, and kick their ass. So what were we force-fed this year? Kings and ballet dancers. If the subject matter is snobby enough, it tends to remind Hollywood “royalty” of themselves, and they can’t get enough of themselves. Everyone knew who was going to win the top awards this year, because “The King’s Speech” and “Black Swan” were the only movies that ever got much press in the run-up. At least this time we were allowed to assume it instead of being told it was a stone-cold lock; sometimes the winners are telegraphed a thousand miles, like how TIME shamelessly plugged Kate Winslet for “The Reader”—apparently because she worked so hard to put on so much make-up to look older. Her character’s moral and ethical ambivalence was so disturbing that it bordered on mental retardation; she apparently never once dwelled on the moral question of mass murder even after years in prison. Was this movie supposed to give us “insight” on why Germans looked away? A law student asked the question; like in the movie itself, he didn’t get an answer.

Meanwhile, boxing movies continue to enjoy some Oscar recognition. “Rocky,” “Raging Bull,” “Cinderella Man,” “Million Dollar Baby” and this year “The Fighter” have all been big winners; "Fighters" Christian Bale won for Best Supporting Actor, and apparently not for knocking someone out on the set. Other sports receive less respect; last year, despite his gritty, honest portrayal in the honest, gritty movie “The Wreslter,” Mickey Rourke criminally lost out to Sean Penn; Penn already won an Oscar in Clint Eastwood’s morally and ethically despicable vigilante movie “Mystic River,” and the social message ground of “Milk” was already covered when Tom Hanks won for “Philadelphia”—bypassing the more worthy Liam Neeson in “Schindler’s List.” Hillary Swank won Best Actress for the fight film “Baby,” another despicable film by Eastwood which dispensed ugly racial stereotypes freely; after many hypocritical characterizations (including a racist white guy who was made to look sympathetic) Swank’s character was felled by a black fighter with pure evil on her mind, and ended-up dying thanks to some mentally-incompetent Latino corner man who didn’t know what side a stool a person was supposed to sit on. The screenwriter of “Baby” was Paul Haggis, who went on to write and direct the Oscar-winning “Crash,” another “even-handed” characterization of race relations which did its best to “justify” white racial stereotypes. I don’t know what was worse—this movie or the dishonest “American X,” where the effect of neo-Nazis activity was diluted when they attacked unsympathetic black gangbangers; everyone knows that white supremacists terrorists are too cowardly for that—they’d rather attack a couple outside Fort Bragg, North Carolina or an inebriated man walking down a lonely road in Jasper, Texas.

At least this year, politics wasn’t involved in the Oscar selection. In 2008, “Slumdog Millionaire” won for best picture, apparently because of its “exotic” nature. Chicago film crtic Jan Lisa Huttner made a stink because when the various awards nominations were put out, Loveleen Tandan—who was listed as “co-director (India)” in the credits—was not named in the best director category. Tandan was embarrassed by the politicking of American feminists, and why not? Tandan was given the credit for PR reasons in India; her role was second-unit expository filming in slum areas where English was unknown, advice on the culture and performing casting functions when looking for slum residents to put in the movie. The politics carried over the next year, when Kathryn Bigelow became the first female to win Best Director for the “The Hurt Locker” which also happened to win Best Picture. Nearly everyone (that is, civilians) marveled at the film, although one reviewer on some feminist website complained about the lack of female soldiers in the movie and accused Bigelow of being too “macho.” Most Iraq war veterans who commented on the film found it about as realistic as a “Roadrunner” cartoon, which is probably not Bigelow’s fault but the script writer, who allegedly was an “embedded” journalist. Probably to keep the budget in check, the film focused on three explosive ordinance disposal specialists who ran all over Iraq in a Humvee; in reality, these soldiers would never be out by themselves, especially without security; instead, they’re are allowed to wander about in open desert, dark alleys and insurgent-infested neighborhoods, and never once does an Iraqi threaten to capture or kill them—nor does an MP or superior stop them and ask why they are so stupid. In one amusing scene, a British unit can’t fix a flat tire or use their sniper rifle, but the EOD guys act like they’ve been doing it all their lives; those Second Amendment rights sure come in handy. But all of that is beside the point; a woman won best director, and that is the point.

The political sensitivities of the old fogies in the AMPAS have its limits, of course. This year, not a single black person was nominated for an award. No film directed by a black man or woman has ever been seriously considered for Oscars’ highest prizes, regardless if they made money or not (“The Hurt Locker,” as mentioned before, had more positive reviews than gross receipts). The Spike Lee sprawling bioepic “Malcolm X” was the kind of film that always gets nominated for Best Picture, and the director always gets nominated, but “X” was shutout on both counts. There was suspicion that many of the white Academy members were expressing covertly their personal prejudices; people today consider Muhammad Ali a sports icon, but like Malcolm he was in fact hated and feared by a majority of whites for his political and social views in the 1960s.

I will end my Oscar ruminations by noting that there wasn’t even a “feel good” award this year. Last year, Jeff Bridges finally won an Oscar; Bridges was one of those actors who film after film achieves a certain uninterrupted level of competence that people couldn’t tell if a performance was good or bad because they had nothing to draw a comparison to. Another actor who never seems to be in the right place at the right time is Michelle Pfeiffer, who like Bridges consistently offers gives fine performances in parts that are not necessarily meant to maintain a carefully-coiffed image. Maybe when she’s 70, the Academy will say WTF, let’s get it right before she dies.

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