The Oscars

The Oscars 2013


Howard Adelman

I am writing my reflections on the academy awards, not to comment on the vote or to suggest why another film should have been awarded the Oscar for best score or best costuming or best director or why one actor was better than another. Rather I want to use the academy awards as a set of indicators to try to sense the zeitgeist of America today. This is particularly appropriate this year since so many of the films that have been nominated in the various categories are reflections of sentiments and predispositions in the land of the free and the home of the brave. What is the fashion of the moment, not in the sense of a fad, but as a phenomenological window into the shifting character of America? As Georg Wilhelm Hegel wrote, "No man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of a time is also his own spirit." And the representatives of our age who specialize in representation offer an ideal window into that spirit.

Of course it is a great conceit to suggest that Academy members do not cast their votes based on the skills and creativity of its members in the various categories, but those skills were so much in evidence in almost all the films nominated that it is not too far fetched to suggest that in at least some of the categories underlying collective beliefs could have served as tipping the voting scales in one direction or another. Underlying assumptions that permeate an age may even influence us to ignore prudence and fall in love with flying and with romantic love itself, the real secular religion of our age.

Notice the total and absolute absence of any film set in business. There are no Greed is Good films. The only movie set in the business world is Paperman, that won an Oscar for best animated short film, and it was about a bored and unhappy office employee who ignores his boss and runs off to seek romantic happiness. Paperman was based on John Kahrs’ using a traditional animation style in a unique way by marrying it to modern technology for the purposes of inversion to convert 3D into 2d pencil drawings.

The romantic story is also an inversion for it begins as a romance when a lonely young office worker falls for a beautiful girl on his morning commute to the office when one of the papers that is blown away by the wind into his face belongs to a beautiful woman and then one of his papers blows into her face and is marked by the lipstick on her lips. He retrieves the paper and is mesmerized by the iconic red lip marks so that he misses the train with the woman on it. The love of his life is presumably lost forever. He magically re-discovers that she works in a skyscraper opposite his own office. In a comic series of reversals he tries to get her attention by making paper airplanes and trying to reach her and when he runs out of paper he uses the lipstick-marked one only to see that presumably fail too. He ignores his boss, flies down to the street only to be covered in an alley with the paper planes he already flew. But in the magic of movies, the lipstick-marked paper airplane pursues the girl, catches her and in the end unites them both. It is a romantic innovative delight and obeisance to the virtues of perseverance, the magic of romance and the delight of the chase.

America stands torn between opposing squadrons of economic liberals and conservatives, community conservatives and individualistic liberals so that individualists per se are on both sides of the divide but in opposite camps, while those liberals who believe in caring and sharing are at odds with those with whom they share a sense of community because the conservative communitarians are guided more by a sense of respect for authority, tradition and values centred in the traditional family to which they have pledged their fealty. Through it all we want to tease out the cunning of reason.

Does the cunning of reason get expressed as community conservative values favouring tradition, loyalty and authority rooted in solid middle class families or are the virtues celebrated caring and sharing in a large communal sense as in Beasts of the Southern Wild or in the offbeat comedy, Silver Linings Playbook which won an Oscar for best supporting actress for Jennifer Lawrence playing the role of a sex-addicted and blunt talking and quirky widow, hardly the consummate virtues as a model for community conservatism? But she is not an acquisitive individual but an idiosyncratic one who falls in love with a bi-polar former teacher (Bradley Cooper) who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital.

David Russell’s adapted script (and direction) of Silver Lining Playbook that was tops in the Spirit Awards did not win an Oscar for best film or best direction or best adapted screenplay. The film is a reflection of the central character, Pat’s, refrain who keeps repeating that all you have to do is get in the right frame of mind and anything’s possible and we cannot get caught up in the poison of negativity. It is the same message as the equally engaging, warm and funny drama, Beasts of the Southern Wild, but Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy and not a dark comedy seen through the fantasy of a child’s eyes. It was not the illusion of love viewed through rose clouded glasses that wins out but love that is the product of struggle, conflict and tension and rooted in a mixture of madness and reality. But it is love nevertheless.

In the category of original screenplays, in contention were Amour, Django Unchained, Flight, Moonrise Kingdom and Zero Dark Thirty. Though I saw Flight and appreciated John Gatins excellent script, as well as Denzel Washington’s acting, and although the script was also authentic and reflective of Gatin’s own struggles with drugs and alcohol, I did not believe authenticity reflected our age or America’s sense of either its ideals or what it was prepared to do.

Django Unchained was hailed as leading in a tight three way race and was expected to win over Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty and Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola’s Moonrise Kingdom. My film-mad son, Gabriel, was rooting for Tarantino’s script to win. I did think that its theme about a freed black slave (Jamie Foxx) who by sheer grit self-discipline, a good tutor, Dr. King Schultz played by Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, and unflagging determination, who transforms himself into a bounty hunter, did somehow mirror the quest to kill terrorists by using navy Seals and was not too far fetched an analogy. Drango delivers revenge on Calvin Candle played so brilliantly by Leonardo DiCaprio, and rescues his beloved, Broomhilda played by Kerry Washington who speaks fluent German.

It is a film of love and redemption, revenge on evil-doers and triumph of the good through disciplined and targeted violence. The dentist, played by Christoph Waltz as a replay with variations of the character he played in his Oscar award winning smirking Nazi SS-Satndartenfährer Hans Landa in Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglorious Basterds. Unlike Lincoln, he is an authentic German (Austrian) anti-racist who offers brilliant comic relief while, at the same, serving as the Greek chorus and telling Django the original German legend of Broomhilda.

The dialogue has its usual brisk crisp punctuation that also delights and entertains, but I questioned whether the marriage of the comic and sombre revenge drama, however entertaining, reflected our time. The parallels were too direct and overdrawn without any of the subtle twists and inversions of the original Norse sage or even Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen with its deeper tale of fratricide and betrayal. But the Academy did choose Django Unchained for best original screenplay. It told me that revenge for 9/11 was still on the American mind and that their president, who was not himself descended from slaves, but identified with the majority of Americans who were, was the perfect leader to deliver that revenge. I thought that Michelle Obama presenting the introduction to the selection of best picture could not have been more appropriate.

Why did Lincoln win Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar? It was simply a case of the best man lead actor winning though the fact that Lincoln is Barack Obama’s favourite president may have helped. Lincoln, whichalso won for production design, was a film of sacrifice, of Lincoln’s life, of the 600,000 soldiers, 1 of 4 Confederates and 1 of 19 Yankees, who died not counting the hundreds of thousands who were maimed for life, of the suffering of the Blacks that stand in the background of the film. Lincoln not only sacrifices his life but his principles as he wallows in the muck of politics and payoffs to pass the 13th Emancipation amendment that made slavery unconstitutional and would free the slaves before the confederate states surrendered and rejoined the union, a principle that Lincoln thought was just and ripe even though he personally did not subscribe to the equality of Negroes, only their right to be treated equally before the law. As his law partner William Henderson wrote, Lincoln was "humble, tender, forbearing, sympathetic to suffering, kind, sensitive, tolerant; broadening, deepening and widening his whole nature; making him the noblest and loveliest character since Jesus Christ…I believe that Lincoln was God’s chosen one.” Lincoln is played as a Christ figure with many human failings as described by the priest in Life of Pi. Of course, Stephen Spielberg has a long record of making movies based on the core Christian myth. But this was more historically accurate than the portrait of Oscar Schindler in Schindler’s List.

That is how Daniel Day Lewis portrayed him – as cantankerous and surly but humble and affable, stooped with the weight of all those dead soldiers on his back but stooping even further into buying votes to ensure the Thirteenth Constitutional Amendment on outlawing slavery is past. Lincoln is full of homey and long-winded boring stories but is always tolerant and kind. That Lincoln was nominated for twelve academy awards but only won two while Argo won the Oscar for best picture, best director for Ang Lee, best editing and best adapted screenplay based on the Chris Terrio script adaptation of Joshua Bearman’s magazine article, "The Great Escape" which, instead of a Canadian caper, took the incidental use of a film crew to tell a CIA spy drama of escape from Iran.

Argo is a great juxtaposition to Zero Dark Thirty which is also a CIA story but of revenge against a terrorist escapee rather than a humiliating tale of American hostages escaping from Khomeini’s tyrannical terrorist fanatical Iran regime. While the killing of bin Laden was a high point in Obama’s presidency, the hostage crisis was the final nail in the coffin of the Carter presidency and was probably the lowest point in the sense of American confidence since WWII. So instead of Canadians appearing as the heroes hiding the hostages and getting them out with Canadian passports, the hero is Tony Mendez, a Vietnam vet and an expert on graphics, identity transformation with a record of helping friendly assets escape danger undetected. Though Bearman does mention that the group of non-hostages was split between John Sheardon’s personal residence and the Canadian embassy represented by Ambassador, Ken Taylor, the Canadians are relegated to the background and the fore story is a CIA/Hollywood marriage of individual risk and daring-do based on identity transformation, including the transformation of the historical narrative into a fictional tale of a spirit renewed and recovered. It is your archetypal Hollywood narcissistic tale of self-love in the service of a liberal cause of rescue but not revenge or prevention.

The cover tale, of course, was ironic, a fictional Irish-Hollywood crew planning an epic film that might appeal to the Iranian regime in desperate need of hard dollars and in the story he had to develop an air tight exfiltration mission. Mendez with two Hollywood costume specialists created a fake Hollywood production company with fake business cards and identities for a location-scouting party and even a Hollywood address for their invented studios in the old China Syndrome set. So Hollywood is enlisted to create a fake story to create a fake story about a great escape. How Hollywood! The schlockmeister feelies of fantasy partner with ingeniously clever and wheelies of the CIA to save the world, or, at least six Americans

If Moonrise Kingdom had won then so would subtlety, nuance, gentle satire and the childhood vision (also captured in Beasts of the Southern Wild). Recall the opening when the ten-year old Lionel on a rainy day ascends the steps of a very dated house with old pictures of sailboats and battleships to put an old fashioned record on a turntable and listen with his siblings as Benjamin Britten teaches Lionel, his two younger brothers, Murray and Rudy, and his older sister, Suzy, how an orchestral composition is brought together and integrated, though Suzy sets herself apart and immerses herself a book, Shelly and the Secret Universe. We quickly enter a Peter Pan universe.

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonrise is narrated, but not by a five year old butt by a fifty year old long-haired surveyor whom we first meet wearing boots and a parka to shield himself from the wind and rain. He introduces us to the island of New Penzance and we immediately think of the comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance, which was subtitled, "The Slave of Duty" and is the story of a boy, Frederic, slightly older than Lionel, who was apprenticed to bleeding heart pirates and, when released by the pirates, meets beautiful women for the first time and falls in love with Mabel. We can then expect a similar love story and a parallel rescue as Major-General Stanley, Mabel’s father, rescues Frederic and Mabel. The names of the characters – dimwitted Captain Sharp, Scout Master Ward, who is the worst warden of any troop imaginable, and Sam’s foster father, Chesterfield Billingsley who is unwilling to take the escaped Sam back, as well as Lazy-Eye and Snoopy. The film is a cross between Cinderella and the Seven Dwarfs and neither it nor Beasts of the Southern Wild won a single Oscar. This simply indicated that Hollywood is still married to the traditional fables of America captured by Argo rather than the humorous satirical takes on the American fable or the down and dirty Bathtub of America reaching up to metaphysical and metaphorical heights. America wanted its fables clean and traditional and uncontaminated by either dirt or satire.

Penzance, we are told, has no roads but is a bucolic place of old growth forest but about to be hit three days hence by a powerful storm. So Django Unchained is a comic western adaptation of a Norse fable via an opera which wins two Oscars for best adapted screenplay and best supporting actor while Moonrise Kingdom is a fairy tale adaptation of a comic opera set in the pastel gentle and innocent colours of the sixties rather than the jangled screaming colours of the tie-dye generation of Haight-Ashbury. It is a period of scouts and honour codes, of boy bonding and innocent pursuits disrupted, but some of those innocent pursuits. such as building rockets, are very ominous. It is a brilliant twist to replace soft-hearted pirates with an inept scout troop trying to find the escaped Sam Shakusky and is a delightful and light-hearted send-up of conservative communitarians in America but not a film ready to win an Oscar.

I’ve already written about Amour and Zero Dark Thirty and was surprised to see the latter lose out in the editing category to Argo though it won for its sound editing. Amour is so realistic and finely tuned and deservedly won the Oscar for best foreign film, while Zero Dark Thirty has all the impressions and cleverness of reality while essentially telling a gangster revenge film in a spy motif. So Academy members had a real choice: the dark critical comic book drama (Django Unchained); the light gentle satire (Moonrise Kingdom), harsh self-destructive realism and the inevitable destructiveness of death wearing down an unforgettable tale of love (Amour); and a mythological version of the reality that is the most dominant political narrative of our age (Argo).

Only Lincolncould have challenged Argo. Les Miserables, Life of Pi and Zero Dark Thirty never had a chance for best picture though he categories in which they won were very revealing.

Beasts of the Southern Wild has a script by the young director, Benh Zeitlin written with Lucy Aliba, a close friend since the two were twelve years old. The film script is an adaptation of her play Juicy and Delicious which was an autobiographical look at her own troubled relationship with her own father who was seriously ill but "broke sh’t" when he was angry. The film, though its very authentic harsh and simple language was easily the most poetic script of all the choices, including Life of Pi which was adapted by David Magee from Saskatoon’s Yann Martel’s novel that has already sold nine million copies. Further, it had the most metaphysical message about the interconnectedness of all of nature and even the extinct animals from the past that haunt the film and makes sense of Hush Puppie’s wish for cohesiveness. The portrait by Quvenzhané Wallis was simply amazing and evidently the language used by the father was a direct replication of the words used by Lucy Alibar’s father. It is a film about becoming unmoored in a radically more profound way than the American escapees in Iran, unmoored by a drunken and sick father and unmoored by nature.

Life of Pi won Oscars for visual effects (Vancouver-based Gaillaume Rocheron), cinematography (Claudio Miranda), best score (Michael Miranda) and best director, Ang Lee. It is an adventure fable and not a projection from life into a metaphysical realm. But it is also a film about unmooring, for instead of being located in Bathtub outside the levees of New Orleans, it is a story of a character stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger. The film begins in a magical fairy tale world of the widest imaginable cluster of animals in contrast to the extinct aurochs that haunt Beasts of the Southern Wild and the wild carnivorous devouring of shell fish and animals. In the Life of Pi the fiercest cat in the animal kingdom is a kitten. While the latter looks at the world through the fantasy imaginings of a young child, Life of Pi turns a fable into a zoo story that starts with animals in captivity but is also awash in water. Water, the symbol for constant change, is always about to overwhelm, the struggle for survival. Diving in a pool in Life of Pi is but an adumbration of Pi’s underwater life journey. Pi is not named after the famous abstract mathematical formula representing the ratio of the diameter of any circle to its circumference that is an irrational number which has no end, but after the most beautiful swimming pool in the world, Piscine Molitor and later the most defined and smallest world of all, a life raft. If Beasts of the Southern Wild has a collection of the ugly leftovers, misfits and discards of the beautiful world, the Piscine Molitor swimming pool in its sparkling magnificence is an idealized picture of the beautiful society. It is not hard to understand why Hollywood loved the film and favoured it over its dystopic closest and more profound and psychologically authentic closest rival.

If Beasts of the Southern Wild is about community and connectedness, Life of Pi is about the purification of the individual soul. If Beasts of the Southern Wild always portray a community of those with virtually nothing engaged in continuing mutual support with the dictum to never cry and feel pity, Life of Pi shifts quickly to bullying and humiliating Pi in Montreal. Both films are narrated, Beasts of the Southern Wild by a five year old child telling her current story and the adult Pi telling a retrospective story. Beasts of the Southern Wild is infused with a Spinozist pantheistic metaphysics while Life of Pi has a Christian frame. Early in the film Pi asks the priest why God would send his own son to suffer for the sins of ordinary people and the priest smiles down at Pi that it was because God transformed himself into a human to be more approachable and accessible. Pi is puzzled. Why would the innocent be sacrificed to atone for the sins of the guilty? That could be asked of any of the movies. But as I wrote above, only Lincolnand, as we shall see, Les Misérables picks up on the Christian theme though Christoph Waltz sacrifices himself for Django but without any allusion to Christianity.

We find sacrifice but without resurrection. Not entirely. In the documentary category, two wonderful documentaries about the absence of resurrection were ignored. Rabbi Dow Marmur wrote that, "Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters received an unexpected gift from Hollywood: neither of the two Israeli documentaries [Broken Camera and The Gatekeepers]got an Oscar. Both are highly critical of Israeli government policies." Marmur continued and added, "the films testify to the country’s commitment to democracy that allows such open and explicit criticism of its government to be exposed to international scrutiny." But Hollywood ignored them in favour of a feel good film, Searching for Sugar Man, about a musician who, unbeknownst to himself, became a famous star in boycotted apartheid South Africa, and the process of his resurrection from obscurity.

The evening was dedicated to musicals, but only Les Misérables was nominated in the musical category. Anne Hathaway, as expected, won for her portrayal of Fantine, the prostitute whose daughter, Cosette, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) adopts. The film won for cinematography, make up and hairstyling, and sound mixing though I was surprised Anna Karenina beat it for costume design. I have not read Hugo’s classic since high school over sixty years ago but its Christian theme from below in contrast to Stephen Spielberg’s preference for Christians who come from the top down or even from outer space, did not seem to be its primary appeal. Hollywood, though, always loves a noble and beautiful whore. But the real Christian is Jean Valjean, a hard working stevadore arrested for a stolen piece of bread and pursued for the rest of his life by the determined and unremitting Javert played by Russell Crowe even though, after being born again through the efforts of the saintly Bishop Myriel, he lives the rest of his life as the suffering Christ figure until he dies as a sacrificial lamb in the revolution. In this case, persistence and determination are villainous rather than heroic as when Maya in Zero Dark Thirty shares those same characteristics. Both characters are bent on revenge and their own deep sense of justice and upholding the rule of law, at least as they see it. Les Misérables is an uplifting sentimental tearjerker that is just so beautifully produced but it is still a story of class warfare and that rarely plays well with Americans.

If Les Misérables is about class warfare, the Bond series in its fiftieth year has always been about class in a stylistic more than a social or economic sense. Daniel Craig plays Bond when he is ready to retire in Skyfall, has lost his panache and daring-do and, like Denzel Washington in Flight, has retreated from taking risks and seeks obscurity only to be drawn back by M (no longer played by Judi Dench but by Ralph Fiennes) to deal with horrific terrorists led by a rogue agent played by Javier Barden as Raoul Silva who was once abandoned by M to be broken physically and psychologically. The film won for the most original score and tied with Zero Dark Thirty for sound editing. Adele Adkins sings "Skyfall" that she wrote with Paul Epworth and it won an Oscar. The lyrics are worth reprinting:

This is the end
Hold your breath and count to ten
Feel the earth move and then
Hear my heart burst again

For this is the end
I’ve drowned and dreamt this moment
So overdue I owe them
Swept away, I’m stolen

Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
Face it all together

Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
Face it all together
At skyfall
That skyfall

Skyfall is where we start
A thousand miles and poles apart
Where worlds collide and days are dark
You may have my number, you can take my name
But you’ll never have my heart

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together
At skyfall

(Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall)

Where you go I go
What you see I see
I know I’d never be me
Without the security
Of your loving arms
Keeping me from harm
Put your hand in my hand
And we’ll stand

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together
At skyfall

Let the sky fall
We will stand tall
At skyfall

The lyrics were as appropriate for to Beasts of the Southern Wild with the words: drowned, the sky is falling, the end is coming, and swept away, where worlds collide and days are dark and skyfall itself suggesting the end of the world. These terms are counterpoised to standing tall at skyfall where we stand together, stand tall and face it all — together.

Curfew written and directed by Shawn Christensen that won the Oscar best Live Action short film is about Richie (Christansen) who, when we first meet him, is in a real bathtub not the Bathtub of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Unlike the latter, which urges everyone never to give up, Ritchie is slicing his wrists in that bathtub. Ritchie is asked by his estranged sister, Maggie (Kim Allen) to look after her daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek) for a few hours. Unlike Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hush Puppy is unable to save her father but Sophia as an energetic and boisterous ball of energy who is quick witted, a vital spirit and metaphysical observer of chaos who connects with Richie, turns him around. But both Beasts of the Southern Wild and Curfew are about sharing and caring as is Silver Linings Playbook.

Sean Fine and Andrea Nix, who were nominated before for an Oscar for their 2007 film War/Dance about child soldiers in Uganda, made the Oscar award winning coming of age documentary short Inocente about the indominatable determination of this fifteen year old artist who rejoices in colour rather than her dark past. Like many of the films from Argo to Life of Pi to Beasts of the Southern Wild, it is a film of homelessness, of a child this time but like Silver Linings Playbook see technicolour and not just silver linings in life’s little joyful moments.

Brave won for best animated feature and is about an indefatigable determined young girl, Princess Merida, who is a skilled archer and refuses to follow the rules of the male dominated system and marry the chosen son in accordance with clan system. It is precisely the same theme as Zero Dark Thirty. Both have to undo a spell that clouds the society and keeps putting up obstacles.

So what can we read of the American zeitgeist through the pictures American and the world watch, most of which are reflections of how America sees it self these days and projects that self on the screen? Review the themes. Though romantic love remains the secular religion of modernity, it is a theme in only a few of the movies: Les Misérables, Django Unchained, Paperman, Silver Linings Playbook, rather surprising for Hollywood. In fact sharing and caring are more frequent themes than romantic love and that is even true of the romantic comedy, Silver Linings Playbook. This is characteristic of the love portrayed in Amour, Les Misérables (who misled us in describing the French as the epitome of lovers), and the daughter-father relationship in Beauty of the Southern Wild, the uncle-niece relationship in Brave as well as the love relationship between Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) and Sally Fields (Lincoln’s wife), and between Tommy Lee Jones (The radical abolitionist, Thadeus Stevens) and his black wife or mistress.

Traditional Christian themes remain a strong suit but in some very unusual and non-traditional contexts. It is certainly a theme in Les Misérables, but in a leftist class context, in Lincoln but in sacrificing himself for a large historical transformation, emancipating the slaves, rather than for saving individual souls, in Life of Pi but in a context which has more to do with the purification of the soul in Hinduism than traditional Christianity. Sacrifice detached from Christianity is more common: Amour, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Beauty of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables and Django Unchained. Except for the most famous adventure comic of all time, the Bond movies, redemption itself is rare. One quarter of Americans may be evangelical Christians but you would never know that from what Hollywood produces and distributes.

Two motifs do stand out: the creative importance of the imagination and fantasy, and unmooring, though an older theme of identity transformation is used as a superficial cover-up in Argo. Unmooring is the flavour of the day in: Life of Pi, Skyfall, Flight, Sikver Lining Playbook, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Inocente, Fantasy and the imagination are critical tools of salvation in Life of Pi, Moonrise Kingdom and Beauty of the Southern Wild. And if you want to celebrate certain virtues, Hollywood seems to have placed a huge value of perseverance: Paperman, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Beauty of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables, Django Unchained and Brave. Optimism was the other principle virtue I noticed: Beauty of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained.

It was a wonderful year to see Hollywood reflecting itself in all its reflected glory.

Academy Awards.2013.doc

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