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The Pre-Show Game

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Dear Lynda,
Posted, Thursday, March 2, 2006

I didn’t mean to be so snide in our discussion of the Academy’s artistic standards. Oh, I suppose I did. Look: I don’t consider any of the films nominated for Best Picture to be especially Out There. Although Capote and Munich don’t spoon feed the audience—they throw you some narrative curves—they’re not hard to diagram if you pay attention. The fact that Hollywood regards all five of these decent mainstream efforts as “artsy” and more suitable for Indie Spirit awards strikes me as bizarre. It’s not like anyone voted for The New World!

The reaction to this year’s nominations made me think of a recent interview given by my colleague Charles Taylor, who was foolishly booted from Salon last year: “[Ray] is a perfect example of a film that maybe not 15 years ago, but 20 to 25 years ago, would have been a big hit, and now is almost considered specialty filmmaking,” he said. “What we think of as art films find a way to get made, they find a way to get shown, they may be playing to a small audience, but it really worries me when we have a mainstream audience that doesn't care for mainstream cinema.”

I think he’s right. In the same way that what used to be considered the political center is now akin to godless Marxism, what used to be considered mainstream narrative filmmaking is now the province of the Indie Spirits.

Which brings me to Robert Altman, a filmmaker who is being honored this year and who has never won an Oscar. True, he styles himself a maverick: He hates Hollywood bullshit, he’s a well-known S.O.B. and an anti-politician, he doesn’t care if you don’t hear every word his characters say, he never spells anything out in his movies, and he avoids glamour close-ups (or any close-ups). He happens to be my favorite living director in the whole wide world, and I hope the Los Angeles audience rises to its feet and cheers him for ten minutes. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is in my top five favorite films, and M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, California Split, and Gosford Park are up there, too. A healthy mainstream cinema would find a place for Altman; he wouldn’t have to scramble for financing from disparate sources every time out.

Enough of the highbrow stuff. (Actually, I suspect that my critical brethren consider me exceedingly middlebrow, so I’m only a highbrow in this context.) You write intriguingly that the races are duels, Brokeback versus Crash foremost.

Not that I’m such a Brokeback partisan (Munich was my favorite picture last year), but I would be appalled if Crash ended up with the prize (especially after the last Paul Haggis cliché fest, Million Dollar Baby won last year). What do you think? Isn’t Brokeback the perfect consensus film? A gay movie with ostentatiously hetero actors. A lot of art dressing up a very simple story—soap opera, but nourishing soap opera.

I’ve now seen all the foreign films and think Tsotsi will carry the day. As you wrote, Paradise Now is too controversial—although the idea that it glorifies suicide bombers is absurd. The filmmakers clearly deplore the act. All they aim to do is to show us how decent people can be driven to turn themselves into monsters. Anyway, no chance… I rather liked Joyeux Noel for its vision of warring WW I armies staging an impromptu ceasefire on Christmas Eve and being reluctant to go back to shooting one another. I liked the juxtaposition of carnage and honest sentiment. (The central couple—two opera singers—are fairly insipid, though, and the woman is the least convincing dubbed soprano I’ve ever seen.) Don’t Tell is a strange mixture of comedy and buried secret psychodrama; I don’t think it works, but I respected it. No chance. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is an intense melodrama—a series of gripping interrogations—about a young woman who defied the Nazis by passing out flyers condemning Hitler. I have no complaints about it—it’s excellent. But I can’t say it excited me as drama, and it’s probably too austere to be embraced even by Jewish voters.

Which leaves Tsotsi. I have this theory about what wins the foreign-film Academy Award most years. You start with a movie that feels really alien—the average Oscar voter says, “What is this? Where am I? I can’t handle this.” And then gradually, the recognizable Hollywood formula kicks in, so by the end they’re saying, “Who’s the director’s agent?” Tsotsi is set in a South African shantytown and opens with a horrifying murder. The main character has a face that’s unreadable at first—hard and cold, yet with a trace of androgyny that suggests something more complex and unresolved. Well, he steals a car and ends up with a baby and finds the meaning of Christmas, etc. At test screenings there were standing ovations. Oscar bait doesn’t come any more tempting.


—David

Next: Lynda Obst on Oscar competition mini dramas and controversies


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