I was looking a little ridiculous last night at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis for the Official Twin Cities Oscar Party, which I was persuaded to attend in the waning Sunday afternoon hours. There were photographers, designers, gift bags, a red carpet, swanky gents in suits and beautiful women in luxurious dresses. In my childlike enthusiasm I was sporting my new official Drive jacket over an Oak Street Cinema t-shirt, Buckle jeans, and old Doc Martens. I was “representin’,” as they say, cheering on Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling’s snubbed noir, which was merely up for the prestigious category of Sound Editing. Unsurprisingly, it lost. I contained myself and stayed away from the elevators.
Not that many of the party’s attendees had seen Drive. I dare say that 50% of them had seen more than three of the films nominated for Best Picture, to say nothing of 2011’s many excellent films utterly snubbed in all categories. Though I had a good time, especially after I wound up in the VIP section with an open bar, the jabber and networking between people usurped the interesting-looking moments of the broadcast, where actors discussed what effect movies had on them. Because the two most nominated films were films about film history – The Artist and Hugo – producer Brian Grazer feebly tried to channel cinematic reverence. I don’t think many people cared. Honestly, the most exuberant part of the show was probably the sketch starring Christopher Guest and company (Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge) playing the first test audience in 1939, commenting on flying monkeys and such in The Wizard of Oz. As with his films Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, Guest and Co. are more us than we’d ever admit.
Meanwhile, the show tried to focus on the excellence of an art while itself being shabbily executed, with the sound going in and out and an inept handling of audience reaction shots to follow up on Billy Crystal’s jokes. Sounding hoarse and tired, Crystal quickly launched into his trademark “It’s a Wonderful Night for Oscar” medley, compressing nine nominees into verse when before he always did five. It didn’t quite work. Maybe the hooks in the songs were weak and the jokes lame, or maybe it was because too many of 2011’s Best Picture nominees were full of hot-air to begin with. I’m not even sure I could make out the song for what is universally acknowledged to be the least deserving of the nominees, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I did enjoy the opening montage, with Crystal intercut with some big 2011 entries, but wasting time with a Tin Tin homage plummeted the proceedings.
However superior the under-fire Oscars are when compared to other gala award shows like the Emmys and the Grammys, it’s now more than ever about the posturing of popular culture, instead of disappearing under the shadowy and archetypal wings of the masquerading icons and stories being told. Tweets and Facebook updates become the complementary narrative to what the Oscar producers are staging, the show besieged by a haughty and snarky backstage Chorus. Cynical viewers love to say how bad the Oscars are, while there’s another populace with their eyes laced to the red carpet pre-show. Both factions are eager to dig their teeth into celebrities baring too much skin and going over the top. The merit of The Artist or Christopher Plummer’s Beginners is not being chatted about today. Rather, it’s Angelina Jolie’s weight and thighs, and Jennifer Lopez’ apparently prodigious Frisbee nipples.
As far as winners go, the night wasted no time in launching into disappointment. The only widely predicted winner that ended up losing (if we don’t count Viola Davis’s Best Actress vie in The Help) was the first award of the evening, as Emmanuel Lubezki lost the Cinematography Oscar to Robert Richardson for Hugo. I love Richardson and Hugo, but there was something unforgivable about Lubezki’s loss. The Mexican cinematographer of Y tu mama tambien, Ali, The New World, Children of Men, and Burn After Reading had swept the critics’ awards and took the Guild prize, but his work also conveyed the meaning of Terrence Malick’s elusive and wondrous Tree, which I hold to be more pertinent to a philosophical discussion of cinema than The Artist and even Scorsese’s Hugo. It’s not just that Lubezki’s cinematographic achievement ranks for me alongside John Alcott’s work on Barry Lyndon (1975) or John Toll’s on Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998); he and Malick made the screen a great window through which we look and find ourselves. What was so startling and magnificent about The Tree of Life was how if affected me and how I experienced the world outside the theater after the movie. The world was dancing, and a run around Lake Harriet or a simple stroll through Minneapolis was suddenly boiling over with sensation. Malick begins The Tree of Life with a little girl’s hands set on a barn window, crossing over the other side, and he ends it with a bridge. Lubezki’s camera is not a tool of escape or trickery, but a link that loops back on ourselves. Granted, Hugo has cinematography that is also aesthetically rich just as it is meaningful to its subject, bringing 3D and the digital realm back to a photographic, human-centered root. But I’d bet a little money that even Scorsese and Richardson would bow in reverence to what Malick and Lubezki accomplished.
The subtext to this unfortunate start ties into the future of movies, and so makes the show’s narrative more dramatic. With Kodak going out of business and celluloid dying out to make room for the way of the future, the long-hold-out Scorsese finally embracing the digital (and doing it transcendently), giving the award to Hugo re-affirms the future path of Hollywood. Slumdog Millionaire was the first digital film to win the Cinematography Oscar (though it should have been Dion Beebe for Collateral in 2004), followed by Avatar the next year. Inception was mostly shot on film, but its victory over Roger Deakins’ True Grit indicates a trend to award bigger “oooo-ahhhh” films, heavily painted over with special effects. Lubezki’s great offerings are earthy when compared to such spectacle, using natural light whenever he can; even when he’s experimented with digital in a few shots in Ali, it was defiantly basic. During a recession, when a current golden era of television threatens movies, the Academy may want to reward pictures of great scale, dismissing the sublimity that sits right before us (much as audiences would dismiss The Tree of Life).
Hugo continued to reign with most of the technical categories, deservedly getting Dante Ferretti a second Oscar for Art Direction, in addition to Sound Mixing, Sound Editing (beating my beloved Drive), and Visual Effects. The one moment when my arm was raised in surprise and enthusiasm occurred with Film Editing, which I expected to be taken by The Artist or the great Thelma Schoonmacher for Hugo. Instead, it went to Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, my picks, for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The win was a shocker for me, not because of the industry’s tepid response to David Fincher’s magnificent Swedish noir, but because Baxter and Wall won last year, just as deservedly, for The Social Network.
It’s still somewhat of a pooper when Film Editing is the high point of Oscar night. The major awards went by the book, and deserved or not, it’s still a let-down. Christopher Plummer won for playing a gay man who comes out of the closet at 75 in Beginners; he was the deserving winner, but lacked suitable competition in snubbed peers like Albert Brooks (Drive), Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method), Brad Pitt (The Tree of Life), and Christoph Waltz (Carnage). I had no problem with Octavia Spencer’s victory for The Help, though it would have been a welcome surprise had Melissa McCarthy won Best Supporting Actress for Bridesmaids; I also regret that Jessica Chastain was nominated for her fine work in The Help when she was so much better as the confused wife of Take Shelter and luminous mother in The Tree of Life, and the category was also marred by the dismissal of newcomer Shailene Woodley, who plays George Clooney’s feisty daughter in The Descendants.
Best Actor was something of a three-way front-runner horse race between Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Clooney, and Brad Pitt (Moneyball), with two unexpected dark-horses in the background (Demian Bichir in A Better Life, and Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). The category was really blunted by the Academy’s demand for the big names Clooney and Pitt, who are nominated – for doing some good work, I admit – at the expense of more impressive performances from Ryan Gosling (Drive), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), Michael Fassbender (Shame and A Dangerous Method), and arguably Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar) – and dare I say Mel Gibson (The Beaver). I think Dujardin’s victory still felt a little overripe in its predictability. Indeed, I was hoping my three front-runners would cancel each other out and Oldman’s George Smiley, the most haunting of all five performances (and the most revered actor of the bunch), would take the gold. Had this happened, I can guarantee you that half the articles this morning dismissing the Oscars as dull would be saying something different. An Oldman victory would have been the longest standing ovation in years, and the most career-affirming Academy Award for an actor since Al Pacino 19 years ago.
I guess we were supposed to think that Meryl Streep’s Iron Lady victory was the surprise of the night. It wouldn’t have been, had not the buzz in trade papers turned Viola Davis’ way a couple of weeks ago. In November, it was almost a given that Streep would get her third Oscar for playing Margaret Thatcher (she should have probably gotten it last year for playing the much more cuddly Julia Child). But reverence for the world’s greatest actress (if not actor generally, if we’re to be gender neutral) prevailed. My personal choice for the award was Rooney Mara, my new imaginary girlfriend, whose Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was an uncanny creation, a harmony of performer, director, and music score. As with Oldman, the actor disappeared and the character haunted me for days afterward. Oldman and Mara gave performances that were ghostly in their silences and unblinking stares. As good as Streep, Davis, and the magnificent Michelle Williams (as Marilyn Monroe) were in their respective roles, I still wasn’t as transported.
I would think that a survey of 2011’s cinema would be an utter rejection of “convenient clarity.” The defining films of the year had so much ambiguity and irresolution, where things were left to us, the audience: The Tree of Life, Shame, Meek’s Cutoff, Take Shelter, Melancholia, Carnage, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Dangerous Method, Drive, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Sourcecord, The Ides of March, and of course A Separation. Yet with the exception of The Tree of Life, none of those films were nominated for Best Picture.
Every year, there’s a cultural shrug as every blogger, insider, critic, whatever, has to form their narrative of either the year in review, or of the Oscar race. You never read a positive take on things, how movies are getting better, how the nominees reflect something happening in the international sphere, like in Mark Harris’ book on the 1967 nominees, Pictures at a Revolution (where four of the five nominees were culturally significant: Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and The Graduate). Year after year we hear about how originality is dying, how all the films are depressing, how spectacle is taking over, and how the Europeans are doing it better than us. And that’s fine. Bitch and moan away.
But last year was really interesting. Of the 10 nominees, nine of the films were interesting fodder for a cultural critic or film buff. There was an idiosyncratic edginess to them, many being the visions of great cinematic voices: Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, David O’ Russell’s The Fighter, the Coen brothers’ True Grit, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours. You had an out-of-nowhere uncompromising indie darling, Debra Miller’s Winter’s Bone. Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right was released months before the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Arab Spring was happening during Oscar season, the subtext of which was Facebook, social networking, the ubiquitous camera eye and impact of technology on the world, easily connecting things to the grand duel of David Fincher’s The Social Network and Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech. The nominees were adventurous, significant, bookmarks for their year of release. Many of them will, I believe, be watched with admiration years from now.
Instead of “right now” movies, 2011’s nominees are about nostalgia. At their best, they may be the kind of masterpiece that is plugged into the “Eternal,” the deep past that loops around to the present. Whereas The Social Network is a zeitgeist “Information Age” masterpiece, The Tree of Life is a transcendental all-encompassing one. Hugo bridges the film technology of 1900 to 3D digitalism, and how the creation, manufacturing, and criticism of the Art is a religious process of Promethean fire-theft. The Descendants is a family drama on the surface, but with its images of Hawaii’s terrain and interest in how history is about kingdoms displacing and usurping old ones, it’s a cosmological story about accepting the slow continental drift of history, having the same Darwinian weight as Malick. Midnight in Paris is about our tragic pining for the “Golden Age,” while it also reminds us, in a materialistic present where people measure out their lives in tiny units and possessions, that “the past isn’t the past,” and how there is value in staying connected to the richness of history.
Elsewhere, The Help goes back to Jim Crow Jackson, Mississippi, being too reactionary for some of its critics. Spielberg’s War Horse goes to the Great War, but for whatever is there to move and thrill us, it still doesn’t offer much that resonates for the world of today. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about a kid with Asperger’s, searching for some hidden clue that will connect him to the time before everything went bad, on September 11, 2001. Even films that weren’t nominated for Best Picture but won awards for their actors, are focused on the past. Beginners is about “historical consciousness,” while The Iron Lady is about a woman drifting into senility, her mind hopelessly wandering in the past.
Only Moneyball, also about a man haunted by his past and lost potential, seems of the zeitgeist variety (it was co-written by The Social Network’s Aaron Sorkin) that we had last year. It works as a film about digitalization and how technology affects us, but it also clearly talks about our political and economic struggle in America, anticipating Occupy protests centered on rich teams that have too much money while small teams have so little. Billy Beane’s pragmatism, for Aaron Sorkin, could be seen to reflect President Obama, while Art Howe is as obtuse as the congress of John Boehner.
And though it makes sense to nominate Moneyball, Hugo, The Descendants, and The Tree of Life, and perhaps the fluffy satisfaction of Midnight in Paris and The Artist, Spielberg’s fine but autopilot War Horse, the Lifetime pleasures of The Help, and Extremely Loud, in addition to the warmth of the deserving films, drains out a lot of the sting from the list. All the nominated films have something of a tender and uplifting ending. The emotions, oftentimes, are clearly spelled out. In a year where there was a lot of ambiguity, only The Tree of Life is an elusive movie here – though it’s affirmation of all creation is fairly transparent.
There are no unhappy or challenging endings this year, though in recent years such endings have been on the up: No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood and Michael Clayton in 2007, The Departed, Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima in 2006, The Hurt Locker, A Serious Man, Inglourious Basterds, District 9 in 2009, and again, Inception, The Social Network, Black Swan, and True Grit last year.
Sure, happy endings are fine. I liked the euphoric dance coda of Slumdog Millionaire. But when you have War Horse and The Help and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and The Artist is almost a shoo-in winner (a film that is almost too likable), things just feel a little airy and light. Meanwhile, a famously dark filmmaker, Martin Scorsese, makes his most optimistic-feeling film (albeit with very rich subtexts) in Hugo, and Woody Allen, who loves to leave his characters frustrated and confused, recently in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Vicki Cristina Barcelona, Cassandra’s Dream, and Match Point, has a euphorically delightful conclusion in Midnight in Paris, his most enjoyable film in maybe decades. Evil remains abstract, like in The Tree of Life, or as a cartoonish and materialistic woman, like Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris or Bryce Dallas Howard in The Help. But I still feel that the dark side of human nature, the Daniel Plainview side or Anton Chigurh side, is sorely under represented.
That would have made Drive or Take Shelter perfect. Are these men heroes and prophets, or psychotics? Are they both? In Brandon in Shame merely a sex addict, or is he an emblem for a whole culture of excess? Is Freud or Jung right in A Dangerous Method, un-meaning or meaning? The perplexing questions posed in the remarkable films of 2011 are hushed by the simple assurances of escape in The Artist, or feel-good progress in The Help. The film canon wasn’t particularly enriched by the 84th Academy Awards, and most of its content and highlighted movies will be soon forgotten, blips on an increasingly digital map. Whatever. Granted the disappointments of the evening, I put on my Drive jacket and take what has value into the future with me.