PETER WIX: Between a distribution system under the aegis of capital and that insidious Oscar system, the public gets a pretty bum deal in movie culture, as do a whole heap of talented filmmakers. With the recent Oscar deceptions fresh in our mind, and the triumph of what is basically a boy's own superhero war film displaying chilling hauteur towards Iraq, perhaps we should begin to insist that a few of the more outspoken Hollywood aristos (Sean Penn, Danny Glover, Tim Robbins...) turn their backs on the Academy. What!? Undermine American cinema!? This means war!
Here are a few Oscar highlights.
MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON - FRANK CAPRA 1939
Two major events got in the way of this movie changing the world: Gone With the Wind, and World War Two. The former pipped Capra on all but the writing oscar - people just adore a love story don't they? Then the war made sure that everyone was in the hands of the scum Mr Smith defeated in this fictional Washington. THIS IS QUITE A SHOCKER, REALLY. Children killed in order to stop the truth reaching the public. The man who wants to tell the truth, rookie senator Jefferson Smith, hunting down and punching every hack who misreports him on his first day in the job. See what I mean? Tough times.
These rather severe images are counterbalanced by a fair bit of naive political fantasising and glorious idealism, but you still get the point, which is that the fundamental beliefs upon which the USA is supposed to be constructed have been usurped by a mean, conspiring, greedy bunch of crooks known collectively as the US Senate. Ring a bell does it? They use the phrase: "Defend the Machine," while Smith (James Stewart, no Oscar) defends "human rights". He makes quite a case - in simple language - in defence of government based on "plain, decent, everyday, common rightness." There's a little messing around in the exposition of the movie, since James Stewart has to get to know Jean Arthur among other things, but hang on in there until the filibustering speech. Stewart was an immense actor and this is one of his greatest scenes. Capra needed a Deus ex Machina ending to steer us away from the horrible reality that none of the bastards who run this world would let anyone like Jefferson Smith set foot in the US senate, let alone remind the other senators how to run the country honestly. But suspend disbelief and dream. There is a better world, and Capra could sense it. Instead of making kids sing their stupid anthems or pledges every morning, the USA should have every boy and girl in the nation watching Stewart's speeches from this film every morning. Overlooking its flaws and in praise of its extraordinary moments, this is a 9/10 movie.
A PROPHET (Un prophète) - JACQUES AUDIARD 2009
New fin de siècle French cinema has a formidable champion to live up to. This is one of those very rare masterpieces that transcends all the difficulties of movie-making and the clichés of the crime and prison genre to set new standards in cinematic detail and sensitivity. The real beauty of this film is that its director sacrificed neither the thrill nor the ethical dilemmas involved in portraying life at its most compromised. A 19-year-old Arab with a torn upbringing is imprisoned for what we will believe to be a trumped up charge. He is soon at the mercy of Corsican Mafia elements and is forced to learn how to carry out an assassination by concealing a razor blade in his mouth. It's this or be killed, and from then on he will learn how to read, write, negotiate, murder, trade, spy, intimidate, deceive, befriend, love, respect and, above all, survive. The adrenalin flows, blood flows, the boy grows into a man and an accomplished criminal. At every point where the action or story might take a tired old route, the director's skill is breathtakingly employed to keep everything fresh, and not just through the subtle use of magic realism and a daring mix of modern music but with techniques well studied from a vast range of cinema. In his first role, Tahar Rahim is superb as Malik, and Niels Arestrup is spellbinding as the Corsican boss who controls the prison. This is a triumphant development in recent French language film making, one that seems informed by the realist and quasi-documentary techniques used by the likes of Cantet, the Dardennes brothers, Zonca...but also by many years of quiet, perspicacious films from the Arab world. By taking such a careful look at the human being - something few British or American directors ever do (Mike Leigh, for example, or Paul Thomas Anderson in Let There Be Blood) - Audiard has delivered perfection and hope of more to come. 10/10
THE WHITE RIBBON (DAS WEISSE BAND) - MICHAEL HANEKE 2009
What was life in Germany like before its people were thrust into thirty years of war and humiliation? This is Haneke's own portrayal of the grim scenario in a small village you would not have wanted to grow up in. Photographed in an unsettling but appropriately neutral, low contrast black and white, the story concerns the interruption of daily rural life by intermittent episodes of beastliness towards children. It's a simple panorama: if adults are petty-spirited, perverse, cruel, spineless, unhappy, and repressed - and all of them in the village are one or the other - then what can you expect the next generation to be? Within this framework, the director measures everything with care. He lets you get close enough to feel that you don't like being there, but the narrator schoolteacher's voice has a special tone - as if reassuring you that the horror is part of an everyday dynamic. Then his voice is gone, the film ends, and you realise what horror has taken place . The result is a superb movie but of Bergman-like pace and intensity. If only the world and, in particular, the US cinema world that dominates our distribution networks, had more patience for work like this. 9/10
THE HURT LOCKER - KATHRYN BIGELOW 2008
Without a doubt, the Emperor's new desert camouflage uniform. Beyond its astute assembly, there's nothing here to write home about. In fact, it is hard to see what there is beyond well edited suspense and constant theatricality disguised by hand-held cameras (Kubrick was there 50 years ago but his technique fed the content rather than constituted it). The illusion here is completed by the use of lesser known actors (i.e. if Mel Gibson had played the lead this would have been seen entirely differently by critics).
So, do we really have to sympathise with soldiers? Is that what this film is about? Is it a nod from cinematography technicians to those 'other' professionals, the hard done-by bomb disposal experts? Or were we short on portrayals of the human side of soldiers? SHIT on that! You invade a country, you steal all it has, you slaughter its population, and then you make entertainment out of trying to show that your soldiers have a hell of a job getting all this done. Let me see if I've missed something that might stop an enraged Iraqi in the midst of a vomiting and stamping fit (the Iraqi's are the ones with bombs chained to their insides or outsides).
At best, we focus on a young soldier who, like the nation whose army he joined, is good at bombs but hopeless at people. (Of course, he's got his job to blame. We shouldn't send our boys out to do this job? If they weren't boys, they wouldn't go anyway.) But even if this interpretation survives the few ambigous scenes which might support it, this film gives us nothing with which to combat the careless view that 'Arabs are bad and dim while Americans are good and caring and a whole lot more savvy.'
A shaky camera does not mean instant realism. Realism is boredom, the mechanical day-to-day stuff, and then an occasional incident. These situations conform to an unlikely set of heroic adventures. Furthermore, the little crew of bomb dismantlers go about their work as if they were free agents. The only officiating superiors we get to see are clichés, a bonehead who wants to shake the hands of "wild" men and an exaggeratedly naive army doctor who gets blown to pieces. After the Slumdog insult to India, the Academy has added an Oscar-packed insult to the injury to Iraq and compounded the widely held belief that US movies are intellectually feeble. 6/10 for the technical stuff.
THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS - GRANT HESLOV 2009
Starts out well enough with the premise that if you're going to make a satire about the US Army it's difficult to make them look more stupid than they already do, so once the vehicle of soldiering is established, the political ammunition is emptied into a story about self-improvement through institutionalised hippy-dom gone wrong. Funny at times, but since it uses a couple of memorable Cohen brothers actors (Clooney and Jeff Bridges) it does seem like a style copy of one of their films. The narrator figure played by Ewan McGregor, but without the pathos of his role in Trainspotting, rather cramps everything, especially Clooney. 5/10 MORE BLOGS BY THIS AUTHOR
Leave a comment