Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Remembrances: On the 84th Nominees

To remember. To create a history. To relive an experience. To suddenly have the past, as Walter Benjamin might suggest, "flash up" for a moment, hoping and waiting to be grabbed.

This is what unites this year's Academy Awards. The act of remembering, the act of creating a personal or collective history.

We see this most explicitly--or perhaps most pervasively--in our two Best Picture frontrunners: The Artist and Hugo. The former is constructed head to foot to look like something it isn't--a movie from the late-20s/early-30s. It's a feat of reconstituted aesthetics that brings with it the weight of mythologies about the movie industry's conversion to sound and a purely romantic ode to something past. The latter explores the technology of "the future"--3D cinematic space--by traveling to the past and reframing one of cinema's earliest technicians as a romantic martyr. In a more childlike, eyes-wide-open way, Hugo is the better movie about the magic of movies.

But the Best Picture race offers more outside of this hermetic seal of "movies about movies," even if there's virtually no chance for anything else to win. The Tree of Life is a movie of filmed memories and interior recollections, childhood approached from middle age. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close uses the shared memory of 9/11 as a space for a child to overcome his own personal loss (and boy, does it exploit that image). Midnight in Paris is about nostalgia--a particular kind of memory that distorts history. In that film, Allen explores a dislocation of place and identity, a soul trapped between multiple time periods and moments of history. War Horse takes place in World War I--a historical film--The Descendants has the spectre of a deceased family lineage hanging behind George Clooney's decisions. The Help reframes history from the perspective of white guilt and a search for a black voice (as problematic as its racial politics are). Billy Beane's memories of his own personal defeats haunt the narrative of Moneyball.

But as these films look toward the past, they also look at the future. Moneyball is about re-inventing the wheel and worrying about what that re-invention means for a whole institution. The Tree of Life pushes, in one majestic finale, from the past to the present to the future. Hugo has one foot in its diegetic past and another toward us in the theater: Scorsese seems to be asking, what will the films of tomorrow look like? Where is our magic? Ditto The Artist, a film that reads almost like a plea to remember "film for film's sake" at a moment where Kodak has filed for bankruptcy and the industry braces to switch almost completely to digital.

Every year I have people ask me why I care at all about the Oscars. After all, I haven't really agreed with them much since 2007, and I've become intensely indifferent about the actual winners in that time. But who they pick fascinates me because I see it as the story the industry wants to tell itself about itself. If they pick The Artist, or if they pick Hugo, that will say something about the industry's panic about moving into an era that is post-film. When "films" cease to really be "films." Of course, whether that's an empty gesture or not remains to be seen. Will they be like the Hollywood Foreign Press and help increase funding for film preservation? The Academy is many things, but it is first and foremost a symbol of what the industry stands for.

Overall, this is a really bizarre year for Oscar. They can nominate both The Tree of Life and Extremely Loud for their top prize. One is an oblique art house film, the other a straight-down-the-line-conventional three-hankie-weepie. They can nominate a performance as subtle as Gary Oldman's in Tinker Tailor and not nominate Michael Fassbender for, well, any of his four roles. They can nominate Rooney Mara in Dragon Tattoo but not its screenplay.

There are some great surprise nominees in here--Malick/Tree of Life and Oldman/Tinker's screenplay are chief among them. I have many films I adore--Hugo, Moneyball, Midnight in Paris--in the thick of the race. But overall, this was a year where Oscar played it safe. Buzzed performances like Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt's in Young Adult--daring, bracingly dark comedic performances--are slighted, while conventional "Oscar Roles" like Branagh's and Nolte's are front and center. Movies that "The Internet" (bloggers, digital critics, IMDb-active 18-49 year olds) loves like Drive and Melancholia are all but absent, while Big Hollywood gets its obligatory slots in the Sound and VFX categories (Bigger is Better, right?). John Williams gets TWO scores (including one that sounds remarkably like Apollo 13), while Trent Reznor gets the shaft. And at the end of the day, even the most successful film of the year--Harry Potter--can't crack out of the hell the Academy's relegated it to for the past ten years.

I'm not trying to beat a dead horse when I bring up last year's show, but this is really the leftovers of The King's Speech winning those prizes. It brings them back to the center of their taste spectrum. It's not a tragedy if The Artist wins Best Picture, or if The Descendants wins Best Picture. They're both fine movies, maybe even great in their own ways, but they are particular kinds of movies that make those years like 2007 seem all the more anomalous.

"The trick is not minding," so the saying goes. And truly, I don't mind. I can't be bitter when Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese are both nominated for Best Director. I can't be upset when Rooney Mara got her nomination, Moneyball earned six, and Hugo stands atop the pile with 11 nominations. It's just when you step back and look at the picture as a whole, you have to imagine what it could have looked like.

These are the kinds of memories the Academy wants to cultivate. The kind that show variation and a willingness to sort of think outside their box, but without being bold enough to cast the ballot that really breaks down even one of that box's walls.

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