Friday, January 22, 2016

people want an authority to tell them how to value things

As a screener of The Big Short plays and I must do my best not to get angry at Wall Street, I really don't want to talk about #OscarsSoWhite today. Spent too much of the last couple days arguing pointlessly about the topic on Facebook and Twitter. A little tired of it... which bothers me, actually.

Inevitably it will come up because I have decided to get into the McNamara piece from the Los Angeles Times and that hinges on the race thing. But, I want to talk about McNamara's other angle--plot.

See, she starts off with some hyperbole--"The winner of the 2016 Oscar in practically every category is ... white men facing adversity." She's making a point about it being white men, of course, but as she goes she also angles in on the "facing adversity" charge. Her take on the Best Picture nominees: "...with a few notable exceptions, follow a dishearteningly repetitive story line of white men triumphing over enormous odds." Because, of course, triumphing over enormous odds is not the fundamental center of... Let's be honest, every fucking story ever. (Well, most of them, anyway.) But, only when you simplify.

Let's break it down. First of all, the "notable exceptions"--and let's just stick with the eight nominees for Best Picture for the moment--would be Brooklyn because that is about a white woman, and, at least in part, Mad Max Fury Road for the same reason, a few women get to upstage Tom Hardy's Max. Also, there's Room, where it is a woman and five-year-old boy who triumph over enormous odds. For the purposes of the following, Rachel McAdams' Oscar-nominated role in Spotlight will have to be lumped in with the male roles there because they're all just reporters, right? A bunch of white reporters--who can tell them apart, anyway? In fact, since I don't want to talk about the race thing today, I will try to forego the gender thing as well. So, we've got eight movies. According to Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times, they all have "a dishearteningly repetitive story." Great phrasing. Absolutely wrongheaded idea.

Start with The Big Short. Whatever the main characters are, this is not the story of these men "triumphing." The point is that for them to triumph we all lose. So, plotwise, I don't think it is fair to call it triumph. But anyway, let's assume it is about these men making money, and not an indictment of Wall Street. (To be fair, it can be both.) There are men on different sides of the whole Credit Default Swap thing in this film. But, basically, this is a a talky film, board rooms and offices, only a few scenes outside them. Ensemble cast. Moral conundrums. Clever asides.

I could jump to Room to make my point obvious, but I will be fair. I'm running down the list as it appears on my ballot.

Bridge of Spies comes next. Also a talky film. No board rooms, but there are offices and makeshift offices, and a couple courtrooms. There's almost an ensemble to it, but really it focuses in on Tom Hanks for most of the film. Some nice moments for Mark Rylance as the spy, of course, but this is a Tom Hanks film, not much room for anyone else to really shine. As for the plot, oh yeah, this is one white man triumphing over enormous odds, for sure. But, why simplify? The key to understanding this film is the idea of stoikiy muzhik (assuming I spelled that right). Abel (Rylance) tells James (Hanks) a story about a man who kept standing up when partisan border guards beat him down. Prior to this, this man had never done "anything remarkable" but now they called him stoikiy muzhik, "the standing man." This is a film about stubbornness winning out. The Big Short is about predators.

Brooklyn is a love story. The white woman at its center (Saoirse Ronan) does triumph over some enormous odds, at least in the third act when she goes home to visit Ireland. But, this is a story about love, about finding one's self in another person. No ensemble, just a few supporting characters here and there.

Mad Max Fury Road is a big action piece. Or I suppose you could call it a bit of social commentary masquerading as a big action piece. With a nice dose of feminism at its heart. Enormous odds? Definitely. Triumph? Yep. Of course the whole white man thing is upended by the central role of the women and Max walking off at the end. This is not his victory. He just wants to be left alone.

The Martian... Ooh, there's you're white man triumphing over adversity to be sure. Some women and men of colour in supporting roles but this is Matt Damon's show, isn't it? Of course, if you go deeper, this is a celebration of science, which is far from the politics of Bridge of Spies or the Wall Street deals of The Big Short. And, we're nowhere in the vicinity of Brooklyn.

The Revenant is right there in McNamara's thesis, though. White man? Check. Enormous odds? Check. Triumphs over them? Check. But then, this is a survivalist story with a bit of revenge. Is it at all fair to call this the same "adversity" as Bridge of Spies? As The Big Short? (I'll admit that boiled down to the survivalist terms, Max Rockatansky's throughline in Mad Max Fury Road, Mark Watney's throughline in The Martian and Hugh Glass' throughline in The Revenant are basically the same. Basically. But, how simple do we have to get to take the fantasy of Mad Max, the science fiction of The Martian and the real world of The Revenant and call them the same?

Room begins as a claustrophobic story, one room, three characters, then expands outward. It's about embracing life, regardless of those "enormous odds" for sure. But, Ma and Jack are not the white man. Not people of colour, of course. But, that's another thing here--it is not and either/or.

Then we loop back around into talky office bits for Spotlight. Different details--child molesting priests instead of CDOs and Credit Default Swaps and imaginary economics--but a bit of the same, you know, basics of The Big Short. Some white men triumphing over some other white men, with the lives of a whole lot of people we don't really get to see ruined in the process.

McNamara also brings into play Trumbo because of Cranston's nomination in the Lead Actor category. She lists the "enormous odds":

The Hollywood blacklist ("Trumbo"), the vagaries of Wall Street ("The Big Short"), Cold War politics ("Bridge of Spies"), life alone on Mars ("The Martian"), a grizzly bear attack, murderous companions and the hostilities of a cruel winter landscape ("The Revenant").

Even "Spotlight," with its supporting actress nomination for Rachel McAdams, showcases a group of mostly male journalists struggling to expose the brutal crimes committed by the Catholic Church. And though there is feminine power aplenty in "Mad Max: Fury Road," the film's titular character is, of course, Max, and its lead actress didn't even get a nomination.

I won't be a smart ass about it. I will simple state outright, the blacklist, Wall Street, politics, life alone on Mars or in the Dakota Territory are absolutely not the same thing. Boil a plot down to like three broadstrokes and sure, they all fit the same stroke, but no two-hour (plus) film with just a few broadstrokes to it is getting anywhere near the Oscars. (Except maybe in some technical categories.) On her later points there, I will say 1) by the logic of the rest of McNamara's piece, saying that Spotlight "showcases" the men when the Oscar-nominee is a woman is hypocritical, 2) Max being the titular character does not make him the lead, 3) tom Hardy got no nomination for the role (his nomination is for his supporting role in The Revenant, 4) even if he had gotten a nomination for Max, different categories are not a zero-sum game; i.e. Charlize Theron could still get a nomination for Furiosa, 5)--and this I the big one--if an Oscar nomination is the only way we can measure merit of an acting performance or a film, there is a fundamental flaw in the way we experience movies. First and foremost, what matters is our experience in the theater, or in our living room, or however we watch films with new technology. What matters is how much we are moved, how much we are entertained.

This film, for example--The Big Short--pissed me off the first time and just pissed me off again. And, it saddened me. The final hangover text:

In 2015, several large banks began selling billions in something called a "bespoke tranche opportunity."

Which, according to Bloomberg News, is just another name for a CDO.

That makes me sick. Like the whole world economy could just collapse again in a few years and I'm sitting here worrying about movies. The thing is, I don't think I've misplaced my focus. I don't think that it is wrong to worry about movies or awards when there are bigger things going on in the world. Awards mean something to movies and movies mean something to me. The big fear here at the Groundhog Day Project is that the economy collapses and we can't make anymore movies.

I kid.

Sort of.

They're all the same plot anyway, so we can just turn it into a single oral-history kind of story and tell it to each other again and again forever when we sit around our campfires after hunting game all day or whatever the fuck we'll do with all our spare time and no terrorists to kill.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with you, Robert. Life, freedom, solvency, security and society aren't just ends in themselves. They are there so we can fluorish and watching movies is one of the many, many ways we fluorish. The fragility and shortness of life only makes the details more important, not less.

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