Congratulations, everyone: we now live in a world where North Korea detonates atom bombs underground for the fun of it — if that isn’t apocalyptic as all hell, I don’t know what is. It’s not like we haven’t seen this coming. If you’ve sat down with a bag of Cheetos and a video game controller anytime in these past few years, you were probably fighting ugly Ruskies or angry flavor-of-the-month Asian men off our God-given land, these United States of America. I was trying to get cozy with my girlfriend in a dark theatre when I saw the trailer for Red Dawn, in which some tried-and-true, scalp-shaved and muscled American is the only man who can stop a North Korean invasion. Major vibe kill.
Like you all have probably been doing, we were working our way through the soon-to-be Best Picture nominees and weren’t interested in seeing drivel like Red Dawn. Oscar nominees are on another level — they’re true art that dissects society like no sociologist could. If Battlefield 3 and A Good Day to Die Hard reflect our paranoia that the world at large has a — to put it lightly — uneasy relationship with the States, this year’s Best Pictures ought to tastefully address it. And boy do they: we’ve got Bin Laden, slavery, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, slavery again — no easy load.
Films have done this, consciously or otherwise, basically since their inception. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is notorious for its cold war mentality. The bombardment of this modern paranoia feels much the same as Body Snatcher’s ending, with Kevin McCarthy looking directly into the camera to cry out, “They’re already here! You’re next!” Of course, they weren’t here and we weren’t next, but that didn’t stop us from fearing our neighbors for the next 35 years. It’s much the same these days. We still don’t know what to do with those different from ourselves. We’re overreacting to a complex world, and the repercussions are increasingly scary.
Even if the Civil War and Iranian Hostage Crisis aren’t recent events, they’re obvious jumping off points for the discussion at hand (and more tasteful than CG shots of Korean bombers over your suburb). It isn’t Ben Affleck’s rugged chin cleft that the Oscars are celebrating — it’s how daring films like Argo and Lincoln are. These are difficult subjects to tackle, and maybe a good lesson can move us past paranoia and into action.
This year’s best example should be Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty for the way that she takes on torture. You’re no doubt aware of the controversy. Liberals are up in arms over the film’s pro-torture stance — and other liberals are praising the film’s anti-torture stance. What? When it comes to torture, calling Bigelow’s camera objective is an understatement — it’s downright insentient. The film is a rorschach on torture, and you’ll only see in it what you want to.
Argo and Lincoln don’t fair any better. Affleck’s film begins with the CIA overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government and then asks us to sympathize with the CIA. He seems to miss why that’s a problem. In Lincoln, Spielberg jukes the slavery issue with the promise of a story about the titular president, but it’s only an excuse not to delve into the dirty reality of the film’s true subject, the 13th Amendment. In both cases, the films ignore the oppressed other in favor of a focus on the Best Americans, powerful and proud white dudes brimming with patriotic duty.
It all speaks to more of the same. We’ve got a problem with those different from ourselves, and the repercussions are spooking us out. Modern Warfare 2 — a game in which Russia invades your local strip mall — may be more blind to it than the ‘higher art’ of Best Picture nominees, but it addressees it no less, which is to say, not at all in any cognizance.
It’s hard to put a finger on what we’re actually honoring when the foremost nominees are scared to make a statement. But maybe we shouldn’t blame them. I watch @dronestream sound off every few hours but never look up what any of it really means, and on Tuesdays, when the Children International canvassers show up at Union Square, I go a block out of my way to a different subway entrance so that I can avoid Rupert, the canvaser who’s taken up no less than an hour of my time to persuade me to donate a nominal sum to kids in need. He even followed me to SoHo once.
Maybe there’s no inherent responsibility for these directors to speak simply because they have a stage to speak from, but that makes for one heck of a lost opportunity. If, like Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” our most praised films often fall short of art.
In some small way the Academy acknowledges this. In 2009, the Best Picture category was expanded from five nominees to a possible ten with the explicit purpose of recognizing films that would otherwise slip by. It’s easy enough to guess which films wouldn’t have made this year’s cut: the comedy, the foreign one, and the two films that do provide critique, Django Unchained and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Quentin Tarantino’s film focuses on empathetic brotherhood and human worth, remarking on the horror of slavery along the way, while Beasts comments like buckshot on a variety of topics surrounding America’s handling of post-Katrina Louisiana, all in the background of a father-daughter relationship.
What may be most interesting is our facade of improvement. Complex pieces like Django and Beasts don’t paint easy pictures for the way forward, but by falling in love with Zero Dark Thirty, we can act as if we’ve received confession when we’re really walking right back out the same man. But there’s no absolution in pat simplicity. The biggest and boldest films address massive issues, but they’re only actually acknowledging them. They gather acclaim because it’s much easier to recognize something than it is to actually act on it.
Maybe we can’t change the love of flash and glamour at the Oscars, but there’s no reason that we should be patting ourselves on the back for phoning in a nationwide emotional catharsis. One day, we’ll look back on Red Dawn as we do Body Snatchers, free from our overwrought paranoias and hopefully beyond the problem at hand. For now, there’s a distinction that needs to be made between knowing about a problem and saying something about it, which is something that we’re scared to do. Fair enough. It’s difficult, and maybe dabblings like these are the tangential roads that we need to take to finally get there. But let’s not love cheap tension for the philanthropic thrill it gives us — there are great films in the mix, you just won’t leave them with a saccharine smile.