Monsters Do It Better: Oscar Season

Caravaggio's Medusa
A couple of things I came across on the web serve as a nice addendum to a previous blog post, where I complain about how anemic Oscar-nominated films tend to be.
China Mieville’s argument that Halloween is not an enemy to contemporary socialists – if ‘done well’ – bears the kernel of what I was complaining about. Allowing your kids to dress up as cowboys for Halloween means just succumbing to the capitalist machine; making them dress as ZOMBIE cowboys – thereby allowing the still-existent chthonic underbelly that Halloween hints at – is good, because it acknowledges the topsy-turvy disorder that Halloween (like Carnival) encourages – a temporary subversion of the status quo.
And films that are nominated or Oscars tend to be guilty of promoting this ‘vanilla’ view of culture. 12 Years a Slave appears to be searing, but it comes draped in the trappings of stereotypical period dramas – the worst of both worlds. American Hustle appears to be an edgy look at how the capitalist machine in America functions, but it’s too keen to please it viewers to allow for anything genuine to seep through.
Robocop 2014
This isn’t just limited to Oscar fare, either. The Robocop remake has been released to some negative press in the US and UK, and it appears to have fallen into a similar trap. It’s not a freakish creation like its original – a wonderful aberration by Paul Verhoven that doubles up as a satire of the Regan administration. As a wonderful article on The Guardian illustrates, Verhoven was successful – and this counts for his subsequent films Total Recall and Starship Troopers too – because he had a keen grasp of how the grotesque works.
His films walk like dumb action flicks, but talk like something far more playful.
It’s this commitment to your vision that I tend to admire, and that I want to champion here. Just like wearing non-supernatural, non-horror costumes in favour of something generic for Halloween is a disservice to the imagination and the subversive implications of the festival, so does making concessions to the audience and the established cultural order make for maimed storytelling.
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I admire China Mieville for saying what basically amounts to “Sometimes a monster is just a monster.” By making monsters obvious ‘symbols’ for something, you divest them of their real power. Monsters will always mean something, of course, but they can stand for a rich variety of things – as opposed to some single, often hackneyed idea – if you just let them be.
Utopian vision: Let the work do its work. And don’t give awards to work that is more interested in glory and appeasing the status quo than in delivering good work.

Concentrated Tedium: Oscar Season

Better as melodrama: American Hustle

Better as melodrama: American Hustle

Oscar season is upon us, and with it a vague understanding of what should constitute ‘quality’ in the world of popular entertainment. Perhaps I’m only echoing the sentiments of some kind of sneering elitist minority – if I do in fact ‘echo’ anyone’s sentiments other than my own – but this year’s crop of Academy Award nominees continues to promote an anemic form of storytelling that values telegraphed ‘messages’ and finely-wrought decorative flourishes over exciting, nuanced storytelling.

(Side-note: I like how the internet has made the Oscars into a fully-formed international spectacle. It always was, of course; the imperialist nature of American cinema has always been a part of its DNA. But now the boundaries of news and broadcasting that had in the past created at least an illusion of distance between us and the Oscars is completely gone… but here’s hoping that the running commentary that is the internet will at least give way to a more questioning attitude to the Academy’s choices – and I don’t just mean incessant complaints about how your favourite film was snubbed or short-changed.)

Out of the 2013/14 Oscar superstars I’ve seen – although we’re all privy to internet commentary about the films before/soon after they’re in US/UK cinema, Malta still gets plenty of films far too late – there has been only one that has genuinely touched me as a genuine piece of storytelling worthy of awards.

That film is Spike Jonze’s Her. It’s a joyous confluence of style and substance, working on an outlandish, sci-fi-lite concept that is executed with great sensitivity to the nature of relationships, a keen visual style – it’s a masterclass in worldbuilding through micro details – and genuinely affecting performances.

Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street was also not bad – though it’s relentless approach leaves no room for subtlety. But Scorcese at least allows himself – or, thanks to his now-vaunted and hard-earned reputation, is allowed – a vitality and brashness that is free of political correctness. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is a monster, but you may worry that some audience members will admire his voracious, unapologetic drive to shore up MORE MORE MORE and consume MORE MORE MORE. But then, why would you worry? That’s not your job. It shouldn’t be. Let the work do its work.

But the Oscars rarely cater for this kind of thing – art that really says what it needs to say with true creativity and verve. You’d think Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a raw example of what I’m looking for… but watching the relentless churn of suffering unspool before you with apparently no unifying narrative force behind it, it just begins to look threadbare – a litany of abuse left to play out on autopilot.

American Hustle is similarly directionless. Each scene of David O. Russell’s story of  cross and double-cross strains to give the audience some goodies (a line of zesty dialogue, sexual frisson, an ACTOR moment) but it never builds to a satisfying whole. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster made of derivative moments from both Scorcese and Paul Thomas Anderson’s back catalogue.

It’s like it was sent to the Academy in a marked envelope: ‘HERE’S WHAT I THOUGHT YOU MIGHT LIKE’.

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Yes, this is a hint.

These deadening things just make me think, “art is elsewhere”. Even, “fun is elsewhere”. In my next post – up tomorrow – I’ll entertain the idea that the grotesque is what could save us from this complacent rut.

(Yes, the picture is a hint.)