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’.

*

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.)

Fighting fire with Fire: Hunger Games & Creativity 101

Hearts and minds: Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.

Watching the second instalment of the Hunger Games film franchise was a curious experience, more so than the original.

I’m not familiar with the Suzanne Collins source novels, so I’m coming into the series free of any expectations. What struck me more than anything this time around was the sheer extent with which the franchise appears to be playing a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too game with its viewers.

It’s a critique of our entertainment structures, of course: the idea of kids forced into televised gladiatorial combat is disturbingly close to what we see on reality television.

But there’s thrills and enjoyment to be had in watching our protagonists attempting to survive.

I’m feeling generous, so I’ll say this is actually a reminder of how good, compelling stories should be about that immersive experience: about riveting your attention, thematic paradoxes be damned. Stories aren’t uni-directional messages. The good ones have a capacity of altering their shape in whichever way they deem is best for their survival.

Often, they’ll latch onto classic predecessors. In the case of Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence made a very wise decision in this regard. He channelled one of the most vaunted, enduring ‘middle chapters’ from sci-fi/fantasy: The Empire Strikes Back.

Come the end of Catching Fire – mild spoilers ahead – the ‘rebellion’ is dispersed, and our heroine has been physically compromised (see: Luke sans hand). Worse, her partner-in-justice has been captured (see: Carbonite Han Solo).

But apart from this narrative puzzle-arrangement, a pervasive darkness is also allowed to settle over the entire film – the feeling that things have to get worse before they can get better.

There’s no dictum, no Creativity 101 cliché I like more than ‘Whatever Works’. Zeitgeist-prodding satire married with classic Joseph Campbell/Star Wars riffs definitely works for Catching Fire.

I wonder how much of this is deliberate; a strategic narrative positioning for maximum effect. A film adaptation, I suspect, would be more invested in that kind of thing – particularly a film adaptation of this size and financial girth.

But from my own experiences of writing fiction, I know that it’s virtually impossible to remember what your original ingredients were. Once the stew starts to simmer, it all tends to coalesce into one colour.

Again, only if the story is good. Only if you’re being honest, if you’re letting – or training – yourself to tell the story as consistently as you can, if you’re giving it all the attention it needs. Only if you’re using the right ingredients, at the right time.