Following last night’s choice of the Oscars’ jury to award Katherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker with the Best Picture prize, the debate has since then moved to the pubs and the ether. It appears to be primarily concerned with whether Bigelow’s portrait of “the” war does justice to the genre and whether, with time, Avatar will come to be recognised as more deserving of the aspired title. The debate however is having the effect of reducing Cameron’s gargantuan critique of modernity to “just another war movie”, adding to the already popular dismissal of the film, by the intellectual left, as a western guilt-fantasy.
Lets start by considering the assumption that Avatar is “just another war movie”.
If indeed we accept that Cameron’s intention was to provide us with a science-fictional portrait of war, then we must also conclude that von Trier’s Dogville is nothing more than an aesthetically minimalist representation of the Great Depression. Just as von Trier exploits the Great Depression as a historical backdrop against which he develops a provocative portrayal of human nature, so does Cameron in the use he makes of military intervention in Avatar.
In the case of the Vietnam war it took long after the war had ended for the first critical films to come out. Americans in this respect still aren’t as bad as the French, who have yet to own up to their crimes in the colonies. Even today the best they can offer is oblique references to colonial depredations (take for example the awful Flanders). The French were so sensitive about their colonial legacy in Viet Nam even in 1979 that Francis Ford Coppola had to edit out a long section from Apocalypse Now lest it upset judges at the Cannes Film Festival.
However, the Iraq war has been unique insofar as it has produced some excellent cinema even as it has continued to grind on. Yet, most of these films have failed at the box office. Some of them perhaps understandably so: War Inc., Redacted, Lambs for Lions and Battle for Haditha were well-meaning, for example, but didn’t work so well as films. In the Valley of Elah, on the other hand, had all the right elements: an a-list cast comprising of multiple Oscar winners, an Oscar-winning writer and director, a superb screenplay; and yet, it was a complete commercial failure. So was Grace is Gone; and Rendition. So was another — perhaps one of the best — which also had all the right elements: Stop-Loss. The film is based on the experiences of director Kimberley Peirce’s own brother, and it makes news stories such as the following from the Guardian rather predictable.
An Iraq war veteran has been arrested and charged with threatening to kill his officers after recording a violent rap protest song and sending it to the Pentagon.
Marc Hall, a junior member of an infantry unit, wrote the song in protest at the US army’s unpopular policy of involuntarily extending soldiers’ service and forcing them to return to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Hall completed a 14-month spell in Iraq last year, expecting to be discharged next month, but was told he would have to go back to Iraq under the policy known as stop-loss.
You’ve got to hand it to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Who else could conceivably get away with saying something like “My gott, I’m tinking like Melahnie. You know what I’m tinking, now? I want to fack Mitch! No, shorry, shorry…I got dish … shpontaneoush confushion of direcshins”?! Here’s a clip from his psychoanalytical and film criticism foray into the cinematic canon entitled The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema.
This decision does not come easily, as we realize that the festival opposes the policies of the State of Israel, and we have no wish to punish progressives who deplore the state-sponsored violence committed in their name.
Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan’s Slumdog Millionaire was the big winner at the Oscars last night. Writer-activist Arundhati Roy was asked her opinion of the film’s global success about a week back, and here is what she had to say (see also this recent review):
People are selling India’s poverty big time both in literature and films. As they say, there is lots of money in poverty today. I am not against showing slums, but depicting them in a depoliticised manner, as has been done in the film, is quite unfortunate. Films do not show the real poor. Even if they are depicted, it’s not the true picture. The real poor are not shown in films because they are not attractive. Poverty sells but the poor do not. The film gives false hope to the poor that they too could become millionaires one day. Watching Slumdog Millionaire was like speeding on a highway with lots of potholes. The screenplay of the film is quite out of context and it feels as if a Harvard accent has been given to characters that are straight out of the Chicago black neighbourhood.
J.M. Coetzee’s award-winning novel Disgrace offered a disturbing insight into the soul of modern South Africa. The screen version does not disappoint and features an outstanding performance from John Malkovich as the disgraced professor whose personal life reflects the turmoil of a country in transition. Dismissed from his university, David Lurie (Malkovich) decides to visit his daughter at a remote farm in the eastern Cape that she shares with a trusted black worker. When they are savagely attacked by three black youths, David is finally confronted by the realities of a South Africa where the old rules no longer apply.
I have been looking forward to this for some time. Coetzee is one of my favourite writers; Diary of a Bad Year, Youth, Master of Petersburg and Waiting for the Barbarians are phenomenal works of fiction. But I have mixed feelings about Disgrace (which, incidentally, was chosen as the best English novel of the past 25 years by top writers and critics). Here is what I wrote in a Facebook review:
It’s no wonder Revolutionary Road was shut out of the Oscars. As stated in this article from the New York Times, this year the Academy is looking to stories of the “indomitability of human will” to grace with its little gold statues. All of the nominees for best picture are “films built on individual successes” that provide “a nice, big chunk of uplift.” From Slumdog Millionaire to Milk to Frost/Nixon, these are stories where the little guy can beat the big powers that try to keep him down and where human will has the ability to allow us to conquer all, rise up, forge change, and take control of our own lives and destiny. Given that that many of the films deal with battling political and/or economic systems (presidential abuse of power, the Catholic church, economic class stratification), these films are classic Depression era narratives.
In fact, when writing about Slumdog Millionaire, I described it as Frank Capra goes to Mumbai in the 21st Century. Indeed, there is no hiding the fact that we are in a Depression. As the economy sinks lower and lower, people lose their homes and their jobs, and businesses collapse, there is no denying that the Depression is now. So maybe uplift and triumph is what people need. Apparently the Academy thinks they don’t need a movie like Revolutionary Road which provides a relentlessly brutal critique of the shallow illusion of the American Dream and the inherent fallacy of the institution of marriage. Revolutionary Road basically says that everything America pretends to be through its policies of blind acquisition, status through material gain, and a self-deluded vision of Norman Rockwellesque family life is a toxic lie. Well, isn’t it? Of course it is, but now that most Americans have had to look the lie in the face as the veneer of their American Utopia has crumbled under their feet, I guess they don’t want to see it in the movies too.