I spent an evening watching the recent 80th Annual Academy Awards - after the acrimonious three and a half month writer’s strike almost prevented it from taking place. I always feel compelled to watch the Oscars as a fan and film critic, but know that the built-in tedium of its structure, and penchant for banal self-congratulation, will begin to oppress me after an hour of viewing.
This year’s master of ceremonies was the comedian/political satirist, Jon Stewart, who returned to host the Oscars for the second time. (The strike meant he had only eight days to prepare for the show.) The contained, quick-witted Stewart tends to dry understatement rather than the noisier, warmer, and admittedly funnier shtick of a show biz insider like Billy Crystal, who as a past master of ceremonies perfectly fit into the Oscar milieu.
Stewart got off a funny political crack on the Julie Christie movie, Away From Her, about a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s who forgets her husband’s name, adding that Hillary Clinton called it “the feel-good movie of the year.” He delivered another one or two sharp ones about the candidates (e.g., "Oscar is 80 this year, which makes him now automatically the front-runner for the Republican nomination"), but some of his one-liners fell flat. The self-possessed Stewart did succeed in keeping the tepid ceremony moving at a brisk pace, but could not inject much spontaneity or excitement into it.
The Awards adhered to their irritating habit of providing meaningless, interminable montages of past award winners, Oscar telecast hosts, and memorable Oscar moments, and this time around, movie clips from insect and binocular films. The one montage I’m always moved by is the “In Memoriam" which included a much too premature farewell to the heartbreakingly young and talented Heath Ledger, as well as European master directors Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. I assumed there would be at least some special recognition of the great Bergman (who was the apotheosis of filmmaker as a brilliantly original and uncompromising auteur), but shockingly he was just included as one name in a long list of agents, directors, producers, and actors who died. I suppose, in this case, Hollywood felt he was too much of an outsider to merit an appreciation.
Though the Oscars may have been a bore, there were awards that stirred me. I liked the fact that the Oscar for Best Documentary went to Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side, a clear-eyed look at the United States policy on torture in Afghanistan and Iraq. The award provided the night’s most overtly political commentary. In accepting the award, Gibney then went on to dedicate it to Dilawar, the Afghan cab driver whose death provides the film with its title, and to his own late father, a former Navy interrogator, noting “his fury about what was being done to the rule of law.” “Falling Slowly” won the Oscar for Best Song. It originated in the small charming Irish independent film, Once. Its stars - two musicians-turned-actors - performed it, Glen Hansard playing guitar and singing and Marketa Irglova on piano. The song was a triumph of artful simplicity and honesty over the elaborate production numbers that were its competition.
And the fact that the four acting awards went to foreign actors demonstrates how thoroughly globalised the film industry has become. The one actor whose Oscar triumph was totally unexpected, is a personal favorite of mine - the idiosyncratic, unique-looking Tilda Swinton - a shape-changing, gender-bending Scottish actress (e.g., Orlando) who dominates the screen in any role she plays.
This year the films nominated for Best Picture may, for the most part, be darker and less audience friendly than past Oscar winners like Titanic or The Lord of the Rings, but most are ambitious and serious works of art. I may have my own critical qualifications about the nominees, but to be disturbed that feel-good films and big budget historical romances and epics are not the only films considered for Awards demonstrates the aesthetic shallowness of much of the mass audience and a number of pop journalists whose articles I skimmed.
One film I wish had been considered for an Oscar was Andrew Wagner’s reticent, literate Starting out in the Evening - an emotionally riveting film about a very civilized, remote, once moderately successful 70-year-old Upper West Side novelist, whose involvement with a young, bookish and intensely ambitious, graduate student (who is writing a master’s thesis on his work) emotionally disrupts his orderly life. It’s a modest film driven by character rather than by special effects, and I found it far more subtle and memorable than the more cinematically virtuosic Coen brothers’ nihilistic thriller that won the Oscar.
Obviously, I like small realist films. In that vein, I just saw a totally unsentimental film Chop Shop (opened at the Film Forum on Feb. 20) set in Willets Point - a bleak, muddy, sign and graffiti-ridden Queens’ wasteland of junk yards, and chop shops (where stolen cars are dismantled for parts). Its central characters are a Latino brother and sister played by non-professional actors, who seemingly have no family, and survive by doing a variety of jobs, including robbing hub caps and having sex with truck drivers. The boy, 12-year-old Aljendro, is both innocent and tough. He loves his sister, and dreams of buying a mobile-food van, but life gets in the way. There is nothing about the film that is melodramatic or sensational - just unadorned and poignant daily reality artfully and unselfconsciously evoked.
It’s a model for filmmaking that a Hollywood looking for profit never follows.