Monday, October 18

Art or activism? The Oscars Identity Crisis | Oscar 2021

WWhat is the goal of cinema? For most people: entertainment; for some: art. And for a few: a means of shaping attitudes. Such purposes are not mutually exclusive, just ask Ken Loach (or even, perhaps, Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl).

Proudly, political engagement is not new. Films fought the cold war, condemned Vietnam, and took sides on many great issues of the past.

What is new is an increasing responsibility in films, particularly award-winning films, to clearly signal their ideological allegiances. And, after being scolded for delaying feet, the industry is enthusiastically complying. The stories of minorities are told and their causes are defended; diversity is accelerating on screen and behind the camera.

Of course, a worthy purpose can invigorate. Artistic achievements can be boosted if you have something important to say. However, advancing a message is different from pursuing excellence. These goals will not necessarily be aligned.

Why should they? After all, trying to design a better society should clearly go beyond mere aesthetics. It may seem that the protagonists of the cinema prioritize the progressive cause above all else, judging by their pronouncements; however, many moviegoers have yet to see the light. In the service of justice, the big screen risks leaving its fans behind. Whether this will happen remains to be seen, but perhaps Sunday’s verdicts will give us a hint of what is to come.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences claim to represent industry thinking is often ridiculed. Voters for the Oscars have long been disproportionately pale, masculine and stale, and their selections have often been mocked. Now, however, steps have been taken to diversify membership: the participation of women and ethnic minorities has doubled in recent years.

Anthony Hopkins in The Father.
Anthony Hopkins in The Father. Photograph: Film4 / Allstar

Hollywood’s participation in world cinema can be small and shrinking: Its top studios have delivered just one of the eight best picture nominees. Yet for now, the historic Hollywood pageant retains its glittering crown. This year’s ceremony may be the least watched in decades, but its decisions will remain strong. The field from which your decisions will be made provides not only cinematic quality, but also an impressive reflection of current societal concerns.

It’s only been six years since the #OscarsSoWhite rampage. Now, however, of the 20 acting nominees, nine are people of color; most of the best actor candidates are not white. Two women have been recognized for the first time in the category of best director.

The best films list features a feminist parable in the form of Promising Young Woman, a Black War Cry in Judas and the Black Messiah, a Salute to Immigrants in Minari, a Handicapped Ethnic Minority Story in Sound of Metal, and a anti-establishment carnival. in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Against them are Mank, who, as a clever and intelligent feast of Hollywood self-love, might have been a darling in the days of yore, and The Father, an all-white, dominated man. by men. exercise of virtuosity free of values.

However the bookmaker favorite by far it is none of the above. It’s Nomadland, the quasi-documentary about life among the itinerant underclass with trailers that roam among the caravan camps in the US Its director, Chloé Zhao, is Asian-American. Only one film directed by a woman has won the best picture award (Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker) and this factor alone must have weighed heavily among Academy voters eager to participate in the show.

Zhao’s film records the lives of people who deserve better, but who have been let down by an unjust world. Applaud their resourcefulness, indomitability, and humanity. So far, all is well, in terms of social justice credentials, but, as a campaign model, Nomadland does not stand up to close inspection. Its charismatic characters don’t see themselves as victims. Rather than rant against late capitalism, they seem disconcertingly satisfied with their fate.

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman.
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. Photograph: AP

The heroine, Fern (Frances McDormand), loses her job when her company town is hit by the company’s closure. However, she chooses life on the road not just out of necessity, but also as a way to mourn her deceased husband and find her own way forward. When comfortable suburban Americans offer her a home, she rejects them, opting instead for old-fashioned self-sufficiency. Unforgivably for someHe even seems to enjoy being exploited in one of Amazon’s warehouses.

If this seems carelessly disparaging progressive orthodoxy, Zhao has no regrets. She said in september: “I tried to focus on the human experience and the things that I feel go beyond political statements, to be more universal.” It is time, then, to consider the claim of aesthetic excellence of this superior seed.

Some find the film exquisite, but it is hardly a cinematic masterpiece. You walk through its beautiful landscapes without tension or danger without any particular effect. Sentimentality undermines her portrait of the community she celebrates: The human remains Fern faces don’t include any of the bad people her way of life must inevitably attract.

So maybe the favorite fell between two stools. If so, we could see the biggest surprise since Moonlight surpassed La La Land in 2016. This could lead to a marked conflict between politics and art. None of the nominees for the crusade is badly done. However, if excellence were the only criterion, it is hard to believe that it would not be The Father who would bag the statuette.

Florian Zeller’s surprising account of the impact of dementia could have struck a blow for better treatment of mental illness, a reasonably fashionable topic. Instead, he avoids any such pretense, focusing on conveying the human experience without a shred of interest in any cause. In doing so, it produces knowledge, horror, and anguish to such a degree that compliance with the dogma, however well-intentioned, would inevitably have inhibited it. By comparison, The Father’s politically committed rivals lose much of their luster.

Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah.
Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah. Photograph: Glen Wilson / AP

Promising Young Woman hits the spot in terms of current concerns in a way that its creators could only have dreamed of. He has successfully provided a totem for angry women to join in. However, doing this through a stylized cartoon game ensures that real problems are avoided. Cassie’s sweet revenge for Carey Mulligan makes no psychological sense; nor the instant penance of its victims. It doesn’t matter, everything is as fantastic as a romantic comedy; it’s full of fun twisty twists. However, as such, it darkens rather than brightens your subject. In the end, it only tells us that rape is bad.

Other progressive candidates on the list of best films are less elusive, yet in general, their stories are more comforting than illuminating. It is easier to defy the system facing the Chicago 7 than the most perplexing institutional failures of our day. Our racial problems are no longer what Black Panther Fred Hampton faced half a century ago. Taken together, these films can hardly claim that their social relevance trumps other considerations.

However, according to the bookies, each of them has a better chance than The Father of knocking Nomadland out of the top spot. This can tell us which way the wind is blowing, but maybe it’s time for the filmmakers to start backing off, at least a little bit.

The Oscars take place on Sunday, April 25.

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