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March 05, 2006


The 2006 Academy Awards: And The Winner Is...

2006 Academy Awards
They're as gay as the Mardi Gras. If "Joe" the bartender at the corner tavern knows nothing else about the 2006 Oscars, he must know that by now.

Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's masterful motion picture of two sheep herders battling the love that dare not grunt its name, is favorite for best picture. Felicity Huffman is poised to take the statuette for her cross-gendered performance as a transsexual in Transamerica. And then there is Capote, camp provocateur and the author of In Cold Blood, who may give Philip Seymour Hoffman the first Oscar of his illustrious career. Oscar's turned pink! He's camp as Christmas!

Hollywood people are rather pleased about all this; this is the fight-back, a show of strength in this famous liberal stronghold against the dimwits who live between the coasts. And it is true that these are not simply films about being gay, but about the drama of difference. Hoffman's Capote, true to the flamboyant original, minces, drawls and bitches for America; his strangely high voice could claim an ambiguous sexual identity in its own right.

The evidence in this year's Oscar lists is that the lesser paying public has been sadly underestimated for a long time. Just a few weeks ago, all the buzz was about various conservative states banning Brokeback Mountain and various supposed insiders lambasting Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal for ruining their respective careers by playing gay men.

But nobody seems to have ruined anything. Even the citizens in Utah seem to be rolling along to see Brokeback Mountain in numbers sufficiently pleasing to the multiplexes, without any of those big prairie skies falling in.

Given half a chance and an Oscar contender, in fact, it seems that people can cope with a good deal more than anyone thought: films about issues of free speech, films shot in black and white, films that are morally equivocating, films that ask questions rather than delivering answers. In fact, looking down the list of Oscar nominees, it strikes me that films and their audiences are going through some kind of sea change.

Just a few years ago, it seemed nothing could stop the tidal drift towards ever-bigger blockbusters. Remember 1998: Titanic won almost every available Oscar that year. As James Cameron declared himself king of the world, it seemed that films were henceforth to grow into increasingly behemoth, monumentally expensive spectaculars rich in special effects that, in order to ensure a return on their banana-republic budgets, would necessarily set out to offend no one. There was never going to be a gay Titanic that was for sure.

For anyone who remembered the heyday of American filmmaking in the 1970s, when Martin Scorsese was making films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Jack Nicholson drifted around the country in The Passenger and Al Pacino whined and muttered his way through Dog Day Afternoon (another great gay character, come to think of it), the prospect of more big, dumb films was oppressively dispiriting.

Indeed, when George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh founded "Section Eight," their joint production company, Clooney said they wanted to return to the spirit of the 1970s, to the earlier times of serious intent and willingness to experiment. People sneered. That couldn't happen in the real world. Not in Hollywood, anyway.

And yet here is Clooney, soap opera doctor turned director, with a film that contradicts every possible rule for commercial success. Good Night, and Good Luck is slow, dry and entirely filmed inside. It is also shot in black and white, sticks to the facts of the original story, and doesn’t have any romance in it and not much drama either. Worst of all, it has a clear political agenda; there is no mistaking the comparison Clooney is making between the communist witch-hunts of the '60s and the current American pursuit of terrorists.

Everything about it screams box-office poison. But it isn't. Good Night, and Good Luck has been rated a must-see by critics all over the world. People love it; a lot of people love it. And now here it is, a strong contender for best picture.

Clooney is up for best director; David Strathairn, whose poignant, intelligent work in any number of independent films has never troubled the academy before, is a contender for best actor. Five years ago, who would have thought this was possible?

Now look at the other contenders for best picture. There is Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's elegiac paean to love and land, which relies on its silences as much as the few gruff words that his characters manage to say. This is not a film for stupid audiences or, for that matter, 11-year-old boys who like submarines. It demands not only empathy, but also attention.

Then there is Crash, Paul Haggis' attempt to piece together a picture of fearful, fierce Los Angeles through a group of characters who are, and who will inevitably remain, fatally isolated from each other. While some of its vignettes are heavy-handed and its great actors stranded without much to do, something that should never happen to anyone as astonishingly good as Don Cheadle, Crash at least has the courage of its inconclusiveness.

All the characters - the racist cop, the Iranian shop owner, the black hoodlums, the rich bitch who abuses her Spanish maid - seem caught in their respective downward spirals into loneliness and despair. There is, however, no pat explanation for why that should be: it seems they simply cannot see how else they could live. It is an extraordinarily bleak view from within of the land of the free.

Finally, there is Munich. Steven Spielberg is arguably the director most singly responsible for redirecting popular film into the mix of sentiment, suspense and special effects that is the blockbuster, starting cheap with Jaws and moving right through to the mega-budget action tours-de-force of films such as Saving Private Ryan.

Munich is also a big film. An account of a Mossad hit squad's efforts to kill terrorists, it is structured like a thriller. But it does not thrill, in fact, because Spielberg does not want those men killed and he does not want us to want that either.

Every successful murder only seems to add to the film's terrible freight of anxiety. We were so certain then, he seems to be saying, but what did that certainty do to us? It is not what we might have expected from the man who gave us, and is about to give us again, that very embodiment of cheerful imperialist gangsterism, Indiana Jones.

But where, in all this, is the great blockbuster of the year, Peter Jackson's King Kong? Just two years after Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy swept aside all in its path to take the best picture award, his new and long-cherished opus is vying for prizes for sound editing, sound mix and visual effects, the categories where it probably belongs. Because in the end, grand as it is and whatever Jackson's status, King Kong is only a story about a big monkey. And that's not what we're about now.

How did everything in Hollywood swing around this way? No doubt something of the new mood can be sheeted home to the attacks on the World Trade Centre; given how long it takes to get a film off the ground, it was always going to be this long before we saw signs of the fear, shock and devastation that followed that event up on our screens.

Some films have sought to deal directly with Iraq and America's deeply divided feelings about that conflict. For example, Jarhead, which is based on a real soldier's memories of service in the desert, did not earn an Oscar nomination but is certainly a serious attempt to engage critically with history as it happens.

But a film does not have to address the moment so specifically to catch its spirit; suffice to say that if Good Night, and Good Luck or The Constant Gardener were ever going to be made, they were going to be made now. If, as many of its opponents say, half of America was against invading Iraq, there is nothing to suggest this vastness of disaffection and dissent in the mainstream media.

What a beacon, then, is Ed Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck, the real-life reporter who dared to challenge Senator McCarthy's mad search for Reds. And if it seems difficult to pinpoint why globalization seems overwhelming and insidious, there is The Constant Gardener to put flesh on the bare bones of that feeling.

That films can be used in this way, as an expression of dissent where none is generally heard, is clearly evidenced by the emergence of this year's whole spate of angry, engaged and shamelessly partial films that have become hits with a public that, shortchanged yet again by studio and media bosses alike, is clearly eager for information it can't get elsewhere.

Films as varied in tone as The Corporation, Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room and Supersize Me have all, in their different ways, examined and attacked the American system right at its capitalist root. Enron also has an Oscar nomination for this year's best documentary. Can it beat March of the Penguins? Some say yes.

It is this, in fact, that this year's Oscar films are all about: risk, fear and the urgent, vital things at the core of life itself. And about art, since these subjects demand filmmaking of a high caliber if they are to make any sense at all. Which is why the Oscar field is the strongest in recent memory.

Long may the new seriousness last even if, ultimately, we have terrorists, President Bush and the folly of war to thank for it.

Adapted by the Author from:
The Age, 3/5/2006.

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