The Great Escape

Before I share my extended take (some might say “rant”) on why it’s hip to be square, 2012 Oscar edition, let’s all take a nice, deep breath and remind ourselves once again: Opinions are subjective. I’m (rhetorically) allowed to love a film you hate, and vice versa. Oscar voters aren’t infallible (howdy, Titanic, and yes, I was a hysterical teenage girl who wanted that to win at the time).

Everyone in the right frame of mind? Okay, cool. Let’s get started.

I read an interesting article by Mark Harris, the “Oscarologist” over at Grantland, a wonderful writer and film critic whom I always enjoy and generally agree with – but not right now. He posted a column last month on the mood of “belligerent nostalgia” in Hollywood, with a thesis that in troubled times, nostalgic films – Hugo, The Artist – tend to critically overwhelm movies that are set in and/or thematically more reflective of our modern era – say, the gritty The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the angsty The Descendents, or even literally with a film like Margin Call, which dramatizes the Wall Street collapse – because audiences, critics and Oscar voters would rather revel in escapist fare than reward an onscreen representation of the current climate, thus creating a “faux-nostalgia” for times that were (in our imagination, at least) easier, or more romantic.

Basically, he wants us to snap the hell out of it before the “extremely slight” (his words) The Artist runs away with the Best Picture Oscar and the more authentically now films get left in its wake.

So while we’re sharing opinions, here’s mine: Guilty. I do like to escape. And frankly, I couldn’t give a good solid damn if the movie I escape into is of the now, the then, or the maybe soon. I like good movies, and I’ll take inspiration wherever I can find it, thanks.

We (collectively) have always used the movies as escapism; it’s a treat to slip into someone else’s world for a while, never more so than when you need a break from your own. And I personally think The Artist – which not only entertains but completely alters our usual moviegoing experience¬† – is a superb way to spend ten dollars and two hours. You’re transported in so many ways; not only can you glimpse the (clearly, admittedly romanticized) silent-era Hollywood, but you get to experience a film as that era’s audience would. Think about what a difficult trick this was: a black-and-white, silent film that not only interests but captivates an iPhone-laden audience conditioned to sensory overload. And it does.

I saw The Artist and The Descendents back-to-back, as part of a New Year’s Eve movie doubleheader, and I’d pick The Artist every day of the week and twice on New Year’s. Sure, The Descendents was beautifully acted and had quietly poignant moments (not to mention one helluva scenic backdrop), but while I could appreciate how messy and purposefully dysfunctional and real the film was, I often lacked a connection to the characters themselves; I wasn’t sure that I liked them enough to internalize their problems. The actors in The Artist – soundlessly – made me care. (Especially Uggie; I’m not much of a pet person, but I’m available to adopt him at any time.)

And it’s not like sentimentality and “relevance” are mutually exclusive, either. The Descendents wistfully eulogizes a pristine, pre-luxury resort Hawaii, and The Artist (kinda spoiler alert, although if you’ve seen the trailer, not really) depicts the sad slope to depression that can follow the loss of work, wealth and dignity; call me crazy, but that message resonates, doesn’t it? The Artist seems likely to clean up once the awards start rolling, and fans of The Descendents (or Dragon Tattoo, or Moneyball) will surely argue that it’s not as real, less timely, all glitz and no substance (not to nitpick, but see above note). But it won’t be a travesty; The Artist may not be as literally of-the-moment, but it’s an achievement all its own, and it’s certainly not irrelevant.

This argument especially sticks with me because it was such a crucial (and, I thought, infuriating) element of last year’s Oscar race: The King’s Speech vs. The Social Network. The advocates of The Social Network framed it as a race between the brilliant, innovative, zeitgeisty Network (fair point) and the overblown, sentimental Speech (much less fair), and when The King’s Speech won Best Picture, they threw up their hands and said, “Typical Hollywood. In with the old, out with the new.”

I preferred The King’s Speech, and that doesn’t make me dumber, or more sentimental, or less hip or critical. I saw both movies, enjoyed them, completely appreciated how timely and fascinating The Social Network was, and I just liked The King’s Speech better.

Call me lowbrow, but I just don’t care if the best movie of the year – mine, yours or Oscar voters’ – is a right now portrait of the world in which we live.

Ironically (to me, at least), one of Harris’s favorite films of the year was War Horse, a WWI period piece that disappointed me because I found it – ready for this? – incredibly heavy-handed and manipulative (though, admittedly, stunningly photographed). If any film commanded me to cry on cue, it was War Horse; if the “war is hell” imagery doesn’t get to you, may I interest you in the separation of a sweet farm boy from his beloved horse/soulmate?

Overly sentimental? Oh, yeah. But maybe you’ll love War Horse; maybe you’ll cry, and gasp, and savor every minute. Maybe The Artist will bore you to tears. And maybe The Descendents will hit you right in the gut, and move you in ways it didn’t quite move me.

No worries; it’s your escape, your two hours. Go wherever and whenever you want.

Anyway, what say you, b-rollers? What’s your prime realism-to-escapism ratio? And, more importantly, what’s your Best Picture (so far)?

2 comments

  1. This is such a well written piece of work. I don’t care if I am your mother or not, this is a brilliant piece. My Oscar vote is for The Help. I absolutely loved The Descendants and many other movies, but The Help was a game changer for me.

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