Remember when Crash, a relatively "small" American film scored the Best Picture award in 2006?
Crash beat out the "gay cowboy" movie, Brokeback Mountain, the literate Capote and George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, the most obviously, and explicitly articulated, political film of the year.
It was a surprise win and within days, Annie Proulx, author of the short story upon which Brokeback Mountain is based, published a vitriolic piece in The Guardian declaiming the travesty and calling Crash "a safe pick of ‘controversial film’ for the heffalumps". The creators of Brokeback, Proulx seemed to say — herself, screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, director Ang Lee, even Heath Ledger — had been robbed.
Some of the greatest films in Hollywood history have won the Best Picture Oscar: Gone With the Wind, All About Eve, Midnight Cowboy, Platoon, and The Departed, for starters.
But some of the greatest films in Hollywood history notoriously haven’t won the Best Picture Oscar. Taxi Driver lost to Rocky in 1976. The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde lost to In the Heat of the Night in 1967. Dr Strangelove lost to My Fair Lady in 1964. Citizen Kane lost to How Green Was My Valley in 1941. Warners granted final cut to Stanley Kubrick on all his films, but he never won an Oscar for Best Director; neither did Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a long list of injustices. And in 2006, Proulx and the makers of Brokeback Mountain joined a long and righteous line of aesthetically and politically significant films that were passed over by the Academy.
The yearly disputation over who deserves to win in the lead up to the awards — and hand-wringing about who was robbed in the aftermath — is as much a part of the Oscars ritual as the stars and the red carpet vox pops. All the fanfare is highly seductive and indeed the relative merits of frocks and shoes are debated with as much vigour as the prospects for award nominees. In many ways, the breathless anticipation of Oscars night is a natural extension of the Hollywood mythology that breathed life into the ceremony 80 years ago.
Every Oscars season still has something in it of the ritual, a dramatic arc which conforms to the resilient three act structure of the classic Hollywood film.
We begin with the build-up. The Oscars season gets going and the prospective best films are negotiated and debated. The very hint that Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, in spite of unsettling most critics, might be in the mix, was the high point of this year’s first act. Once we enter the campaign itself, the studios run their marketing strategies and the nominees are whittled down to a final two or three favourites although these favourites aren’t always first across the line in the final act. Oscars night is the third act of this classic narrative: resolution and closure. And then the reviews start.
This year, the 10 Best Picture nominees have been whittled down to two favourites, with the excellent District 9 and Inglourious Basterds trailing somewhere behind. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker has been pitted against James Cameron’s Avatar, which remarkably is both the most expensive film ever made and the highest grossing film worldwide on theatrical release.
If you don’t know that Bigelow and Cameron were once married, you haven’t been paying attention. Although critics have done all they can to frame this as a showdown of warring exes, Bigelow and Cameron have maintained a polite public demeanour. A dash of David v Goliath has been added to the mix by many critics but how different are these films?
Avatar is "big" in every way. This is spectacle cinema par excellence, what Steven Spielberg, master of the genre would approvingly call "high-concept". It’s the kind of cinema constructed specifically as blockbuster: high on concept, low on story, character and thematic subtlety.
Technical production is a vital element of this film aesthetic. We fetishise the 3D reconfiguration of the setting and imagine ourselves immersed in the screened space. Such work is typical of Cameron as a filmmaker. Here, as in Titanic, he maps big mythological structures onto a narrative involving a colonialist power and a noble, enlightened native. As John Pilger has recently remarked, it’s a narrative that obscures the thematic essence of the story: that native peoples need rescuing, that enlightenment is couched in the historical and cultural discourses of hegemony.
If The Hurt Locker is Goliath’s David, the term has to be applied with some care. Yes, perhaps it’s David to Goliath, but it’s David as underdog (another grand narrative of Hollywood cinema) rather than David as conscientious objector to an establishment norm. If Avatar is high-concept spectacle, The Hurt Locker is visceral cinema to coin a fashionable term but it’s no less spectacle, it’s no less a cinema of the senses or a cinema of "attractions".
Bigelow’s great achievement with The Hurt Locker has been to convince the American critical establishment of its spirit of aesthetic radicalism — which it has in spades — while deflecting attention from one of its conspicuous omissions: a consideration of the political context of the War in Iraq, the War on Terrorism, and the last 20 years of the American presence in the region.
Compare this to Francis Ford Coppola’s anti-war declaration in the wake of the American tragedy in Vietnam: "The horror, the horror". War was something to fear, to be repulsed by. In Coppola’s cinema, war was political as well as aesthetic.
Together, Bigelow’s film and Cameron’s spectacular exemplify the genre of apolitical cinema and it’s this genre that Hollywood’s aesthetic barometer has registered this year. For my money, the winner will be one of the two and Tarantino’s work will recede further into the background. It’s a shame, because Inglourious Basterds is one of the genuinely original films of the past few years.
In 2006, when Crash was announced, like Proulx, I felt robbed. I’d have taken Brokeback Mountain, Capote or Good Night, and Good Luck. This year, as much as I’d like to see Tarantino win, I’ve already braced myself for the denouement.
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