The Oscars, for as long as I can remember watching them, have been a tangle of thorns. The bramble invariably bears fruit, but the berries are often difficult to reach, or worse yet, unripe. Last year’s Slumdog Millionaire was not the worst movie to win Best Picture—let us not forget Crash, Return of the King, and Million Dollar Baby, just to name three from this decade—but it was still green: a simple film in the basest sense, one that glanced at big themes like poverty and class warfare, but refused, ultimately, to scrutinize them. As I wrote in a review of a much better film last year (Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre):
Slumdog was a financial success for the same reason that it was an artistic failure: it skimmed, both cinematographically and emotionally, over its subjects. It purported to be about class struggle in India, and the requisite horrors of poverty. But instead it was a shiny, loud, and clean fairytale. Slumdog overcame tragedy, but the adversity dramatized was so disingenuous that the triumph seemed saccharine at worst, and shallow at best. A lot of people, though, must have seen Boyle’s allegory as fresh and optimistic, and the film rode that sentiment to the Oscars.
The Best Picture award, expanded this year to ten nominees, seemed at first like an ecumenical gesture on the part of the Academy. I loved the idea that more small films, hypothetically, would get to stand beside the studio epics. And though The Hurt Locker and A Serious Man made the cut, so did Avatar, District 9 and The Blind Side, suggesting to me that the dilution of the category was more a wink and a nod to thoughtful filmmakers than a sincere unification with them. Where was A Single Man? Where was Antichrist? Why was Up nominated for Best Picture and Best Animated Feature?
The Hurt Locker is another sort of film. It follows the fate of three soldiers in Iraq charged with disarming IEDs in Baghdad. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) replaces Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) after Thompson is killed in the line of duty. James is as unconcerned with danger as James Bond is with venereal disease, and he approaches his work with the spiritual calm of a man raking a rock garden. What is immediately evident watching The Hurt Locker is that the film is existential rather than polemical. The soldiers aren’t interested in why they’re in country. The other men on James’ team—Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are concerned only with surviving until they leave. James, on the other hand, seems captivated by his work and pursues it with the Platonic conviction that all labor is ethically sound if done excellently.
Along with The Messenger, which I reviewed for The Millions, I saw The Hurt Locker as a testament to what “popular” cinema should strive to be. Just because I love Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and feel that, stylistically and ethically, it’s one of the most important films of the decade, doesn’t mean I expect it to ever find a broad American audience (it’s in black and white, for one, and for another, the actors speak German). The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, combined with the suspense of more traditional action fare (say, The Bourne Identity) the moral quandaries of Dr. Strangelove and the chauvinistic camaraderie of The Decline of the American Empire, all without delivering a simple message. In The Hurt Locker, war is both despicable and intoxicating. Some soldiers can’t wait to get home, and others dread leaving the battlefield. And yet it was popular amongst servicemen and critics alike. Emily Colette Wilkinson, who commented on my review “The Holy Trinity: Three Iraq War Films Define a New Apolitical Aesthetic,” wrote that her sister in Afghanistan loved The Hurt Locker. “It seems to have really connected with soldiers.”
All of this is to say that, from a commercial and an artistic perspective, The Hurt Locker was a revelatory example of the kind of film that could be made near Hollywood, if not exactly inside it. If it were to beat out Avatar, somehow, the Academy Awards were no longer a circle-jerk (as a friend of mine so quaintly put it), but, if briefly, a coronation ceremony for some damned fine art.
Before the show began, I was convinced that Avatar would win, though in retrospect that conviction came from the fact that everyone else seemed convinced it would. I have friends who enjoyed it, and I even lunched with two acquaintances a month back who thought it was not only the best film of the season, but perhaps the greatest achievement in cinematographic history. But, as my roommate Ty (who was born around the time Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s hitting record and was named, somewhat ironically, after the great, morally bankrupt Cobb) put it, to paraphrase, the Avatar champions were confusing spectacle with good storytelling. Avatar was a miracle if you saw it stoned in 3-D IMAX and ignored the performances and the dialogue, but a disaster if you paid attention to the actors and the lines they delivered. A technological marvel does not a best picture make, one could say. Avatar deserved every special effects award it got nominated for. But how, phenomena aside, can a film that garners no writing or acting nods possibly be an appropriate candidate for Best Picture? Fundamentally, shouldn’t a great film be an amalgamation of writing, acting, photography, and direction? The Hurt Locker was nominated, in addition to sound editing and mixing, for acting, writing, photography, and directing, as well as for the overall product. Avatar, on the other hand, was up for sound, special effects, cinematography, and directing, but received no acknowledgments whatsoever for its screenplay or the actors—digitally rendered or otherwise—who brought those stale lines to half life.
This polemic (for what else could you call my assault on James Cameron?) may seem a little cruel in the wake of the awards. Avatar, as it turns out, lost to The Hurt Locker on all the narrative fronts, and some of the technical ones, too. It won for best special effects, cinematography, and art direction, but The Hurt Locker won Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. Perhaps I’m in shock still, and expect to read in a few days that all of Kathryn Bigelow’s accolades got rescinded and heaped upon the Na’vi. But I think my unrest, or at least my disbelief in The Hurt Locker’s success, is grounded in my fear that the 82nd Academy Awards were an anomaly rather than the birth of a trend. Last night’s ceremony was, undoubtedly, an unprecedented victory for small films. The Hurt Locker cost $14 million to make, and Avatar $2 billion, if I’m misremembering my figures correctly. And James Cameron doesn’t lose many contests he’s expecting to win, especially to his ex-wife.
My hope, in the end, is that the incessant hype around Avatar didn’t simply annoy voters until they voted against it, out of nothing more than spite. My dream is that the republic of Hollywood, in its lovely dresses and tailored tuxedos, realized that a poor story poorly told papered over with handsome colors and textures is still nothing more than a poor story. Avatar has revolutionized, one suspects, the way big movies will get made in the future. But it did nothing to illuminate the human condition. The Hurt Locker, though, will haunt moviegoers long after Cameron’s virtual camera technology is commonplace on Monday Night Football broadcasts. Avatar is the new technological benchmark—which means it’s transient. Eventually something will surpass it. The Hurt Locker, conversely, like any true work of art, is permanent.
In both the original and the American remake of Funny Games, Michael Haneke, always the gracious host, invites us to the theater for what has become known as torture porn, only to scold us for showing up, for enjoying ourselves, and for eating all the popcorn. The film, in which two teenaged boys wreak havoc upon a married couple and their son, unfolds like any other house-invasion story, until a “surprising” moment reminds us of our roles as voyeurs: the film rewinds. The joke is on us. That type of irony isn’t ingratiating, specifically to us Americans, unapologetic consumers of mass-entertainment, who don’t like it when a man atop a high horse comes across the Atlantic to lecture us about our viewing habits, in our own theaters and in our own homes, especially if the messenger speaks in a foreign tongue and looks like a white-bearded wizard.
This is the knock on Haneke, a gifted artist with the visual chops of Bresson and Tarkovsky, but at heart a film-theorist and cultural-critic. Fair enough. Even in films less devoted to a critique of cinema, Cache and Code Unknown, for example, there seems to be a misplacement of artistic intentions. The problem lies not in how Haneke forces us to question, to examine, and to reexamine what we see, but in his insistence on reminding us that he’s a serious artist and by nature a contrarian: Do you see? Do you see how my films are different than Hollywood films?
Fortunately, The White Ribbon, the Austrian director’s first German-language film since the original Funny Games, allows Haneke to marry his masterful style with a subtler point of the finger. The best evidence of this is the film’s nomination in the best foreign film category at the upcoming Academy Awards. Already the winner of the Golden Globe, the film should win the Oscar, which considering Haneke’s anti-Hollywood stance, may surprise some viewers.
A whodunit set in a German village before the outset of WWI, the film turns what looks to be innocent and routine into something ominous and unsettling. Take the opening, a routine establishing shot of a figure riding his horse, from the distance, toward an unmoving camera. There is no cut, and the shot’s duration makes us uneasy as we watch the rider’s long approach. Finally, the horse trips on an unseen wire tied between two trees. The figure, a doctor, falls, breaks a shoulder, and the horse, as we see later, dies and is dragged off.
That puts in motion a series of incidents that grow in number along with the members of the accused. Haneke takes great care to make us suspicious of everyone. The story you are about to see, the unnamed narrator tells us, may or may not be hearsay. And it’s not until later when we learn the narrator’s identity, a minor and subtle choice which again makes us question his honesty, if only briefly. The mouthpiece fits the mold of the unreliable narrator, though his job as the visiting schoolteacher marks him with outsider status. The question is: should we trust him?
We ask that question of most characters. Through repetition, the predominance of faces fills the air with suspicion. Everyone, from children to adults, deserves a look-over. And as the incidents accrue, what seemed liked an innocent prank begins a chain of events that may or may not be connected: a destroyed cabbage patch, a murder or a suicide, the beating of a boy or two, a barn burning.
At first, the causal links seem simple. The trip wire is the work of children. The destruction of a cabbage patch is the act of farmer’s loyal and angry son who is avenging the death of his mother caused by a baron’s malfeasance. When the villagers find the baron’s son beaten, common sense would lead you to the farmer’s son, but he has an airtight alibi. And when the farmer is found dead, who did it? Did he hang himself in shame? Did his son kill him? Was it the baron or a crony? And who burned the baron’s barn? And so on. The complexity of the plot—the multiple causes for every effect—leads to purposeful dead-ends.
At every turn, Haneke plays with our expectations made numb by heavy doses of Hollywood’s methods: employing causal logic, identifying with characters, and finding motivations for their actions. Even when he does offer clear causes and effects—he shows us the culprit(s) in action—our inability to form an obvious link between these and other events only reinforces the notion that nothing is as simple as it seems. The same goes for the characters. We want to damn the pastor who coldly receives his son holding a wounded bird, but in a subsequent scene, the pastor fights back tears as the son offers his beloved bird as solace.
The effect here is there is no ideological getaway car. A local problem, you say? The limited visual style slowly expands to include shots of the landscape beyond the village. We can’t blame this on small village ignorance. Could we say it’s the effect of a bad social structure? Well, the baron is a somewhat sympathetic character: his son is beaten, and his wife finds a lover when she flees with the kids to Italy. The film, thankfully, deflates our ideological muscles.
What Haneke does is transform an allegorical tale about the rise of fascism into a profound look into human nature. We see, or better yet, we experience how silence has destructive consequences. Because the film expands from the individual to the local to the global (with the news of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination), the silence, the real villain here, isn’t custom to a specific time and place. Left with a spool of loose ends, all of us, even the innocent, are made accomplices. We too are sitting on our hands when the sound drops to silence. The wrongdoer(s) could be anyone or everyone.