Finding Shared Communities In The Academy’s Final Ten Films

by James M.  Wall

The smartest thing the Motion Picture Academy did in its 82nd annual Academy Awards voting this year was to return to a practice it last used in 1943.

That was the year the Academy named Casablanca as best picture from a list of ten feature films.

For 2009, the Academy ended a 65 year hiatus and placed ten films on its ballot.

What took ’em so long. Double the number of films, and you double the conversation, especially in our new communications world of the internet, Facebook and Twitter, where everyone can talk, in real time, about films they saw twice and those they did not really like very much.

Six thousand voters had ballots for the best picture, six thousand active or retired members of the Motion Picture Academy.

The rest of us have to look on like touts crowding the rail at the Kentucky Derby, but because we are touts, we want to talk about our favorite horse.

Which is to say, for people who love film, and our numbers are legion, it matters not who wins or loses, but who gets to play in the big game.

Which is why it is the conversation about the final ten, not who wins or loses, that should bring joy to the hearts of film lovers.

What we say to one another about the final ten is nothing less than a world wide community Rorschach test where we declare what it all means.

We see in films what the film maker’s vision delivers to our hearts and minds. We rejoice when we discover that we are not alone in our responses. We have found our community surrounding a particular film experience

Start with the film chosen as Best Picture, The Hurt Locker, whose director, Kathryn Bigelow (pictured above) also won the Best Director award.

On my ballot her film would have fallen somewhere in the middle of the pack, terrific film, but not at the top of the list. What The Hurt Locker brings to the table is an artistic recognition of the burden we ask our military to carry. Bigelow is clear about this.

Avatar would have been my preferred best film, as I wrote earlier when it opened last fall.  I am not alone in my reading of Avatar as a portrait of colonialism.

I discovered a kindred spirit in my awareness that Avatar denounces colonialism on the morning after the Awards ceremony. I found a cinematic soul mate while reading the Beirut, Lebanon Daily Star.

Here is what Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban wrote for the Daily Star, about Avatar: Planet Pandora or Palestine?:

Despite the technological effects with which the director of Avatar crams his movie, the reason behind its popularity is not only these technological effects but the themes which touch every human conscience.

This is in addition to the symbolism of the movie: Details of the conflict between peoples and their invaders from Iraq to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and first and foremost, Palestine.

The source of all these conflicts is, as usual, the greed which is usually masked by other pretexts and justifications. It is not true that the theme of the movie is simple or that it addresses “the rupture in the link between man and nature,” as the movie director James Cameron says. .  .  .

Through this movie I lived the story of the Palestinian, Iraqi, Afghan and Lebanese peoples and the brutal wars waged against them; where the West treats these peoples as if they were the children of the “Navi” tribe with their blue clothes in their planet Pandora.

Of course, I am but a humble, movie-loving, politically-obsessed blogger from Illinois, while Dr. Shaaban is the Political and Media Adviser in the office of the Syrian Presidency. She is also the former Minister of Expatriates of Syria, a writer, and since 1985, a professor at Damascus University.

I have it on good authority that when an American church leader of my acquaintance takes a group to Damascus, Dr. Shaaban is available to discuss matters of common interest, which, in the future, I trust, will include Avatar: Planet Pandora or Palestine?

I have known Roger Ebert since he joined the Chicago Sun Times as film critic. He has had his health issues, but fortunately, those issues have not slowed his coverage of film.

On Sunday night, during the Oscar presentations, Roger’s twitter family totaled 99,000 readers, who joined together to bring in other readers so that by now that total should have reached 100,000.

I share Roger’s appreciation for  Quentin Tarantino’s work, including this week, Inglourious Basterds, one of this year’s top ten Award finalists.

Ebert’s appreciation of Tarantino reminds us that the community that cherishes film history and culture, is in a better position to receive and absorb, Tarantino’s vision. The man loves cinema. Here is a sample of Ebert’s review of Inglorious Basterds.

From the title, ripped off from a 1978 B-movie, to the Western sound of the Ennio Morricone opening music to the key location, a movie theater, the film embeds Tarantino’s love of the movies. .  .  .

Above all, there are three iconic characters, drawn broadly and with love: the Hero, the Nazi and the Girl. These three, played by Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent, are seen with that Tarantino knack of taking a character and making it a Character, definitive, larger than life, approaching satire in its intensity but not — quite — going that far. Let’s say they feel bigger than most of the people we meet in movies.

When Waltz appears on screen the film rises to a new level of excellence, most especially in the opening section in which, as Colonel Hans Landa, he reveals to a French farmer hiding Jewish refugees in his basement, his absolute dedication to his assignment as a “Jew hunter”.

His performance earned Waltz an Academy Award as this year’s best supporting actor.

On the matter of The Hurt Locker, feelings are mixed.  One Arab-American colleague admired Bigelow’s skill in making a thriller in a war film setting.

But he objects to her “colonial’ treatment of the local Arab population, all of whom are reduced to marginalized adults. “Why couldn’t the film have included at least one intelligent Arabic interpreter.” Why indeed?

Michael Moore, writing to his email list after the Award ceremonies, did not agree with critics who read The Hurt Locker as a film that focused on the bravery of the soldiers and avoided taking sides in the politics of the war.

The truth is The Hurt Locker is very political. It says the war is stupid and senseless and insane. It makes us consider why we have an army where people actually volunteer to do this. That’s why the right wing has attacked the movie. They’re not stupid — they know what Kathryn Bigelow is up to. No one leaves this movie thinking, “Whoopee! Let’s keep these wars going another 7 years!”

I agree with Moore.  The Iraq war is extremely unpopular; Bigelow’s message that war is terrible gets through because it is wrapped in a patriotic package.

Finally, I rejoiced over the increase to ten finalist films because without the increase,  Up, which also won the best feature length animation award, would have been confined to the animation ghetto.

Up is this year’s best family film. It also has substance and depth, starting with a remarkable montage of a marriage from courtship to death.

Up would never have made it into a truncated Big Five. Nor would A Serious Man, even though its creators are Academy Award veterans.

A Serious Man is the most auto-biographical work we have seen from the directing-writing team of  two brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen.

The Coens won an Academy Award for 2007’s best picture, No Country for Old Men, set in the modern, but wild, American West, where evil permeates a tale of greed.

There was none of the Coen’s dark humor in that picture, certainly nothing to compare with the way in which they blended violence with hope in Fargo, their 1997 film which was a finalist for best picture.

The Coens utilized their talents with considerable delight in O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, their 2001 film for which they won an academy award in the category of Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published.

The “previous material” was Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, to which the script was faithful whenever the Coens felt Homer was needed.

Good thing they found room for Homer’s narrative. Without it we would have been deprived of John Goodman’s one-eyed monster, beautiful sirens who lured men to their doom, or tried to, and a blind prophet who warns Everett Ulysses McGill and his companions Delmar and Pete, “The treasure you seek shall not be the treasure you find”. Wisdom for the ages.

These brothers are artists of the first rank, and this year, A Serious Man, took them back to their own youth as Jewish teens living in tract housing in a Minneapolis suburb.

The year is 1967. The film’s central figure is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university, who, when the film opens. is told by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she wants a divorce.

This announcement is the first in a series of repeated blows to Larry Gopnik, blows of such magnitude that the viewer is compelled to acknowledge that the Coens have tapped into the story of Job, a man who suffers at the hand of God (or Hashem, as God is referred to throughout the film).

Gopnik’s teenage children, a boy and a girl, do not respect him. They do not respond to his constant lament, “What’s going on?”.

What, indeed, in the world of Joen and Ethan Coen, is going on, when a man is about to lose his wife, has already lost his children, the son to pot, and the daughter to the cocoon life of a 15-year-old. What’s more, since he is a college teacher, of course, he is up for tenure.

A friendly colleague tells him he has nothing to worry about, but maybe Larry could identify some recent publications for his resume?  Does the committee grant him tenure?  What do you think?

The Coens are film artists, two men who look with wisdom, regret, and finally, with respect at their religious and cultural Jewish traditions. This is a journey into a tribal culture of flawed rabbis, lawyers, and tribal members, all of whom really, really, do want to help Larry.

The three rabbis to whom Larry turns for answers could be found in any Protestant, Catholic or Jewish clergy, it really doesn’t matter.

They are all utterly incapable of providing Larry with answers. Each rabbi fails him, starting with the youngest who urges Larry to look out the window at the parking lot and imagine that he is from outer space, seeing the lot for the first time.  If he looks hard enough he will be visited by Hashem. Be open to the “mystery”.

Doesn’t sound much like the Hashem Larry needs to hear from, but he will try anything because he desperately wants to be a righteous person – a mensch – a serious man.

The middle-aged rabbi tells him a rambling tale of a Jewish dentist who sees a message from Hashem enscribed inside a patient’s teeth. He decodes the message to mean: “help me”.

The dentist asks the patient to come back for another look, but does not tell him about the message.  It is still there. He starts looking in other mouths for other messages. No other patient has one.

Concerned,  Larry asks his rabbi what happened to the patient. Shrugging, the rabbi answers, “The goy? Who cares”. Dark humor, but it works in the hands of the Coens.

The senior, and very old,  rabbi, spends his time sitting at his desk, thinking. He doesn’t have time for Larry. But at the conclusion of his bar mitzvah ceremony, Larry’s son, Danny, 13, still stoned from the pot he smoked in preparation for his ceremony, is ushered into the aging rabbi’s office.

The scene of the rabbi and Danny just might restore your belief in Hashem’s grace, if you are open to that posssibility. Grace is often discovered in Coen films when you least expect it.  In this case, it couldn’t hurt if you know the Jefferson Airplane’s song, Somebody to Love.

I did not think A Serious Man would win in a ten-film competition.  The Academy Awards are not that much into religion, unless it is the more neutral, upbeat form found in The Blind Side,  the finalist film for which Sandra Bullock earned her Best Actress award.

I do rejoice in the positive media critical response to A Serious Man, (84% on the Rotten Tomatoes chart)which suggests that those of us who admire the work of the Coen Brothers, are members of a community that is formed across ethnic and religious boundaries.

The picture at the top is an AP photo of Kathryn Bigelow when she receives her Best Picture Award. The picture from A Serious Man is from Wilson Webb, Focus Features.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years.
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5 Responses to Finding Shared Communities In The Academy’s Final Ten Films

  1. Thank you for this piece. For another way to honor the burden imposed on soldiers and reflect collectively about change see the upcoming Truth Commission on Conscience in War, Riverside Church, NY, March 21-22: http://www.conscienceinwar.org
    The public hearings will include veterans from Afghanistan and Iran and clips from the Emmy nominated documentary Soldiers of Conscience by Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan. Everyone is welcome at the public hearings, March 21, 4-8 pm.

  2. ann hafften says:

    Great column, Jim. We don’t love the same movies, but I love the angle about shared movie appreciation surfacing communities. My only beef with the 10 nominees for “best” is the failure to read off all their names before announcing “the Oscar goes to…” Seems the least they could do for the other nine.

  3. Bill Gepford says:

    The art of movieland often has more truth in it (or should if done right) than the “art” of a lot of politics in this country today. Including the opportunity to carry on a conversation about them can open up new possibilities for sharing real life with one another, across all kinds obarriers.Thanks, Jim. for yur insight

  4. John F. Kane says:

    Jim: Just a quick note. Appreciated your tip on A Serious Man which I’ve not seen but will. Disagree pretty thoroughly about Inglourious Basterds. Don’t really know Taurantino’s work, and not enough of a film buff to get all the insider cinema references that charm you. My students chose to see it at start of a course on War and Peacemaking last semester, so I saw it. Found it both sensationalizing and trivializing violence and pushing a Gnostic and nihilist sensibility – found it terrible. John

  5. wallwritings says:

    John

    The opening scene of the film is film-making at its best. That is followed by what is essentially a tongue in cheek treatment of the war, ending with the wish fulfillment of a massive revenge story.

    Interesting to take note of how people read into films their own narrative, using the film to enhance their own perspective. A graduate student writing for Sightings, used the film to discuss the Jewish revenge narrative, linking the Jewish girl who escapes in the film’s opening to Judith in the Hebrew bible.

    That use of Judith seems disconnected from the film, but using it as an example of Jewish traditional revenge narrative, does show that my Rorschach Test theory in film viewing, makes sense. I try to see the film as a film, art for its vision, a method which I believe helps to keep the focus on the specific film at hand. I don’t always succeed, but that is always my goal.

    Get the DVD from your library or Netflix and revisit that opening interaction between the German “visitor” and the non-Jewish farmer. This is a master film maker at work. Low keyed, superb acting in which the farmer is “helped’ to reveal the location of the Jewish family in the basement without having to display his act of betrayal. We are not introduced to the family except with a quick shot through the floor board. They are there to die for no other reason than for the sake of the narrative.

    Camera angles reverse abruptly to shift the power in the tense dialog. The girl runs into the future when we later learn she will be given the opportunity to gain her revenge. Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), does not shoot her, setting up the final confrontation. Landa is then betrayed by the Americans and is branded forever as a Nazi.

    The plot is not subtle and like all good “pulp fiction”, it telegraphs itself well in advance. I never like Tarantino’s gory excesses. The Southern accent used by Brad Pitt is so phony that we are told at the outset that nothing he or his “dirty dozen” Jewish soldiers do are to be taken seriously.

    Besterds is certainly not one of Tarantino’s best. But a lower level Tarantino is worth two dozen Hollywood formulaic sex comedies.

    Jim

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