We all know the Oscars’ real raison d’etre: publicity generation for mostly middlebrow
“prestige pictures”. The nominees are never really the best films of the year, are they?
That said, it’s still a great tradition, one that no one who loves movies can entirely ignore.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
F. Scott Fitzgerald never expected his short story about a man who ages backwards to
meet celluloid like this. I quite liked it, actually. David Fincher knows how to make a
movie (see “Zodiac”), though there are some problems here: midway through there’s a
sequence about the nature of chance and fate that seems lifted wholesale from the
opening of “Magnolia”. Another minefield: the film is by the screenwriter who did “Forest
Gump”, Eric Roth. His subject is life and death, and though one worries that he actually
enjoys those banal sound-bites peppering his scripts, at his best he gives us honestly
moving moments, of which there are many here. My favorites take place in the still of the
night in an elegant Russian hotel. While guests and staff sleep, Benjamin meets each
night in the lobby with Tilda Swinton. They repair into the kitchen to talk deep into the
night, or to the elegant dining room to share a secret meal. There’s a wonderful sense of
ordinary time suspended. Oh, and the movie’s got Cate Blanchett too, who kills me
every time out.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it. But I didn’t love, it if I’m honest. Danny Boyle’s film set
in Mumbai is kinetic and colorful, and I like the kid who plays the lead. Boyle is a brilliant
wielder of every aspect of film language, but he doesn’t permit the viewer any will of their
own. It’s too slick, too pat for my taste.
This biopic is as conventional as Gus Van Sant gets. It’s a worthy film, if never quite
transcendent. The recreation of 70’s San Francisco brought back memories for me (we
lived out there while my dad was on sabbatical, in ’77 I think it was; Milk was
assassinated in ‘78). Such intelligent acting from Sean Penn—his range seems quite
limitless. By the way, the 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” is essential
Aside from the performances, it’s valuable for illustrating a key idea of film theory: the
“secret power” of the close-up (as Balazs put it), which creates its own sets of meaning.
And though a Nixon supporter complains in the film about the close-up’s “reductive
power”, the way it simplifies, the fact is that when the final Frost interview goes out on
TV the truth is there for all to see: it’s in the eyes of Frank Langella as Nixon, the sweat
on his upper lip. Whatever his words might have been, the close-up told the real story.
A few years ago Kate Winslett guest-starred on an episode of “Extras”, Ricky Gervais’
wickedly satiric sitcom about celebrity: playing a twisted version of herself shooting a
Holocaust movie, she confides to an astonished extra on the set who has commended
her for using her profile to keep the memory alive, “God, I’m not doing it for that…no, I’m
doing it because I’ve noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust, you’re guaranteed
an Oscar.” Brilliant! I really want her to win best actress on Sunday, not least for being
willing to do a scene like that, which is now of course doubly ironic.
In “The Reader” Winslett stars as a woman with secrets in late 50s Germany; she
initiates a teen into sex while he initiates her into literature (it is her idea that he read to
her). Though problematic and at times clumsy, “The Reader” is the nominee that most
stimulated me to think about its ideas, including the mind-boggler that non-evil people
abetted the Holocaust. You could debate whether that’s even a valid proposition, but it’s
conducive to critical thought to ponder whether ordinary Germans who went along were
so different from us, for whom making a living and getting through day-to-day life tends
to trump morals in all kinds of small or large ways that we learn to live with. And then
there’s a wordless sequence where the young man visits Auschwitz: it is a quietly
devastating scene, but you could argue that of course footage of the camps can’t help
but be devastating, and furthermore that to use it to give a movie gravitas—maybe even
to help you win awards—is exploitive and maybe even obscene. I think that would be to
miss the point in this case: this film needed to take us there, as if to say, remember what
we’re talking about when we talk about the Holocaust. To see the negation of the life
force in contrast to how alive the woman with secrets once made him feel.
- Feb 18, 2009