Posted by: gdevi | March 21, 2014

Measly Picks

I watched most of the Oscar nominated movies over spring break, with the exception of August, Osage County (I plan to–it is apparently one of those stereotypical southern yelling women movies–I might have to fast-forward this one quite a bit–isn’t it amazing how you can watch a two hour movie in 15 mnts sometimes?– but I like both Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, two very good actresses), and Nebraska ( I don’t plan to see this–I cannot connect with Alexander Payne’s movies at all–I could not connect with Sideways, or with The Descendents, and I am sure I will be bored out of my mind with this one as well; besides, a movie about sweepstakes? No, thanks.), and 12 Years a Slave, which I don’t plan to see as well. I consider Steve McQueen a super fraud as a director.  I recall his movie Shame as one of the most useless movies that I have ever seen. This is probably because I am from another country and another culture, and you might find it offensive that I am saying it like this, but I find the cultural appropriation of Black slavery in the US very interesting.  There are very, very few really truthful slavery movies or books or music etc. Most of it is just exploitation, both by black and white writers, directors, musicians, men and women etc.  There is a super-selling story out there that can make you a lot of money. Why take the time to think up another one on your own? You figure out how to do some one thing once, and then you go over and over with your stories that portray an entire race as promiscuously hyper-sexed “black snakes” and “big-legged women.” It is like pouring poison into your eyes and ears and mind. Both Black and White artists participate and profit from this. Where are the stories of the generations that really perished under slavery, the mothers, the fathers, the children, the church bombings, the poverty, the lynchings that exist to this day? Very few people tell that story. The other one sells better: the drunken shacks, the shaking, the rocking, the rolling. I avoid that genre like poison. Steve McQueen is a bad faith fraud director of another kind. I am gonna let that pass.

Anyway, I saw all the major ones that were on the Oscar slate. If we are to go by this slate, it has some very interesting revelations about our contemporary state of American film-making. It is actually quite shocking. First of all, three of the top grossing films are about frauds, con-men and shysters: American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Blue Jasmine. It is also instructive that all three movies portray the world of con artists as “comedy.”  I mean these are no bumbling crooks like the characters played by Steve Martin or Peter Sellers or Eddie Murphy or Jim Carrey etc; these are actually characters partly or wholly based on bonafide historical Americans who totally conned other people to make money.  Their stories are presented as comedies. Interesting, don’t you think? Dallas Buyer’s Club portrays a watershed moment in our cultural history; the gay community trying to find a cure for “their” disease, since nobody else will.  And Gravity, directed by a Mexican, tells the most thoughtful and profound story about the seriousness of life.

American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell, tells the story of a con man (Christian Bale) and a con woman (Amy Adams), the con man’s ex-wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and their plot to escape an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) who is on to their dealings. The con couple win in the end. It is a smartly made movie, and with the exception of Bradley Cooper, the actors all act pretty well. But it is the story of a con.

Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s movie, tells the story of a fifty something woman Jasmine (not her real name), the wife of a con businessman, used to the rich and lavish lifestyle, who finds herself with nothing after the FBI arrests the husband (Alec Baldwin), and the husband commits suicide. Jasmine moves all the way from New York to San Francisco and tries to con the wealthy businessman Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) into marrying her, but it does not work out. Another con movie.

I was particularly struck by what a bad movie Scorcese made this time in The Wolf of Wall Street. My students recommended it highly to me, which is one reason that I saw it. I am a fan of Scorcese and particularly of Leonardo De Caprio. But I have to say that I just could not understand why this movie was made. It is based on the life of Jordan Belfort, the stockbroker who was indicted on several counts of securities and exchanges fraud and money laundering, a con-man who made his living selling fraudulent penny stocks to unsuspecting and largely ignorant people. FBI caught him and sentenced him to prison and apparently he now makes a living as a “sales psychologist.” So why is this guy’s life worthy of a movie? I understood why all my male students recommended this movie highly to me. It is a smart movie. It makes being a con-man look sort of cool, like you are rebelling against the evils of the Wall Street or something. In a climactic scene, Jordan Belfort tells his brokers: “I want you to solve your problems by becoming rich.” (If you want to rebel against the evils of the Wall Street, why not join the Occupy movement?) And the movie is drip-dried in the word “f***” — I could not actually count it but I guesstimate the word and its many permutations are used at least a thousand times in the course of two plus hours.  Young boys would really like this movie; it is full of sex, the most filthy kind of sex. Apparently this is all based on this guy’s book, and he got a hefty deal from the studio for rights. It is also packed with full-blown drug use. But even Scorcese could not give meaning and significance to a worthless story like this one. What a waste of human talent and money. Oy!

Given the choices above, it is understandable why the movies won the awards they did, or why they did not win the awards. Leonardo De Caprio is a fantastic actor. So is Christian Bale. But how can the Academy give its highest honor to two actors portraying con men, both of them indicted by the FBI? If the awards need to demonstrate a moral center–and I don’t mean pandering in the sense of Michelle Obama giving academy awards etc–but the moral center of art–then the only movies that satisfy this requirement are Dallas Buyer’s Club, 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. This explains the awards.

The awards this year show a real tragic dearth of stories, or the death of imagination in American movie-making.  I hope this is just a temporary phase, and that we will go back to the years when there was an embarrassment of riches.

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