It's Oscar time. Unfortunately -- or perhaps fortunately -- I haven't seen anywhere near all of the contenders. For that reason alone, I can't write an Oscar column. Throw in the fact that I think the Oscars are one of the most overhyped events in American life. They're almost as bad as the Grammys were when they were still around.
Wait, they still have those? Really?
OK, well, the Oscars are still overrated.
But I do love movies, and I'm fascinated by what they say about American life. Of course, movies don't always reflect or articulate what moviegoers are thinking. Often they merely express what Hollywood thinks Americans are thinking or what Hollywood thinks they should believe.
For instance, over the last decade, Hollywood unleashed a stream of high-profile films directly or indirectly about the war in Iraq. Nearly all of the polemical antiwar films bombed. Robert Redford & Co. were desperate to remake "Coming Home" and other antiwar films, but Americans weren't interested. The few war movies that did well pretty much avoided the sort of preachy jeremiads you'd expect to hear at Susan Sarandon's book club. For instance, "The Hurt Locker" -- nominated for Best Picture -- largely ignores the debate over the war and instead tells a gripping story about our troops' heroism. "The Kingdom," another war-on-terror movie, was a hit despite the best intentions of director Peter Berg, who wanted it to be a parable about the cycle of violence. It succeeded because it was good action movie that depicted Americans as heroes.
It's a bit funny, then, to hear some people claim that "Avatar," with its cartoonish environmentalism and hackneyed attacks on the military and those evil corporations, is proof that Americans love serious left-wing preaching with their popcorn. "For years," writes Patrick Goldstein in the Los Angeles Times, "pundits and bloggers on the right have ceaselessly attacked liberal Hollywood for being out of touch with rank and file moviegoers, complaining that executives and filmmakers continue to make films that have precious little resonance with Middle America." The last laugh is on them, cackles Goldstein, because "Avatar" "totally turns this theory on its head."
I'm sure Goldstein's right. No doubt James Cameron could have made "Avatar" for $300 million less and still made a fortune. After all, audiences didn't need the 3-D digital magic, explosions, giant aliens or spectacular backdrops. All they wanted was an extended lecture about the evils of corporate America and the cruelty of the military, and some gassy pantheistic blather about the need to get back to nature. Why, Cameron could have simply recorded a poetry jam at Barbra Streisand's house and still put out the highest-grossing film ever.
Goldstein's effort is a good example of how critics and historians want to impose significance on films that may not be there.
Early Cold War movies from the 1950s rank pretty high as targets for film school vivisection. For decades, film historians have insisted that "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is a thinly veiled (and paranoid) allegory about Communist infiltration. The movie ends with the protagonist screaming directly into the camera: "They're here already! You're next! You're next!"
The funny thing is that the filmmakers never saw it as an allegory about anything.
That doesn't mean "Body Snatchers" didn't reflect Cold War anxieties. But it's a good reminder that filmmakers aren't always aware of their inspiration and that sometimes the best way to articulate a larger message is to not try to.
Indeed, when Hollywood tries too hard, it usually comes out lame. The original "Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951) was driven by a fear that the Cold War would turn hot and mankind's propensity for violence would destroy the world. The 2008 remake with Keanu Reeves -- playing yet another emotionally impaired, semi-stupid, quasi-robot savior figure -- was a predictably lame lecture about how humans (i.e., Americans) are bad stewards of the environment. It wouldn't have been so annoying if it weren't for the fact that the same movie is made nearly every year.
Since the end of the Cold War, Hollywood has been in desperate pursuit of enemies. You'd have thought that 9/11 would have provided a great opportunity for Hollywood to find a worthy enemy. But it turned out moviemakers were more comfortable depicting Jihadi terrorists before 9/11 than after (rent "The Siege" and "Executive Decision" if you don't believe me). They've tried (and retried) aliens, drug kingpins, bad weather and the always-enjoyable zombies. But with a few exceptions, Hollywood is still most comfortable with the idea that the enemy is really us.
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