Hollywood can't help itself. The glitteries inevitably use the Academy Awards to push their personal politics, sometimes cheap and occasionally not, rewarding razzle-dazzle over real life. This year the two most important Oscars, for best picture and best director, went to "Birdman," about razzle-dazzle, and not "Boyhood," about real life.
The birdman is a faded movie star who tries to redeem his popularity by going on the stage to show he can act before a live audience. Such a tale naturally trumps the everyday concerns of "Boyhood," which follows a divorced couple over 12 years and the trials of raising a child to maturity against the slings and arrows of real life, but rewarded with love.
"Birdman" is full of magic tricks, such as the star soaring through the air, electrifying an audience from above. It's a movie big on spectacle, small on insight. Everyday life over 12 years in the eye of the camera of "Boyhood" has authentic moments, rich with the specifics every parent can recognize and appreciate.
The popular culture, like the political culture, prefers spontaneous sensation to the deeper, if sometimes mundane, sensation of walking on clay feet. But that's where we live. Why else would we focus so much attention on Rudy Guiliani's speculations about the president's love of America or Scott Walker's observation that he can't know the president's faith because he hasn't talked to him about it. These issues, if issues they actually are, don't have much to do about serious matters of state or who we elect to govern us. But we can understand the popular curiosity and media hype behind them.
The trumpets and drumbeats of the circus, in politics and movies, are always more fun than real-life choices. Mason, the young protagonist of "Boyhood," played by Ellar Coltrane, celebrates his 15th birthday in Texas with a vintage shotgun and an inscribed Bible from his grandparents. This can't compete with Riggan, the histrionic actor played by Michael Keaton in "Birdman," who thinks he can be "reborn" on the boards of Broadway and finds himself walking down the backstreets of Times Square in his skivvies.
But there was another brief real moment this year. "Ida," a short, profound movie, won the award for best foreign film, one that transcends the head vs. heart dichotomies posed by Hollywood. "Ida" is a movie about political and religious orthodoxy, the doubts that bedevil real people at a mean moment in history. Without gimmicks, it tells a story of how humans react, with their strengths and their weaknesses on display, when they're trapped in a difficult confrontation with real life. The story takes place in Poland in 1962, when a naive young woman of faith, raised an orphan in a convent, is about to take her vows as a nun. She must suddenly confront her secular aunt, a Communist, whom she discovers is Jewish and learns that she is Jewish, too.
It's shot in black and white, but the exploration of psychological truth is anything but simple. The understated shades of gray, with shadows and opaque light, are both backdrop and statement without judgment. The audience must understand and judge on its own: What would you have done in such circumstances, trapped in the iron fence of history?
Like Alejandro Inarritu, the Mexican director of "Birdman," Pawel Pawlikowski, the Polish director of "Ida," uses extended long shots where the camera seldom moves. But the Polish director is suspicious of tricks and gimmicks, and no one soars through the air. What you see on earth is what you must confront, even when that means facing your own moral failures.
Poland, in this scenario, is a country both victim and victimizer. In the Holocaust, Poland lost a fifth of its population, and the Poles were collaborators in the deaths of more than 3 million Polish Jews. This is touched on as the Jewish Communist aunt explains that she was a state prosecutor under the communist regime, who sent "traitors" to their deaths. Many Poles have complained bitterly about "Ida" bringing their anti-Semitic past to public attention, but this is an unswerving look at the intersection of Polish culture, where Catholics, Jews and Communists meet in conflict over their national identities.
The director of "Ida," aware of the contrasts his quiet movie represents with the noise of Oscar night, observed in his acceptance speech that "we made a film about the need for silence, withdrawal from the world and contemplation, and here we are at this happy center of noise and attention."
He was right about that need for an interlude of serious contemplation. But Hollywood, with all its many tricks of sentiment and special effects, is not the place for that.