Monday, February 28, 2011

Hollywood's Real Glass Ceiling

Kathyrn Bigelow is about to become the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director.

Whether she deserves the Best Director prize -- and I happen to think she does -- is beside the point.  Ms. Bigelow will come away with the Oscar for Best Director as a consolation prize, because the Academy can't afford to admit that The Hurt Locker was the best picture of the year.

The Hurt Locker is up against Hollywood's real glass ceiling:  the industry's profit margin.

Can Hollywood acknowledge that a low-budget movie that has grossed less than $20 million is a better film than the box office event Avatar that has grossed over $1 billion and is on its way to becoming one of the most profitable films of all time?  Can the industry tell moviegoers:  Thanks for the bucks, but the 3D spectacle you blew your money on last Christmas wasn't a great movie after all?

The face-off between The Hurt Locker and Avatar has been billed as woman against man, ex-wife against ex-husband, blockbuster against art house breakout.  But, in the most basic sense, the confrontation looming at the Academy Awards is about whether movies can come to grips with the human condition instead of trying to escape from it.

Can we afford to make movies that synthesize real experience, to support producers and directors who engage the world as artists, or can we only support escapist spectaculars that distract us from the real world?

Rejecting The Hurt Locker will be a clear statement that Hollywood doesn't have the heart to take on the real world.  In the head-to-head match-up between The Hurt Locker and Avatar, there is no question that The Hurt Locker is the better film.

Avatar is a significant motion picture event, designed to revive a floundering industry by providing a 3D experience that can’t be matched by television or DVDs. Its release has been accompanied by the kind of marketing campaign you’d expect for a film that took over 10 years and a few hundred million dollars to produce. It’s probably the first of many 3D blockbusters Hollywood will crank out over the next couple of years, and, in that sense at least, it represents the future of the industry.

Unfortunately, Avatar is a very bad film. The story, dialogue, art, characters, sound and music are all trite. It’s even weak in the one area you’d expect a 3D film to deliver: retinal pressure and the sensation of movement. There’s not enough subjective viewpoint to suck the viewer into the action and provide real thrills. Worst of all, the film consciously tries to rise to the level of myth, but can’t quite make it. That’s what happens when a film maker succumbs to the idea he can create myths rather than channel them.  In a medium that lends itself to metaphor, Avatar is remarkably without characters, scenes or images that point to anything beyond themselves.  Cameron's images, like his film, are, essentially, meaningless.

There is more real meaning in any single scene of The Hurt Locker than there is in all of Avatar.

Ms. Bigelow's film conveys both the incredible pressure American troops in Iraq have been under to make instant life-and-death decisions and the limits of high-tech to take the pressure off of them.  As she develops the film's premise that war is addictive, it doesn't take us long to discover it's not just Sgt. James who's addicted to war, it's America itself that's addicted as well.  In James' case, it's an addiction that craves the unmediated experience of danger.  He disarms bombs with his own hands.  But it's an addiction that's tempered by James' and his team's regard for human life.

Ms. Bigelow's GIs are reluctant killers who risk their own lives to save the lives of others.  Somehow, as we watch James' teammate, Specialist Eldridge, struggle to engage the enemy, Ms. Bigelow leads us to the realization that we are all Specialists now.

Critics of the Iraq occupation will find no cheap shots at America or the American military in The Hurt Locker.  Ms. Bigelow invites us to see the war from the point of view of our best kind of soldier -- one whose job is to save lives, not take them.

That one of them is unable to find his way home, that by the end of the film all he wants is another moonwalk down a deserted Baghdad street in search of another bomb,  says something important, though disturbing, about what it means to be a human being -- or a nation -- at war.


Nevertheless, Hollywood will split the Oscars between Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Cameron.  Ms. Bigelow will win the Best Director Oscar, but the Best Picture award will go to Avatar.  That's the bottom line.

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