2011 Oscars Yuk-a-thon!

By , February 27, 2011 4:57 pm

2010 Best Picture Nominee #1: Winter’s Bone


Reviewed by Stephen Himes

1.  Winter’s Bone

West Plains, Missouri’s Daniel Woodrell is the master of “country noir,” creating crime fiction from the dread that hangs over Ozarks poverty.  His most famous book, Woe to Live On, follows a teenager who runs with Quantrill’s raiders during the Civil War, which later became Ang Lee’s “Ride With the Devil.”  Skeet Ulrich and Jewel don’t much for Woodrell’s de-mythologizing of the War; the book is really about the brutality of the war away from the “regular” army, as if the “Heartland” was really the “Heart of Darkness” in the run-up to the Civil War.  Woodrell adopts an unapologetic pro-Southern point of view in the novel, not to endorse it, but to correct the mythology of the noble Northern warriors vs. the infidel Southern slave owners.  On the border between Kansas and Missouri, the fight wasn’t about ideals as much as about the fighting itself.  Ang Lee, though, turned from the harsh truths of the book and created a love story.      

The second movie adaption of Woodrell’s work, “Winter’s Bone,” actually improves on the original.  Woodrell’s prose can often be writerly and pretentious; it’s the kind of “spare” monosyllabic writing that turns some farmhouses into “Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the creekside.”  Their diet?  “The carcasses hung pale of flesh with a fatty fleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards.”  But what about the taste?  “The early blossoming of decay might round the flavor.”  You get the idea.  His sparse prose isn’t minimalism, but a faux-minimalism that tries to mask a pretentious attempt at poetry.  In other words, he seems to want really, really badly to be Cormac McCarthy. 

Beyond style, the main problem with Woodrell’s Winter Bone is that he buries the story under a layer of snow.  Yes, underneath the veneer of heartland values lies the violence of the human id.  He tries to make the snow metaphor work not just as a statement of humanity, but also as a dramatic device—the reader “uncovers” the mystery after digging away at the unpleasant truths for two hundred pages. 

If anything, director Debra Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough create a more apt poetic backdrop for the story.  I used to teach at a school about twenty miles from Ree Dolly’s Forsyth High School ; I used to drive from east Springfield about twenty minutes through the countryside to work everyday.  This kind of meth-driven Ozarks poverty isn’t “buried” underneath anything—you need only glance at the blackened burned-out clapboard houses and rusted trailers at the side of any county road.  Twice I had to discreetly remove a student from class whose only winter coat smelled like burning cat pee (approximately, the smell of cooking meth).  Yes, the Ozarks is a pious place, but in the country, there is no façade of family values layered over dark impulses; it’s mostly just dark impulses and church at Christmas.

Granik and McDonough’s vision—either by necessity of not being able to make or will it to snow, or by conscious choice—is a bleak Ozarks in which everything is gray death.  During a perpetually overcast Ozarks winter, the sky is the color of empty trees.  Dead leaves turn gray while smashing into the prairie grass. The movie feels cold.  Basically, it looks like this.  There are clues that the Dolly family has fallen out of the middle class into the rural poverty trap; not only is a way of life dying, the only way to live ends in young death.  It’s a gray film with pops of color, just as the rural poverty of the Ozarks is bleak with pops of life, like that of Ree Dolly.  That’s how Granik and McDonough film the landscape.

In fact, these former NYU Tisch students sensed this better than the Ozarks’ born-and-bred writer.  Their strategy was to make the landscape a character in the film, shooting many hours of film before bring actors on location to a farm near Branson.  According to McDonough, the filmmakers came to Missouri to meet Woodrell, but quickly realized they wouldn’t be able to film the layer of snow depicted in the novel.  They’re right—the Ozarks is just a bit too far south for many major, sustained snowstorms (ice?  Absolutely).  So, they used filters and different color temps to achieve the look that has made Ozarkers say, yes, that looks like my home.  But more importantly, it helps the story feel like home.

Spoiler alert.  In the climactic scene, Ree Dolly must pull her father’s dead body from a pond, and a woman will cut off both his hands for her to take the police to prove his death.  In the novel, Ree chops through ice to get to the body.  In the film, she simply thrusts her hands into the icy water, her scoundrel father just below the surface.  Not only is the film’s a better dramatic moment, it captures the essence of this way of life:  Death is right below the surface.

2010 Best Picture Nominee #2: 127 Hours

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

2.  127 Hours

The critical line on “The Social Network” is that it’s the movie for this generation, that it tells us about How We Live Now.  Except that it doesn’t, really.  “The Social Network” disguises itself as “Rashomon” as it run downs every fact (and makes a few up) to prove definitively that Mark Zuckerberg is a real a-hole  The movie that actually explains the paradox of the Facebook world is “127 Hours.”  In fact, “127 Hours” offers more insight into how technology has changed how we live than “The Social Network,” which wasn’t about how Facebook changed people’s lives, but how Facebook changed Mark Zuckerberg’s life.   

Like “The Social Network,” “127 Hours” reframes an old formula to generate new insights.  More than simply “the movie where the guy cuts his arm off,” it’s a “stranded” movie.  “Stranded” movies reveal a character’s, and thus the culture’s, values by stripping away life’s excesses.  A recent example is “Cast Away,” which is about how American workaholism breaks down the family structure:  Hanks teaches the Russians (!) about machine-like efficiency while neglecting his fiancé, whom he slow dances with to the rhythm of a copy machine. 

Similarly, “127 Hours” is about the Facebook generation’s self-involvement—not selfishness, exactly, but the tendency to live in a bubble where you can see all, but are nominally separated from it.  Think of it this way:  In “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks approximated human relationships by creating a person from a volleyball—this need for human communicate is why the moment Wilson floats away is so devastating.  “127 Hours” replaces Wilson with a video camera—and had Ralston gotten stuck last November, he could have used the GPS mode on his EVO to update his Facebook Places status to “Stuck in a Giant Crevasse.” 

The point is the same:  Having more ways to communicate doesn’t improve the quality of our communication.  In the technology age, our inconnectedness can also be an excuse to be distant—thus the transparent bubble in which we can see the world while not engaging the world.  Franco brings Ralston gradually to this point over the course of the film.  He’s definitely not an asocial geek incapable of social interaction—we see this in his gregariousness with the two cute girls he meets at the beginning of his hike.  One of the year’s best scenes is when Ralston finally understands that his impending death is the result of his disengagement from the world.  He tapes a hallucinated interview with himself as if he were on morning talk show; Ralston is funny and witty and way too personal about how he’s screwed himself in front of an “audience” (“I’ve had a couple pretty gulps or urine I saved in my Camelback!”). 

Later, this scene on his camera would feel exactly like a TMI confessional status update or misguided tweet.  If your life is public, you have to filter it, which prevents you from engaging in personal, meaningful dialogues with people.  Over time, all that’s left is a shallow public performance of yourself.  Then you have to disconnect from people, else the façade of the ironic, distant public performance is shattered.  Or, as Aron Ralston puts it, “I chose this…every action has been leading me to this crack on the out surface.”

2010 Best Picture Nominee #3: True Grit


Reviewed by Stephen Himes

3.  True Grit

The myth of the American West is of a land beyond civilization, where man is symbolically returned to his work-the-land origins to build an ideal society.  It’s the inverse of the “Heart of Darkness” narrative; here, the white man’s moral authority over the savages and black hats leads to the establishment of a civilized Christian society.  When man’s law is not enough, gruff angels like John Wayne have the moral authority to act outside the law to bring cosmic justice to the land.  In the end, this is what holds society together.

The Coens’ vision of “True Grit” offers a counterargument.  Rule of law is essential to building a modern economy—the British built the world’s most powerful economy by creating the first system for recording deeds.  Rule of law frees landowners from fighting over the back forty and allows more time for developing the land.  Rule of law brings social stability; people can’t build business and manufacturing infrastructure when crime is rampant.  Rule of law creates a means for resolving disputes that facilitates business.  Respect for the rule of law is why America realized its Manifest Destiny (well, the rule of law for white people, anyway).

Rule of law is Mattie Ross’ religion.  Or, in the very least, the reason she sells those horses back on a theory of frustration of contract.  There’s little codified law in 1870’s Arkansas Indian Territory, but Mattie bamboozles a “legitimate” horsetrader with threats of Writs of Replevin and the responsibility of a legal bailee.  Ultimately, he gives into her rapid fire demands (rather bewilderingly, to the amusement of the audience) because of the threat of legal action.  The West might have been won by the mass killing and enslavement of native peoples, but the West was organized for Americans by common law.

Sure, legal niceties are annoying—the scene in which Rooster Cogburn’s attorney gets tied up by leading and speculative questions will become a staple of Evidence classes in law schools all over America—but this is a small price to pay for the rule of law.  Mattie believes this in her soul.  Shdoesn’t want revenge; she wants Tom Chaney brought to justice.  This is why she tries to enforce a “legal agreement” with a bounty hunter in the middle of Indian territory.  To her, the cost of vigilantism isn’t worth vengeance over her father’s death. 

Essentially, this is the story of the Orestia Trilogy, which tells of Clytemnestra’s revenge killing of her husband Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter at the beginning of the Trojan War.  In response, Agamemnon’s son Orestes kills his mother in revenge.  By tradition, Orestes was within his rights to kill his father’s killer, but not within his rights to kill his mother.  So, Athena convenes a jury to decide his guilt, which splits 6-6.  The key, though, is that Orestia is judged by a jury of his peers, which would offer a final judgment of guilt or innocence, and thus stop the endless chain of revenge killings.  

The Blackbook Legal Blog analogizes this story to Mattie, arguing that her fidelity to the law is trumped when she has the chance to shoot Chaney, saying “But outside the bounds of that society, as Mattie Ross learned, one sometimes has no choice but to take matters into her own hands.”  This isn’t entirely right:  Mattie only tries to shoot Chaney, both in the river and near the cliff, in response to a reasonable belief that Chaney would immediately use unlawful force likely to cause death or great bodily harm.  Translated from legalese, she doesn’t try to shoot Chaney out of revenge; she tries to shoot Chaney in self-defense—a right the law would certainly recognize.  So, in the end, Mattie doesn’t affirm the Wild West mythology of frontier vigilantism and revenge killing, but remains committed to the rule of law.  In this, she’s just like another Coens heroine, Police Chief Marge Gunderson, who shoots a fleeing murderer in the leg so that he can be arrested and, yes, brought to justice.

2010 Best Picture Nominee #4: Inception

By , February 26, 2011 10:08 am


Reviewed by Stephen Himes

4.  Inception

From Lawrence Wright’s recent article on “Crash” writer/director Paul Haggis leaving the church of Scientology:

“Haggis finally reached the top of the Operating Thetan pyramid. According to documents obtained by WikiLeaks, the activist group run by Julian Assange, the final exercise is: ‘Go out to a park, train station or other busy area. Practice placing an intention into individuals until you can successfully and easily place an intention into or on a Being and/or a body.’”

So, the kill-screen of Scientology is…Waking Inception?

2010 Best Picture Nominee #5: Toy Story 3

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

5.  Toy Story 3

The irony of Pixar is that a completely corporate entity (owned by no less a titan than Disney) consistently makes the most creative and subversive art films of any studio today.  “Wall-E” was a dark, almost cynical dystopian film about a romantic robot—the existentialism of “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” combined with the cynicism of Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy,” but, somehow, in a very cute way.  “Ratatouille”’s climax spoke to the existential futility of art critics, yet critics almost unanimously praised it.   The often-misunderstood ending of “The Incredibles” offers a damning indictment of suburban conformism (don’t show off your gifts if you want to fit in) targeted at multiplex-swarming suburban conformists.  “Up” contains the saddest and most profound poem on marriage and death since Yeats’ “When You Are Old.”

Yet they’ve never made a bad film or a box office bomb.

Several books have been written on this subject, most recently Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson’s Innovate the Pixar Way: Business Lessons From the World’s Most Creative Corporate Playground.  Mostly, the Pixar literature espouses Covey-ized platitudes about “thinking outside the box,” and it romanticizes the Pixar nerd culture, as if Facebook made cartoons.  But the most interesting aspect of Pixar’s strategy borrows from Japanese techniques leftover from their high tech boom of the 80’s.

Pixar marries the paradox of corporatism to artistry by employing a counterintuitive style of management to foster innovation.   Business theorist Ikujiro Nonaka says that companies don’t make products; rather, they create knowledge that is leveraged into products.  Thus, the executive’s role is “serendipity management”—to create the conditions for risk-taking without risking the company.  This involves principles we don’t typically associate with corporatism:  building in redundancy to generate differing viewpoints, creating conflict to clarify thinking, reducing specialization so that employees see all sides of the process.

So how does Pixar create a corporate structure to foster a culture of creativity without making a suicide pact with artistic narcissism?  First, management cedes control of projects to their directors.  People like Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton get a lot of autonomy, but with Pixar conditions this great power with great responsibility.  Directors have to submit to a peer review process, which essentially makes them accountable to their animators and their fellow directors.  After a film’s completion, directors are led through a “postmortem” so that they can generate new process ideas from the film crew.  So, rather than dumping wheelbarrows of cash in front of run-amok auteurist dictators (think “Entourage”’s Billy Walsh with five hour director’s cut of “Queens Boulevard” getting artistic control of “Medillin”), Pixar creates accountability from the bottom up, rather than the top down. 

Any company, large or small, could operate the same way.  So what’s the advantage of being tied to Disney?  Other than being a part of the single largest worldwide media marketing machine, there is an advantage for the creative team.  As co-founder Ed Catmull puts is, “Management’s job is not prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur.” 

This is the advantage Disney gives Pixar.  Independent film studio will make a name with “edgy” material, but after they’re established, they’ll tend towards safer “prestige” projects because they’re not large enough to absorb a bomb.   Thus, the paradox of independent film:  To distinguish yourself, you must be “edgy”; but if you’re too “edgy,” you bankrupt yourself.  Thus, as the costs of moviemaking have risen, most “indie,” awards-consideration films are actually from the “independent” arms of major studios, who can absorb a bomb or two, especially at a low relative production cost.  However, these independent arms haven’t shown much profit, so they’ve turned to safe, star-driven “prestige” pictures that beef up the “artist” bona fides of the studio’s major stars.  You know, Oscar-bait.

Or, as Catmull puts it, the natural tendency to minimize risk “leads executives to choose to copy successes rather than try to create something brand-new.”  Pixar doesn’t use its Disney resources to plunge into huge budgets (though their budgets are by no means small) because bigger is better; rather, they create a cushion that allows for creative failure.  If a film isn’t working, like “Toy Story 2,” they can restart it, rather than being forced to plow ahead and pray it doesn’t bomb. 

Thus, Pixar minimizes the conflict between art and commerce because directors know they’re not going to sink the company and, as long as the work is good, they’ll continue to get work.  This isn’t always the case, even at the big studios.   Filmmakers often have to play the Steven Soderbergh-style “I do one for them (“Erin Brokovich”/”Ocean’s Eleven”), and they do one for me (“Traffic”/”Solaris”)” game.  At Pixar, artists are free to follow their bliss, management creates the conditions for the kind of responsible autonomy that leads to genuine creativity, and then they keep the suits upstairs off everybody’s back by creating a cushion to mitigate risk. That’s how Hollywood can put an original sequel like “Toy Story 3.”

Best Actor, Oscars 2010

James Owen breaks down the Best Actor nominees.

Javier Bardem, “Biutiful”

Bardem is the weary center of the feel bad hit of the season. Yes, I am counting the dead kid movie, the guy cutting off his arm movie , and “Blue Valentine”. Nothing will make you feel worse than Alejandro González Iñárritu’s detailed view of the grimy underbelly of the new global economy. Bardem uses his haunting facial features (mostly, deep forehead creases and dreary dark eyes) to convey the weight of the death surrounding him. He is a physically imposing force on screen; his sturdy frame but expressive face dominating every moment. He doesn’t have to overact to convey something significant.  But Bardem’s emoting just does not come from his physicality; he’s got the Oscar hat trick: he’s not only hurting from economic inequality, but as a down on his luck father and a cancer victim. Trifecta!  Plus, he’s a good-looking guy who has no reservation with making himself ugly. But Bardem got a statue three years ago, and he’s not won any awards that would indicate a win here.  Still, he solidifies himself as one of our Great Actors right now and will get his shot at a Lead Oscar soon enough.

Jeff Bridges, “True Grit”

Perhaps I will be struck down by the classic movie gods, but I caught the 1969 version of the Charles Portis novel and was struck by how…ridiculous John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn seems. Could be the actor’s cadence and demeanor has suffered from over imitation, or it could just be Wayne always played the same character no matter what the role required. Sometimes that worked (“The Searchers”), but sometimes it needed a better actor (Almost every other John Wayne move).  Here, Bridges plays his performance to the rafters like Wayne, Bridges’ Rooster maintains a stoic dignity despite the drunken antics and preposterous dialogue. In this, Bridges creates a compelling portrait of the post-War Confederate hangover the permeated the Old West—you know, kind of like John Wayne in “The Searchers.  Make no mistake, Wayne didn’t win that award because he did a great job in “True Grit”; he was headed toward the twilight and this seemed like the last shot to give him an Oscar. That’s where Bridges found himself last year in a great performance in the very marginal “Crazy Heart.”  A testament to Bridges’ ability, he’s back, but as great as he is, there’s no way he’s going to get to join the back-to-back Oscar club with Spencer Tracey and Tom Hanks.    

Jesse Eisenberg, “The Social Network”

David Fincher has said that the first reading for Aaron Sorkin’s 162-page shooting script took three hours. He knew it had to go quicker, never mind the general rule one page equals one minute of screen time.  The dialogue is tricky, but for the film to hum and click, the actors would have to break from convention. The result was a unique tone that made for a breathtaking cinematic experience. Whatever else you might say about Eisenberg’s characterization of Mark Zuckerberg, he had to wrap his mouth around Sorkin’s grandiose dialogue and work under the director’s demands (pretty irrational if all accounts of Fincher are believed). His rapid-fire delivery gravitated the audience into this timeless piece of theatrical cinema.  Can he win? If there were two front runners for this spot, the young guy might have a chance. But there only seems to be one front runner…

Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech” –

 ….and it’s this guy. It is hard to imagine Firth won’t win; he’s won every other award, and there are a lot of voters who wanted to see him win for 2009’s  “A Single Man”. I am going to get over my irritation for this film and acknowledge Firth does awkward befuddlement better than any Brit since Cary Grant. In today’s Hollywood, there’s no other competition, unless Hugh Grant—who’s better in darker roles—took himself more seriously. As for comparisons to Cary Grant, Firth hasn’t worked with directors like Hitchcock or George Stevens to develop his range. Furthermore, I’m not sure what Firth brings to this role. His King George VI is mostly just reacts stoically to bigger things going on around him. There’s not much to do other than seem vexed and stammered.  But it’s a lock. Bet on it.

James Franco, “127 Hours”

This guy is Exhibit A in the argument that all actors are weird.  What do you expect from a profession where people make money pretending to be someone else? But Franco has turned his career into something else entirely, and it doesn’t seemed staged, like a conscious piece of performance art or an experiment for his graduate study thesis. He’s just a weirdo, as he proves in his role as Aaron Ralston.   He carries an entire film without any other significant characters—something only a few real movie stars can pull off. Danny Boyle, a recent Oscar-winning director, said he would have Franco do fifty takes in quick succession to give the performance’s physicality more urgency.  The result is that Franco gives us something alternatively harrowing and funny and inspiring. In a town of odd ducks, they regard Franco as the oddest. Wait till he really nails a juicy biopic. Then, he’ll get his.

2010 Best Picture Nominee #6: The Fighter

By , February 25, 2011 11:55 am


Reviewed by Stephen Himes

6.  The Fighter

Defenders of “The Fighter” emphasize that “It’s not a boxing movie!”  Fair enough.  But David O. Russell, in making his non-boxing boxing movie, did tack on some boxing at the end.  Perhaps the studio wanted to send the audience out on a high, considering that most of the film is a desperate power struggle between a desperate crack addict, delusional hangers-on, a barkeeping girlfriend of suspect motivations, and a paranoid matriarch trumping up her hold on power in a rapidly diminishing kingdom.  So, yeah, to get the film made, maybe Russell had to show Micky Ward with the belt over his head.  The alternative is releasing a Lowell double-feature of “The Fighter” and the soul-crushing HBO documentary, film-within-the-film that nearly drove Dickie Ecklund to suicide. 

The truth is that Mickey Ward’s “World Title” came from the WBU, one of the least-regarded sanctioning bodies in boxing.  It’s not really a world title, and the man he beat, Shea Neary, virtually disappeared from boxing altogether.  Plus, Russell had a more interesting solution available. 

Why not end with one of Ward’s legendary Ring Magazine Fights of the Year with Arturo Gatti?  And not just for the entertainment, but for the artistic value.  If, indeed, The Fighter “isn’t really a sports movie,” then why does it end with the underdog triumphing over the odds?  The Wards and Ecklunds are still mired in Lowell, which is still a poverty-stricken post-industrial wasteland.  Dicky Ecklund might be crashing Christian Bale’s acceptance speeches and have a new career as a professional trainer, but as recently as 2009 he was arrested domestic assault and attempted murder.  The film leaves you with the storybook ending, but Mickey Ward’s is anything but.  The facts are far more interesting, and frankly, more befitting of David O. Russell’s talent as a filmmaker. 

So what’s the real story?  Ward never defended his WBU belt, which tells you exactly how much it was worth.  Then he lost to a middling fighter Antonio Diaz, but rebounded with a victory over a minor league-caliber opponent.  Still languishing in relative boxing obscurity, Micky Ward’s next five fights is, in terms of sheer guts and determination, one of the most remarkable runs in boxing history.  Ward won a unanimous decision against wildman Emanuel Augustus in Ring Magazine’s 2001 Fight of the Year.  Ward took punishment for several rounds, but then floored Augustus with the left hook to the body that forms a key plot point in the film.  Next, Ward fought former WBC Super Featherweight (a real title) champion Jesse James Leija, another war that was stopped after couple of vicious headbutts opened a gash near Leija’s eyes.  Ward’s fierce workrate earned him a bout against Arturo Gatti, a fellow Ring Magazine Fight of the Year winner (1997 and 1998) and legitimate contender in junior welterweight decision.  Gatti was signed with HBO, which brought Ward into the pay-per-view ranks. 

Gatti and Ward’s first fight was one of the action-filled fights in boxing history.  The two men threw boxing-movie blows at each other round after round.  Gatti v. Ward was a war of attrition:  Neither had the firepower to finish the fight, but each had the chin to take each shot.  Ward won a split decision.  The two spent time in a trauma center after the fight, but agreed to an HBO Boxing After Dark rematch.  Ward and Gatti fought twice more, with two in the trilogy winning Ring’s Fight of the Year.  Gatti and Ward traded blows for over thirty rounds, basically falling into a rhythm of Ward throwing body blows and bending Gatti over, with Gatti regaining his wind and landing on Ward’s chin until the bell.  

Legendary trainer and HBO analysist Emanuel Stewart called Round Nine of their first fight “The Round of the Century.”  Watch it—this is the essence of the Micky Ward story, not his faux-title that ends “The Fighter.”  Stewart often says a fighter has to “ask his opponent a question,” meaning we never know how a boxer who’s never really been hurt will react to getting stunned by a punch.  The Gatti v. Ward trilogy, though, asked us a question:  Why do these men keep fighting?  A championship wasn’t on the line, and the paydays were modest, yet these guys did lasting damage to themselves…for what?  In the absence of extrinsic rewards, what pushes a man to his limit? 

In other words, Why Do We Fight?  This existential question is what should have capped Russell’s movie.  Looking back, the story of Micky Ward isn’t that, when you’re the little brother of the crack-addled “The Pride of Lowell,” you don’t fight to overcome the odds toward a happy ending.  So why do people keep going?  The answer is the reason Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti threw haymakers at each other for three years.  I’m not sure it’s articulable, but it’s the sort of question that should animate the filmmaker who made “I Heart Huckabees.” 

After the trilogy, Micky Ward retired to Lowell, and he and Gatti became friends after their fights.  I remember HBO showing the two in the crowd together at a fight in 2005 or so, each with their wives—including Charlene, played by Amy Adams in the movie.  Gatti said of Ward, “I always wondered what it would be like to fight my twin.  Now I know.”  Ward helped train Gatti for his comeback, and they often partied together.  It seemed that, in Arturo Gatti, Micky Ward had found the brother who understood him like no other. 

“The Fighter” is a movie about how, when you grow up in poverty, the golden goose can trust no one—especially those close to him.  That’s why the climax of the film is Ward’s blow-up at everybody surrounding the ring—“I’m fighting, not you!  Not you!  Not you!”  He was fighting on everybody else’s terms, not his own.  But with Arturo Gatti, the two men finally found a brother to trust:  We will find our escape based on what we do to each other inside these ropes, and nobody can take that from us.  You blow out my eardrum, I’ll hit you so hard it leaves a cyst.  Whatever.  We’re going to do it our way.  Five years later, Micky Ward is being played by Mark Wahlberg in an Oscar movie, and Arturo Gatti was killed in Brazil, likely strangled by his wife.  But they had a final few years together, basking in the glory of their epic battles.  We’ll never forget them for this, this, and this.  This is the movie David O. Russell should make next.

2010 Best Picture Nominee #7: The Social Network

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

7.  The Social Network

To explain the narrative structure of “The Social Network,” Aaron Sorkin cites “Rashomon” as his inspiration:  “After taking oaths in a deposition room, there were three different versions of the truth, so at any given moment at least two of them are going to be wrong.”

Sorkin is the one who’s wrong.  In Kurosawa’s film, the paradox is the each character admits guilt (all three admit to being the killer) without taking responsibility (it’s somebody else’s fault).  “Rashomon” is framed as an investigation of a great crime, with Kurosawa positioning the camera as if the audience is judge and jury.  By the end, we have no idea what happened in the woods, and are left with a Hobbesian world where all have sinned but have no reason to confess.  The truth isn’t unknown; the truth is unknowable.

“The Social Network” isn’t like that at all.  According to the film, which is also framed as an inquisition (here, the taking of deposition), there is one very knowable and unquestioned truth:  Mark Zuckerberg was a real asshole in college.  In Sorkin’s telling, Zuckerberg gets dumped; goes on an angry, misogynist rampage in which he penetrates the 19 year old male nerd id (that is, publically shaming every girl he has no chance with), which generates the idea for “putting the college experience online”; then he screws over some guys he made a business deal with; dumps his only friend for a Svengali who promises billions, drugs, and chicks; then ends up denying personal responsibility for it all; and is left an extremely rich but very lonely shell, hopelessly updating his Facebook page to see if the ex-girlfriend answered his friend request.

There’s nothing “Rashomon” about this.  “The Social Network” is an origin myth, which by definition constructs a new fictional narrative that emerges from seeds of fact.  The origin myth isn’t concerned strictly with history, but to create a moral document of how values emerge from the beginnings—Aeneas’ selfless devotion to Rome, King Arthur anointed by God to remove the sword from the stone, America’s ingenuity embodied by the unorthodox minutemen, 

What do the origins of “The Social Network” tell us about the values of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook?  It turns out, not much.  The film—which Aaron Sorkin cobbled together from legal documents, Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires (which Zuckerberg famously denied to cooperate with), and some rumor and innuendo—is a classic Greek tragedy of betrayal.  Or, to put it in modern terms, it’s a hit piece.  There’s little insight into how social networking has changed how people connect, but there’s a whole lot of insight into Mark Zuckerberg’s willingness to betray his friends and the lengths he’ll go to get revenge.  There’s one movie that tapped into the paradox of the emotional distance of ubiquitous communication, and in that movie, a guy cut his arm off.

“The Social Network” team’s speeches at the Golden Globes and Jesse Eisenberg’s appearance on Saturday Night Live seemed to anticipate the backlash against the film’s supposed inevitable run to Oscar.  How can Aaron Sorkin get up on stage and thank Mark Zuckerberg for “allowing us to use his life as a metaphor,” when he basically painted the man as a diabolical pseudo-Asperger’s combination of Josh from The West Wing and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory?  As Will Leitch explains, there is no metaphor here.  It’s just “Portrait of the Entrepreneur as a Young Dick.”  The myth of “The Social Network”’s myth wilted in the spotlight, which is why “The King’s Speech” is now stammering its way toward Oscar.

2010 Best Picture Nominee #8: The King’s Speech

By , February 24, 2011 9:06 pm

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

8.  The King’s Speech

Does it matter that “The King’s Speech,” according to Christopher Hitchens, “perpetuates a gross falsification of history”?  All debates on the ethics of artistic license go to Aristotle’s theory of artistic and inartistic proofs.  Aristotle recognized that a collection of facts (inartistic proofs like documents and testimony) in themselves prove nothing.  The “artistic proof” is when facts are arranged and argued to make ethical, logical, and emotional sense to the audience.  If the artist stays within the plausible bounds of the facts, then the argument has merit. 

The law has a similar standard:  If the timeline or substance of events is in question, the trial lawyer may try to prove any plausible narrative, as judged by a “reasonable person,” within the scope of the facts.  The law only cares about “material” facts, those that are dispositive to the case.  For example, if the cop can’t recall that my car had a dent in the door, but knows it was a blue four door Honda Accord, then the door dent has no bearing on the case.  Thus, a trial lawyer’s job is to appeal to the jury’s ethical, logical, and emotional sense when “proving” a plausible narrative within the known facts.  Anything else is speculation, a violation of Federal Rules of Evidence 104(a).

So how do we apply this to art based on history?  The facts are difficult because knowledge is based on forms of hearsay:  oral tradition written after the fact, contemporaneous documents recorded from a single perception, news accounts filtered through the values and politics of the day—mostly from the perspective history’s winners.  This is not to say that all history is relative and there’s no “truth,” but the truth is more like a range of possibilities on a continuum whose outer edges are the broadest reasonable interpretation based on the things we know.  As for Aristotle’s artistic proof, this narrative only has credibility if it flows logically from the facts and isn’t emotionally manipulative. 

So, broadly speaking, if a film creates a logically and emotionally sensible narrative from known facts, then the artist fulfills his ethical duty to the material.  The artist can fill in non-material facts that feel right; the artist may put dialogue in the mouths of historical figures if it seems like it could have been said.  And the artist must accurately portray the “material” facts as they are definitively known. Roughly, this is a lawyer’s obligation to the law.

The difference between the law and art is this:  If a lawyer omits material facts, opposing counsel will call this out.  The artist has no opposing counsel but his audience, and this is where Hollywood filmmakers often shirk their duty to history.    

So it is with “The King’s Speech.”  What do we know about the House of Windsor before the war?  According to Hitchens, who tells us “all this can easily be known by anybody willing to do some elementary research.” King Edward VIII was a “pro-Nazi playboy” taken up with an insidious American hussy, with Winston Churchill kissing his ass in drunken speeches to the House of Commons while Neville Chamberlain was appeasing Hitler (Churchill even rewrote Edward’s abdication speech).  Then, after abdicating his throne in 1937, Edward and Wallis Simpson toured Nazi Germany (shaking hands with Hitler), and visited a concentration camp.  Decades later, we know that declassified FBI files suggest that Simpson had affairs with Nazis and passed information to them during wartime.

But in “The King’s Speech,” poor Edward is merely p-whipped by the sexual prowess of this American sexual dynamo, his love rendering him too weak to accept that the sovereign is first married to his country, then to his wife.  At a royal dinner party, Winston Churchill scowls and looks generally gravitas-y by some leather-bound books, then counsels the king’s brother to seize control—for his country!   

The brave Duke of York steps to the throne as King George VI—Bertie, as he’s called in the Royal house.  What of his rule?  “The King’s Speech” has no clue.  Something is going on beyond the palace walls, but what that is, we’re never shown.  As far as we can tell, Bertie doesn’t do much but wear uniforms and take speech lessons.  In movie form, he’s a blank slate. 

History tells us that King George VI not only defended Chamberlain, but committed perhaps the most unconstitutional act in the history of the British monarchy.  Upon his return from signing the Munich Agreement, which gave Hitler key munitions factories in bordering Czecholslovakia and put many thousands under Nazi rule, the King had Chamberlain escorted to Buckingham Palace, where he was received on the balcony by the royal family before delivering the accords to Parliament. 

Hitchens asks, “would the true story have been fractionally more interesting to the audience?”  Uh, yes!  Of course!  But as “The King’s Speech” has it, poor King George needs some amateur psychotherapy to drive out the personal demons (harsh father, knocked knees, forced righthandedness, social anxiety disorder) that keep choking down his words.  Eventually, though, the King becomes the voice of the common man by actually befriending a common man, and delivers the speech that ushers in the Great War. 

Your average Hitler Channel documentary tells you more about Britain during the war.  “The King’s Speech” is under no obligation to tell the full, complicated story (from whatever plausible perspective), but Tom Hooper omits so many material facts that all’s left for the movie is for Bertie to mope around the castle and get his therapy.   Tom Hooper fails his obligation to the history and to the art.

Still, there’s a great movie here that I’m not sure Tom Hooper knows he made.  If anything, “The King’s Speech” is a portrait of the crippling impotence of the modern constitutional monarch.  The King tells his therapist that when he parades through the streets, he looks at the people and wonders what their lives are like, and wonders how little they know of his.  Hooper films the entire movie indoors, either in the doctor’s chambers or in various palaces.  As the King notes, this cloistering necessarily limits his view—indeed, how can he speak for them when he doesn’t know them?  The movie shows us none of the outside world because Bertie knows nothing of the outside world, except what he’s told. 

Yet, throughout the film, his wife and his therapist call him “brave” and say he’s “going to be a great king.”  On what grounds?  Bertie does virtually nothing in the film other than attend official events and practice his speech.  Perhaps that’s the point.  There’s nothing brave for him to do.  He can’t martial the army to war.  He can’t negotiate with allies and enemies.  He can’t submit a budget.  His role is ceremonial and symbolic.  For a man of such high rank (sitting on the same throne as the Henrys, Queen Elizabeth, even his great-grandmother Queen Victoria), he has precious little power.  What more emasculating position can there be in the world?

If we’re going to psychoanalyze King George VI, why not make that the source of his pent-up rage?  In 1939, the King came to North America on a PR tour to encourage us to support the war effort.  To that end, the King had his picture taken with President Roosevelt and was asked to sign a document by the Canadian Prime Minister saying, essentially, thank you for being our king but we can take care of ourselves, thank you very much.  Taking your marching orders from the Canadians during a time of World War cannot be soup for the monarch’s soul. 

Had “The King’s Speech” buttressed its central narrative with history, Bertie would be less sympathetic but infinitely more interesting.  As it is, there are hints of this complexity in the movie.  The King is fascinated by a video of Hitler, telling his daughter, “I don’t know (what he’s saying), but he’s saying it very well.”  Is the impotent monarch who can do nothing conflicted by a deep, unspoken admiration for a man who can do anything?  How does that affect his daring celebration of appeasement?

Furthermore, there’s a dark comedy to the climactic scene.  This is not to diminish the king’s struggle with the very real problem with stammering, but to put the King’s role into context:  All the King has to do is read the speech.  He doesn’t prepare the army for war, draw up the war plans or the budget.  No, he just has to read the speech.  He doesn’t even write the speech—it’s handed to him on the way to the broadcast.  Everybody around him—his family, the priests, Churchill—are all there to encourage him to read the speech.  Then he reads the speech.  And like that, his role is over.  He’ll have to read more speeches, of course.  He delivered one from his bunker underneath Buckingham Palace during an air raid.  But that’s what he’ll be doing.  Going on morale-boosting missions to the troops, having lunch with Winston Churchill, and hunkering down in the castle.  The King isn’t a leader; he’s a mascot.  How do you come to terms with that—the country you rule is at war, but you can do little to rule your country?  That would be a great movie.  Cast Michael Sheen as the king, get Peter Morgan to write the script, Stephen Frears can direct.  BAFTAs all around! 

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