No Bounty for Gold Men

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The fabled “Oscar bounce” — the traditional box office boom for the season’s most nominated films — has barely materialised this year, according to The Big Picture, which offers an interesting analysis of the possible reasons why. It’s partly the economic climate: tough times make grim viewing hard to sell. It’s partly the current Hollywood distribution pattern, which loads all the big fun exploding stuff into the summer, and all the pompous arty stuff into the nomination-friendly winter months.

And maybe too it’s partly that the two have become so separate. There are, broadly speaking, three kinds of movies. There are movies that people enjoy: the traditional Hollywood fare of thrillers, comedies, action movies etc. There are movies that people admire: the traditional Oscar fare of historical dramas, literary adaptations and plays wrenched from Broadway to the screen. And then there are the movies that people love: Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, The Shawshank Redemption. Some of these win awards, but many never trouble a jury until the bandwagon has passed. You can’t set out to make these popular classics — some had the most tortuous production histories in Hollywood — but you can see what they have in common: a relentless narrative drive; a blend of the comic and dramatic; a cheerful embrace of sentiment, if not outright sentimentality; and boldly-drawn characters at a moment of crisis. These films are about people with everything at stake. 

At best these things are as true of the Oscar movies as they are of the summer movies. Frost/Nixon, on film even more than on stage, dramatises just how much is at stake for both its lead characters: it’s a far more gripping thriller than the thudding, interminable nihilism of last year’s box office champion, The Dark Knight. But too often it feels as though popular acclaim and critical acclaim have become separate entities, and separate creative ambitions. As a result our summer films have no taste, and our winter films too much. You watch a film like The Reader longing for a spot of vulgarity: something to puncture the stifling politeness of the thing. Like so many literary adaptations, it feels less like a movie than a waiting room, a place for slightly embarrassed people to flick through magazines while trying to avoid eye contact. Even its much-debated eroticism seems like porn for people who hate sex. 

All of which is why, if I were voting, I’d want Slumdog Millionaire — the one movie that certainly has had its commercial Oscar bounce — to win tonight. It has all the qualities of a great popular classic; it has become the embodiment of its own underdog spirit; and it points the way to the future of movies, and the reuniting of the heart and head.

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History and the Oscars

When I wrote last week about whether films as a whole were getting better, my one regret was the comparative lack of contemporary drama. Well, now the Oscar nominations are through. And the nominations for Best Picture are …

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, The Reader, Frost/Nixon

Which means that, of all the films produced this year, just one set in the present makes the grade. Is this normal? Let’s look at last year:

No Country for Old Men, Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood

That’s two out of five. Has this always been the case? Let’s look at ten years ago, and the 70th Academy Awards:

Titanic, As Good as it Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, LA Confidential

Again, two out of five. Here are the Best Picture winners for the past 25 years:

No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, The Return of the King, Chicago, A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator, American Beauty, Shakespeare in Love, Titanic, The English Patient, Braveheart, Forrest Gump, Schindler’s List, Unforgiven, The Silence of the Lambs, Dances with Wolves, Driving Miss Daisy, Rain Man, The Last Emperor, Platoon, Out of Africa, Amadeus, Terms of Endearment.

True to form, it’s dominated by period films: fewer than a third are set in the present. So what’s going on? Are period movies simply better than contemporary ones? Do they appeal more to the relatively older Academy members? Best Picture winners are certainly more likely to arrive with existing prestige, having been adapted from novels or plays: 12 of the 25. And they’re more likely to be based on real people or events: 14, if you include Forrest Gump. In fact, of the past 25 years of Best Picture winners, how many are original screenplays?

Crash, Gladiator, American Beauty, Shakespeare in Love, Titanic, Rain Man, Platoon 

And of those how many are contemporary dramas or comedies?

Crash, American Beauty, Rain Man.

Three out of 25. But if you look at the list of movies that get made, only a small proportion of them are historical. For one thing, they’re expensive. For another, they can be a tough sell at the multiplex: they smack of worthiness, of history, of school. David Mamet wrote once that “Nothing with a quill pen in it ever made a nickel,” which may not be entirely true — look at Shakespeare in Love — but isn’t far off the mark. Looking at last year’s US box office rankings, only five of the top fifty could be counted as period films, and only one made the Best Picture list:

#3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, #7. Prince Caspian, #22. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, #28. 10,000 Years B.C. , #38 Valkyrie.

It’s also worth noting that despite the perception that popular taste is dominated by sequels, franchises and adaptations, 23 of the top 50 at the box office are original contemporary stories: far higher than the comparative list of “awards movies”. So does this mean that the Academy is getting it wrong? Not necessarily. Of the list I’d personally vote for Slumdog Millionaire, but I also loved Frost/Nixon. But I think my original question still stands: where in the nominations, other than Slumdog, are the exciting, original, contemporary movies that talk about today’s concerns, and can help us navigate the years ahead?

The craft of … David Hare

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David Hare is on characteristically combative form in today’s Guardian, including a feisty defence of what he calls “the central claim of fiction: that by lying you get to the truth”.  

Hare is a divisive figure, attacked by the right for being too left, and by the left for being too right, but he’s one of our most ambitious dramatists, committed to addressing the issues of the day. He once said that “the most important playwright’s gift is to hit your time and speak to your time,” and has certainly achieved this with plays such as The Absence of War, The Permanent Way and Stuff Happens. He also has a continuing engagement with the long term impact of the Second World War, with plays such as Plenty and his film adaptation of The Reader. 

The Reader has had mixed reviews in the UK, including a savage critique from Peter Bradshaw, which Hare responds to directly in his interview — you can read Bradshaw’s riposte here. Essentially the question boils down to this: should drama attempt to understand the actions of the Nazis, and if so how should it dramatise those actions? The Reader certainly does the first of these, but in Bradshaw’s view chickens out on the second: it analyses the motivations of an Auschwitz guard, but ducks the reality of her crimes.

Personally I think Hare was right to avoid flashbacks to the camp. We no longer need to see what happened to appreciate its evil: the brilliant Conspiracy is proof enough of that. But Bradshaw does have a point. The film is too sympathetic to the character’s defence of, in essence, “I was just obeying orders”. Paradoxically, rather than making her more sympathetic, it just makes her less interesting, and her tragedy less powerful. Ultimately, as Mark Kermode has argued, the film, though beautifully written, is just too polite. I wanted more of Hare the polemicist, the writer willing to confront an audience and make them question their own beliefs about themselves. He once wrote that “There is still a place in the cinema for movies that are driven by the human face, and not by explosions and cars and guns and action sequences . . . there’s such a thing as action and speed within thought rather than within a ceaseless milkshake of images,” and he was right. The problem with The Reader is that its thought lacks the speed and sharpness of his own best work.

Whatever its flaws, though, The Reader demonstrates another central Hare idea: that history is not general but specific, and that the time in which we live is an essential part of who we are. As he says in the interview: “I dislike what I call bell-jar writing. In other words, I don’t think there’s anything called “the human condition”. Who we are is hugely affected by where we live, when we live, what happened before we were born, who we meet, the culture that we grow up in. If you’re a Chinese peasant, you will feel yourself to be significantly different from the people in this audience. I like history to be blowing through the room.”

At his best Hare writes brilliantly about how people navigate their time. And that phrase, “I like history to be blowing through the room” is as good a definition of his craft as any. With his latest play Gethsemane playing at the National, as well as his own readings of his monologue Berlin, there’s rarely been a better time to explore his ambitious and provocative career.