Monday, March 08, 2010

On not watching the Oscars

I did not watch the Academy Awards this year. Actually, my Oscars viewing has been pretty sporadic since I moved to St. John's, largely because of the one and a half hour time shift from Ontario, which means if I'm going to commit to watching the whole thing, I'm up to an ungodly hour. It has also been sporadic because so has my film viewing, at least of films that the Academy tends to favour. Of the ten best picture nominees this year (ten! am I alone in thinking that doubling the nominees was an idiotic thing to do?) I'd seen exactly half—Inglourious Basterds, Up in the Air, Up, District 9 and The Hurt Locker. Which, actually, is a better showing than I've had in previous years.

In past years I've gotten a charge out of watching the Oscars, as I think most people do—enjoying the self-indulgent pageantry, the excess, the self-importance of it all, to say nothing of the charade that these were genuinely the best films that had been made in the previous year. It's like mental junk food, and as such I particularly enjoy it when there's a snarky host like Jon Stewart who looks so uncomfortable in his skin to be at the center of all this navel-gazing (I think I'm the sole person in the world who enjoyed Letterman's turn at hosting so many years ago).

I flipped on the television just as the red carpet arrivals started to be broadcast, and surprised myself with the my visceral reaction to it all. For some reason this year I had very little tolerance for the sheer excess on display; I was, to put it bluntly, fairly revolted by it all. I don't know why: as already mentioned, I normally quite enjoy the spectacle. But this year, for whatever reason, I found it distasteful. Perhaps it's that such displays seem in bad taste during times of economic distress; perhaps I'm just feeling the first faint stirrings of my inner curmudgeon, which will blossom as I age and result in me evolving into a stereotypical old fart complaining about kids today and yelling at them to get off my lawn.

Whatever the reason, my heart or my shoes, I flipped off the TV in vague disgust, but was nevertheless quite pleased to discover this morning that The Hurt Locker had beaten out Avatar in almost every category in which they were both nominated (the exceptions being cinematography, which Avatar took, and original score, which they both lost to Up). I was pleased on several levels, the first and most basic being the pleasure one takes in watching the underdog trounce the odds-on favourite—especially when the underdog is a small-scale, thoughtful, well-made film, and the odds-on favourite a massively budgeted behemoth that pairs up spectacular visual effects with a reductive and cliché-ridden narrative.

I should add the caveat that I have not seen Avatar; I have therefore not been dazzled by its visual landscape, to whose innovation and imagination I will in absentia cede the praise it undoubtedly deserves. But until James Cameron pairs his virtuoso cinematography with a good script, I will always be glad to see him beaten out for academy awards by films like The Hurt Locker. Especially by films like The Hurt Locker.

There is a lot to recommend Kathryn Bigelow's film about the Iraq War, from its cinematography that manages to be at once desolate and claustrophobic, to the almost unbearable tension of the bomb defusal sequences, to the way it captures military life as tedium punctuated by terror. What I found most striking however, and most subtly communicated, is the way the film indicts the Iraq War as a conflict marked by a complete and utter lack of any kind of collective national sacrifice.

To back up a bit: in the run-up to the Academy Awards, there has been some interesting discussion of The Hurt Locker in the political blogosphere and in newspapers. The New York Times has been running a thoughtful series of columns on the rendering of war in film; a number of Iraq War veterans have held forth on the film's inaccuracies versus its successes and failures in communicating the general spirit or sense of the war. One fairly common critique (variously positive or negative, depending on the reviewer's perspective) is that the film does not offer a political message about the war, being wholly consumed with the psychology of the soldiers. This I find somewhat odd; the political message is there, but is not overt or explicit, and really only comes into focus in a specific scene.

The scene comes when the main character, played very well by Jeremy Renner, has been rotated home after his tour. He is back home with his wife and young son, and caught up in a series of standard domestic tasks—making dinner, cleaning leaf-choked gutters, grocery shopping. At first, this sequence feels like pretty standard fish-out-of-water fare, the soldier who has difficulty readapting to home life after the stresses and traumas of the battlefield. The key moment comes however when grocery shopping, when his wife asks him to go back and grab a box of cereal. Confronted by a vast selection of breakfast cereal—taking up the entire aisle—he is momentarily at a bit of a loss, staring at the colourful wall of boxes for some time before finally choosing one at random.

It is a beautifully evocative moment that highlights a cruel truth about the prosecution of the Iraq War: that it was fought solely by the soldiers sent there, and demanded no collective sacrifice of the U.S. citizenry. The Iraq War is unique in this respect, in the way it has proceeded in a sort of out-of-sight-out-of-mind manner, which is not to suggest that there has been no media coverage. Rather, it has been orchestrated in such a way that has placed no demands on anyone but the soldiers fighting it and their families. The war effort has been a huge contributor to the current U.S. deficit, as the Bush Administration made no attempt to pay for it by either raising taxes or cutting spending (indeed, part of the swelling deficit under Obama is an optical illusion brought about by the fact that his administration now includes the cost of the war in the visible budget, something Bush never did).

The Iraq War is sui generis in the last hundred years of American warfare in this respect. All of the major conflicts of the twentieth century were, to a certain extent, experienced collectively by the nation, through conscription, rationing, the demand for volunteerism, the selling of war bonds to pay for the war effort, as well as the often propagandistic effort to include the nation as a whole in the war's narrative. This collectivization could result in national solidarity, such as in the Second World War, or in a national argument, as with Vietnam. Even the first Gulf War was a collective experience, however facile—the spectacle of the five weeks of bombing followed by a short, swift ground assault gave the home audiences the illusion of having some skin in the game.

Aside from the initial attack in spring 2003 (capped by the "Mission Accomplished" photo op), the current Iraq war has made minimal demands on American attention and wallets—by design. As with the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the duty of the people at home has been to consume, to extend credit to do so, not to sacrifice. The cereal aisle facing Jeremy Renner's scarred soldier appears in The Hurt Locker as the film's greatest obscenity. Which, now that I think of it, might have been in the back of my mind when I turned off the red carpet spectacle in disgust last night.

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