Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Commerce and Culture: Avatar, Hurt Locker and the Oscars

Well, I got some of my predictions right (Actor, Director, both Supportings). I was happy to get some of them wrong (Best Actress for Sandra Bullock). And I'm convinced that some decisions, even though they prove me wrong, actually prove that the Academy, and, if you want to look beyond the Oscars, this entire awards season, is even more wrong.

I am, of course, aiming directly at 'The Hurt Locker' - which is a shifty target, and not only because it stars the Special Forces. This is not a film that's easy to fault. It is taut and gritty, and perpetually poised on a razor-thin edge. It has uniformly competent performances. We have no way of knowing whether it is an accurate reflection of a bomb defuser's life in Iraq today, but it certainly seems like it could be. So where is it lacking, and why did other films, 'Avatar' for instance, deserve the silverware more?

The danger in honouring the prevailing national sentiment, as I fear the Academy has done with 'Hurt Locker', instead of simply choosing the best film on display, is that posterity judges you harshly. In five years, critics will look back on the parched-earth despair of 'Hurt Locker' and wonder what it was that made it seem like such a landmark movie. Ordinary folk will simply have forgotten it. Give it ten years and it'll be a trivia question. Why am I so sure? It's like this - there are a hundred different ways to make a movie great, but in the end, if it isn't memorable for one reason or another, its fate as an also-ran in the history books is sealed. 'The Hurt Locker' has little in terms of an afterglow, which is fine for a war movie. But does it offer the viewer anything else to remember it by? Its one-sided view of life in Iraq denies us a broader perspective, and we learn nothing new about the American viewpoint. The ground it covers has already been combed over, in movies about Korea, Vietman, the Gulf War. We know that good sense is replaced by testosterone on the ground ('Platoon'), that American soldiers having little knowledge or respect for cultures alien to them ('Full Metal Jacket'), that the effects of war on a soldier's psyche are disastrous ('Flags of our Fathers'). The 'Hurt Locker' only seems to suggest that America's military disasters, past and present, have a lot in common, because the movies based on them are repeating themselves.

Did 'Avatar' deserve more? It certainly had a lot going for it. It was a truly transportive experience, with or without the 3-D glasses. For all the hoopla about the poineering nature of the technology used, the results were truly gorgeous to look at, like Neverland crossed with an Amazonian forest. The central message - anti-war, pro-conservation - wasn't subtle, but was no less of the moment as 'bring home our soldiers'. Its flaws - a weak script, plot twists you can see coming a mile off - may have cost it the applause of the serious, but then this was a film built to entertain. By missing out at the Oscars (and cleaning up at the box office) Avatar may one day find itself listed alongside other pioneering films that just happened to also make a lot of money, such as the first films in the Matrix or Star Wars series.

I doubt James Cameron will mind.

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