Getting the whole picture
And the 87th Academy Awards ceremony last Sunday was no different. It was watched live in more than 100 countries — a testament to the power of filmic art as a medium to connect and unite the human community in one universal language. In 2009, for example, there were over 6.8 billion cinema admissions, creating global box office revenue of $30 billion, and that did not include DVD and Blu Ray sales in North America and the European Union, which reached a staggering $32.5 billion. What is it about film, one asks, that enables it to wield such power?
Cinema, created around the tail end of the 19th century, may be the world’s most recent art form, but it is also the most complex and innovative expression around, an expression that speaks about us and from us. It is complex because filmmakers are constantly testing new boundaries and launching new ideas, their effusions on the screen reflecting our social condition, our existential anxieties, our moral values, our political struggles and our cultural ethos — in short our zeitgeist.
Moving pictures move us. They tell us where we have been and where we may actually or potentially go. When we feel empty in our lives, we go sit in a darkened movie theater and these moving pictures never fail to fill that emptiness. At this year’s Oscar ceremony, as a case in point, Selma took us back 50 years to the time the Rev. Martin Luther King led the march on Selma — and forever changed American history. What an enriching experience!
And whereas Birdman, which won in the Best Picture category took us into the world of the counter-factual in our lives, The Theory of Everything (a film based on the memoir of cosmologist Stephen Hawkin’s first wife) which won the British actor Eddie Redmayne an Oscar for Best Actor for his brilliant performance, dealt with the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and with the transformative power of love.
In a way, when the actor we watch on the screen is good, we become the actor. He inhabits us as much we inhabit him. Think Chaplin, Brando, Olivier, Wells, Poitier, Streep, Blanchette, and how years after the fact, their performances still resonate with us.
Oscar night had no surprises last Sunday, certainly nothing comparable — not remotely so — to the 50th Academy Awards in 1978, when the pro-Palestinian British actress Vanessa Redgrave, who won the Best Supporting Actress award for her electrifying performance in Julia, gave a politically charged acceptance speech in which she berated the “Zionist thugs” who were gathered outside the Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles protesting her presence at the Oscars, and ended up locking horns with Paddy Chayefsky, a fanatically pro-Israeli advocate, who won that night for Best Screenplay for the film Network.
But since actors in Hollywood are known to be politically engaged, there were some fireworks last Sunday. Laura Poitras, the director of Citizenfour, a sobering examination of Edward Snowden’s revelations, spoke of how Americans should be aware “not only of the threats by the government against our privacy but also our democracy.” Patricia Arquette, who won the Best Supporting Actress award for Boyhood, addressed herself to women’s rights, especially their rights in the labor market. And so it went.
But then, at the end of the day, we have to also recognize those snobbish cineastes who will not make contact with Hollywood movies without holding their nose, and who dismiss these movies as the opium of the unwashed masses, as it were. They of course seek out art-house films that possess artistic qualities marking them as different from mainstream films, movies that are, as the American Heritage Dictionary defines them, “made primarily for reasons other than commercial profit,” say like Vittoria de Sica’s Bicycle Thief, Gilo Ponticorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and Orson Wells’s Citizen Kane. They read film reviews only in Cahiers du Cinema. And for those who could afford it, they go to the one-time fishing village of Cannes, in France, to attend the town’s annual film festival.
Well, each to his own. Darn, you tell these folks, you don’t like Hollywood’s putative lowbrow taste in cinematic art, well then, watch the Oscars every year at least for the dazzling fashion statement displayed there by its well-dressed and well-groomed folks, if nothing else. Unlike East and West, the twain of lowbrow and highbrow can meet. Wouldn’t you say?
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