2015 Oscars: Uses and abuses of biography and history; or, “You get what it gives you. That’s how this thing works.”

“By using real names, the film purports to be a documentary account. But it makes only gestures toward presenting all facets of the case… The documentary is a real medium of journalism; the docudrama usurps its authenticity, just as would an advertisement written to be indistinguishable from a news column… Real names, people and places are not common property that can be taken and remolded at will by thesis-builders. They should be reported with respect for the evidence in its own right.” New York Times, “The Chicanery of ‘Silkwood

“What this reveals is a lack of standards and ethics in the film industry that, if replicated in the fields of history or journalism, would have produced a scandal of the first order. Evidently, because it’s ‘just a movie,’ members of the filmmaking industry and the public seem to think that this is all right. Granted, filmmaking is generally considered to be entertainment, and so viewers tend to give it very great leeway where truth and believability are concerned. But when films purport to tell true stories — especially the life stories of living people — they should be held to a higher standard.”  –Maxwell King, “‘Beautiful Mind’ controversy: Hollywood’s truth problemPhiladelphia Inquirer, 3-20-02

“Notwithstanding their boosters’ claims about these films’ relation to the historical moments they depict, Selma and its recent predecessors, like other period dramas, treat the past like a props closet, a source of images that facilitate naturalizing presentist sensibilities by dressing them up in the garb of bygone days. And the specific sensibilities that carry the spate of slavery/Jim Crow-era costume dramas are those around which the contemporary black professional-managerial class (PMC) converges: reduction of politics to a narrative of racial triumph that projects ‘positive images’ of black accomplishment, extols exemplary black individuals, stresses overcoming great adversity to attain success and recognition, and inscribes a monolithic and transhistorical racism as the fundamental obstacle confronting, and thus uniting, all black Americans. History is beside the point for this potted narrative, as is art incidentally, which the debate over the relative merits of Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained demonstrates. The only metric that could make comparing such radically different films seem plausible is the presence or prominence of a black hero or black ‘agency.’ … It is past time to consider Prof. Legette’s aphorism [‘The only thing that hasn’t changed about black politics since 1965 is how we think about it.’] and engage its many implications. And that includes a warrant to resist the class-skewed penchant for celebrating victories won in the heroic moment of the southern civil rights movement as museum pieces disconnected from subsequent black American political history and the broad struggle for social justice and equality.”  –Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Real Problem with Selma: It doesn’t help us understand the civil rights movement, the regime it challenged, or even the significance of the voting rights actnonsite.org, 1-26-15


Accuracy is important; and in a world already swimming in inaccuracy, we should be quite careful not to add any more. Yet this year the Academy Awards is headlined by films featuring serious abuses of biography and history. There are camps defending it and there are camps saying it doesn’t matter. The use of the “artistic license” defense is now so overused as to be absurd. Our history knowledge is already at an appallingly low level, and the misinformation effect of inaccurate movies is serious. What’s particularly appalling, and so characteristic this year, is both the blatant and unnecessary nature of the changes that make the movies less interesting. Lots of source material, including books out for years, was either not consulted or blatantly changed, often to fit an easier, more predictable, and more saccharine narrative. Those narratives are insulting enough without adding the injury of misappropriating real people and real events. In other words, those filmmakers can’t have it both ways. They can’t have the privilege and trust of using the actual, just to shoehorn it into flights of fiction and easy stories.

Tonight we’re going Commando to safely get to the chopper.


Best of all Pictures:

8. Birdman
Thethirdrevelation and I discussed Birdman at length.

7. The Theory of Everything
Inaccurately goes more Godsmack than science, then heavily focuses on the domestic and arguably gets that even more wrong, with Jane Wilde short shrifted and Hawking made out to be nicer than he was. They also made the family less colorful than it really was, and thus the movie less interesting. For example, according to Biography, the family vehicle was actually an old London taxi; they kept bees in their basement; and they often ate dinner in silence, with each member of the family focused on the current book they were reading. The high gauziness overlaid on the stories ensures that even when events and emotions that we know to be dislocations appear on screen, they’re boring. Jane Wilde and Stephen Hawking’s lives were not this dull, and I’m not sure anyone’s life is.

6. American Sniper
Thethirdrevelation helpfully underlines the movie’s tonal oddities–it’s almost at war with itself, and for all I know that’s indeed because it’s Spielberg + Eastwood, though at the end of the day they’re probably more alike than different. Inaccuracy deductions off the top for inventing a super-sniper showdown between Kyle and a shooter from Syria, particularly because it’s used to deliver the film’s climax. The Syrian sniper was real, but in his memoir, Kyle said he “never saw him.”  Our obsession with snipers–off the top of my head, I can think of Navy Seals, Sniper 1-5, Saving Private Ryan, Enemies at the Gate, and Shooter as movies featuring snipers–is surely part of our larger dance with the myth of being removed from the costs of war. Rumsfeld tapped into this with his “quicker and lighter” emphasis. The film partly debunks it in a “things he carried” way–a fair amount of time is spent on Kyle getting traumatized and trying to recover; at one point, his wife, Taya, tells him he needs him to be human again, although this is within an incredulous portrayal of her as hysterical. Kyle’s own brother, deployed himself, says “Fuck this place.” However, this is still a “war is a force that gives us meaning” / “ideal soldier” story about the will, focus, and determination of the individual. Even when Kyle and others act akratically, this is encapsulated by fealty to hypervigilance and super-soldierdom. A central contradiction is that it showcases Kyle’s selflessness–and maybe he was on the battlefield–but leaves out his fabulism, self-promotion, and racism, save for one use of “savages.” Kyle himself was at least somewhat conflicted about being seen as an ideal soldier, saying that any profits made from his memoir should be considered “blood money.” At one point we get a sermon about the apostle Paul and judgment, and about how life is a puzzle and a mystery, that we can’t fully know it, really figure it out, or properly judge it. This is particularly problematic in the movie because American military involvement in Iraq had over-confident and over-entitled judgment all over it, to the point of corruption. No mystery there. Sometimes we have to leave our guns in the dirt.

5. Selma
The piece by Penn professor Adolph Reed quoted above is the best and most comprehensive one I’ve seen on the problem with Selma. Let me add historian David Garrow on the quality of the initial screenplay by Paul Webb, and Ava DuVernay’s rewrite: “It’s a tragedy that Selma wound up with these two [Webb and DuVernay]. This is a choice between two crap sandwiches: Do you prefer the one labeled Cat Poo, or the one labeled Dog Poo? The person who would have done it right is that Paul Greengrass guy.” The two most glaring and most-discussed inaccuracies in the film are its depiction of Johnson and its treatment of King’s marital infidelities. Garrow rates DuVernay’s depiction of Johnson as being reluctant on civil rights as “100 percent false.” DuVernay departed from available tapes and transcripts that show cordiality between Johnson and King, instead unbelievably depicting Johnson as whiny and contentious. DuVernay seemed to admit she didn’t do her homework when she said “I didn’t have to learn Selma to make Selma. I didn’t have to research what kind of place this is.” As Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg point out, DuVernay “rationalized that because her mother works in Selma today, she is herself somehow–mystically–connected to the city’s past.” Mysticism is insufficient and homework is not something you can sacrifice when doing a project of any significant scope. The film fails to capture the immediacy of the times, which, granted, is a difficult task. It feels too scripted, too pretty, and too romantic. It sets the Birmingham church bombing a year later than it actually occurred. Oprah is distracting, taking the viewer out of the action just when it’s most important to be drawn further in. Oyelowo is only okay as King and the film doesn’t really capture King’s political genius. Further reading:
Alvin Tillery, “Who disagrees with ‘Selma’s’ portrayal of LBJ? Blacks in the civil rights era
Elizabeth Drew, “‘Selma’ vs. History

4. The Imitation Game
The filmmakers go for a British A Beautiful Mind, with Turing as a socially awkward, constipated/tortured genius. Christian Caryl has the leading correction on this and the rest of the film:
“There’s no question that the real-life Turing was decidedly eccentric, and that he didn’t suffer fools gladly. As his biographers vividly relate, though, he could also be a wonderfully engaging character when he felt like it, notably popular with children and thoroughly charming to anyone for whom he developed a fondness. All of this stands sharply at odds with his characterization in the film, which depicts him as a dour Mr. Spock who is disliked by all of his coworkers—with the possible exception of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). The film spares no opportunity to drive home his robotic oddness. He uses the word ‘logical’ a lot and can’t grasp even the most modest of jokes. This despite the fact that he had a sprightly sense of humor, something that comes through vividly in the accounts of his friends, many of whom shared their stories with both Hodges and Copeland. (For the record, the real Turing was also a bit of a slob, with a chronic disregard for personal hygiene. The glamorous Cumberbatch, by contrast, looks like he’s just stepped out of a Burberry catalog.)”

3. Boyhood
“The film’s called Boyhood, but it could be called Motherhood, Fatherhood, [or] Bumbling Through Adulthood. As adults, we look back and see ourselves as fixed, but we’re anything but.” One sing-along to you with Ethan Hawke as your dad. Hawke pointed out that all of Linklater’s films have had “a unique relation to time” and that “all of us struggle with the passage of time.” The film succeeds with its point about punctuated, hebetudinous equilibrium, but for all its pretensions to verisimilitude it feels somewhat too constructed and too inorganic to be the Best of the Best.

2. Whiplash
What a depiction of the potential danger of the combination of talent and a will to please, achieve, and/or serve bad gods. Problematic ending in that it reinforces the notion of abuse as a pedagogical tool, but I essentially concur with thethirdrevelation’s view of it as the story of these two particular people.

Ought to win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
I hated The Royal Tennebaums and was thus sympathetic to this kind of criticism, but landed at what thethirdrevelation very aptly describes as “universal sentiments of guilt, the putting on of airs, and the elasticity of memories.” The parodies of Nazism work–they smartly help to desensitize–which deserves significant credit because they could have easily not.

Will win: Birdman


Number 1 Better Half
5. Emma Stone
4. Meryl Streep
3. Keira Knightley
2. Patricia Arquette. A precocious lil’ Samantha Linklater said Arquette’s character “doesn’t want to make the same mistakes her parents did.”
Ought to win: Laura Dern
Will win: Arquette.

Most Supportive Man
5. Norton. The whole role is too strained.
4. Duvall. Has scenes here that belong in a better movie.
3. Hawke
2. Ruffalo
Ought to win: Simmons
Will win: Simmons

Queen of the Castle
5. Jones
4. Pike
Gillian Flynn: “And also a guilty laugh…am I bad person?…what does that say about me?…I like those laughs.”
Gone Girl‘s main positive might be its showcasing of the extremes we can go to for and against another person, and how we act when we feel we don’t have to do anything in particular, or no one’s watching, or when no special (motive) forces are at play. It gains some yardage with its commentary on the public/private dichotomy, but ultimately fumbles the ball. It goes revenge fantasy instead of seeking collaborative solutions to sex equality. The tensions are internalized domestically and bodily instead of being sent outward productively-sociopolitically; the social, in part represented by the media, is conceded as lost. Unfortunately, the whole thing is marred by misogyny, taken to a faking-rape level. Almost everything that comes out of Amy’s mouth, and even the way she says it, is unreal and unrepresentative, and much of the film feels the same. They keep her quite at that cipher, blank-from-hell level Wesley Morris has referenced. It’s conventional in its exploitation of the “love is a drug” and “love makes us crazy/dumb” tropes, and they’re problematically yoked to what feels like a minimization of rape, abuse, and murder. It’s story malpractice to leave out as much explanation and sourcing of behavior and motives as the movie does. The book is apparently more nuanced and more ethical, in that Amy is acting more out of desperation and numbness, rather than the sheer malice the movie mostly consigns her to. There are a number of good quotes, ideas, and character interiority in the book that are omitted from the movie, which focuses on thriller and cat-and-mouse aspects at their expense. For example, in the book Amy says: “It had gotten to the point where it seemed like nothing matters, because I’m not a real person and neither is anyone else. I would have done anything to feel real again.” The movie could’ve sourced the unrealness & unrepresentativeness like that. Instead, it’s tonally similar to Fight Club and has similar problems with its symbolism. It’s arguably misanthropic. Some fans and critics are citing its satirical and supposed stereotype-breaking aspects, but the older woman right next to me in the theater seemed to be reading it straight, exclaiming with dismay at one point, “What a fucking bitch!”
3. Cotillard
2. Witherspoon
Ought to win: Moore
Will win: Moore

Superlative Actor in a Leadership Role
5. Redmayne
4. Keaton
3. Carell. Shows us the danger of leadership forms that are without substance; of husks without corn.
2. Cooper. “You get what it gives you. That’s how this thing works.”
Ought to win: Cumberbatch
Will win: Redmayne

Best of all Directors
5. Inarritu
4. Tyldum
3. Miller
2. Linklater
Ought to win: Wes Anderson
Will win: Inarritu

Best Original Screenplay
5. Birdman
4. Foxcatcher
3. Boyhood
2. Nightcrawler
Ought to win: Grand Budapest
Will win: Grand Budapest

Best Adapted Screenplay
5. Theory of Everything
4. Imitation Game
3. American Sniper
2. Whiplash
Ought to win: Inherent Vice
Will win: Imitation Game

Best Film Editing
5. Imitation Game
4. Grand Budapest
3. American Sniper
2. Whiplash
Ought to win: Boyhood
Will win: Boyhood

Best Makeup & Hairstyle
3. Foxcatcher
2. Guradians of the Galaxy
Ought to win: Grand Budapest
Will win: Grand Budapest

Best Visual Effects
5. Guardians of the Galaxy
4. Captain America: Winter Soldier
3. X-Men: Days of Future Past
2. Interstellar
Ought to win: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Will win: Interstellar




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