MCN Commentary & Analysis

20 Weeks To Oscar: Cinema, Trump, and Oscar

Coming out of the likely Best Picture winner this year, 1917, I wondered to myself why I found it so powerful.

Not the cinematography, masterful as it was (Deakins likely to win his 2nd).

Not the rousing nature of the piece, as it actually isn’t the kind of movie that wants to give you any kind of Hollywood sugar high.

Not the “single shot” concept, which is very effective, but is more in service of the story than it is a magic trick and really, I am already sick of people talking about it.

What smashed me hard across the face about 1917, I think (like all great films, it will likely percolate for months and maybe years to come), was the simple earnestness about honor and, considering its time, manhood at a time when America is wallowing in a lack of honor and a dearth of what were once seen as the virtues of manhood.

Yes, 1917 is co-written by a woman. A woman I am sure is smart and tough. She and co-writer Sam Mendes never for a minute linger in easy sentiment.

And obviously, we all need to find new ways of discussing “being a man,” or in Yiddish, being a mensch. Everything that defined these as male traits are exhibited by women, then and now. It is about the quality of humanity, regardless of gender or anything else. But if you will be so generous with me, I don’t want to get distracted by the semantics of the moment in dealing with this thought. And it’s not because I don’t feel like having the conversation.

1917 is just one of the 5 period movies that very specifically deal with the male engagement with power. Jojo Rabbit, set in World War II, is about a young boy’s coming of age while immersed in the ultimate horror of stupid machismo, learning ultimately to rise above thanks to the love and endless patience of two women.

Ford v Ferrari, set in 1966, is an uber buddy movie, as two men fight for an achievement at the highest level.

Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood is centered on 2 men, one of whom is lost in the changing idea of what he is meant to be and the other who harbors an honorable but dangerous sense of the male ideal of what was already passing at the time.

And The Irishman is a powerful 2-father story, as a truck driver becomes a cold-blooded killer under the tutelage of one man/father who sees the world in black and white and is inevitably asked to kill the other man/father in his life who thinks his more nuanced/multi-colored way of thinking will protect him while dealing shamelessly with the men who see in black and white.

Men rule Hollywood, yes. Lots of Boy Movies have won Best Picture. But I don’t recall a season that was this machismo-heavy since 1974’s line-up of The Godfather II, Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, and The Towering Inferno. And if you look closely at those titles, they are almost all (can’t say The Towering Inferno was about anything but action) about the abuse by and distrust of the men in charge of the world.

Of course, 1974 was when Nixon resigned. But well before his exit, his criminality in his handling of the election and Vietnam were apparent.

After 3 years of the Trump presidency and another year of watching a certain insanity grow across the globe, I do see a shared idea in the subtext of this year’s crop of films about men and what being a man means. All the films are all by well-established directors with very particular voices. Scorsese shows a softer side of his tough guys, even having a woman quietly shame his lead. Waititi makes a joke of the male horror show, with the only sane (albeit broken) adult male character openly embracing his female side by the end of the film. Mangold offers a man who is exclusively interested in being the best at what he does and loving his family. Tarantino seems to pine for the kind of man who he idolized on the movie screen, already in hiding by 1969. (To be fair, QT has complex tastes, a huge fan of, for instance, Mazursky, who made asses out of most of the men and heroes out of women in most of his films.) And Mendes has just 2 women in his film, briefly, his young men representing the simpler, absolute honor of the past that we still often see in the modern military, but too often gets abused by political figures who have never served and would never seriously consider serving.

I don’t believe that people tend to make movies in a given year based on their interest in speaking to the politics of the moment. But what we have seen all over the world is that filmmakers tend to make films that represent the anxiety of the moment from their perspective, almost always aimed somewhere off the specific focal point of their anxiety. In most countries, that is because of repression. In America, it tends to be about box office.

Of all the most likely Best Picture nominees, only Marriage Story is floating in a time and place that is utterly apolitical and personal. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The other three modern pictures, The Two Popes, Parasite, and Bombshell, are also steeped in the power of men, but unlike the period movies, they are pretty direct. The Two Popes is very much a conversation between the past and the future. Parasite is about a family that is suffering in the way Trump voters seem to feel they have been suffering in America for a long time. Given the chance to flip the script, how far would they go? When do they go from victims to victimizers? And Bombshell is a whip-smart piece about abusive men and is, given the ripe territory, incredibly subtle and nuanced about the discussion of how and why this has continued to happen to women in recent history. (“Men are just assholes who think with their dicks” is not an unfair take… but the film’s is much more interesting to me.)

And finally, there is Little Women, the film set furthest back in history, which offers that women were always powerful, even as they were being limited and repressed openly or even proudly by the patriarchy. For me, the film is a scream of absolute love and joy about what is so glorious and unique (though not exclusive) to the female of the species.

My sense is that we are really at the beginning of the wave of films that will be about the desecration of the idea of honor in the era of Trump. Yet… I think 5 of the Best Picture nominees, perhaps more depending on your perspective, will be heavily influenced by the moment.

One Response to “20 Weeks To Oscar: Cinema, Trump, and Oscar”

  1. movieman says:

    OMG: fantastic movie! One of the greatest war movies ever made..and that’s saying a lot since there’ve been a helluva lot of great war movies over the years.
    I can definitely see it sweeping the Oscars (it’s got the tech categories wrapped up, that’s for sure).
    Heartbreaking performances by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, too.
    (Confession: I cried like a baby at the end.)
    Sam Mendes remains one of the few geniuses working in film and theater today.

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