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Beyond the Multiplex

By Andrew O'Hehir
March 2, 2006

This year’s foreign-language Oscar category is dominated, at least in terms of media coverage, by a late-blooming controversy over a film most Academy members undoubtedly haven’t seen. Meanwhile, the documentary feature category is widely seen as a foregone conclusion, given the immense popularity of a film about flightless Antarctic waterfowl that was proclaimed as an example of Christian family values by someone who probably hadn’t seen it.

Anybody who thinks these events are extraordinary hasn’t been paying attention. The Hollywood establishment’s efforts to honor documentaries and foreign films, while undeniably well-meaning, have developed an increasingly buffoonish character over the years. For one thing, there’s a kind of taxonomic confusion involved: It’s a little like asking a Major League Baseball umpire to officiate a championship chess match, or asking those two sheepherdin’ cowpokes from “Brokeback Mountain” to collect botanical specimens.

It’s easy to make fun of Academy voters as geriatric, aesthetically unadventurous and susceptible to a certain variety of “message movie.” But beneath that partially accurate stereotype lies the fact that America’s mainstream film industry is permanently and totally committed to a certain vision of what movies are: large-scale entertainments, whether didactic or romantic or comic or some combination thereof, designed to seduce and manipulate a broad popular audience. There’s still a lingering awareness that other possible models exist, but when awards time rolls around, all those possibilities get rolled into two qualities: pretty and earnest.

So while the last 15 years have seen an extraordinary explosion of cinema from all around the world, from the most brazen pop to the most ambitious experimentalism and every gradation in between — an explosion that at least equals, and probably exceeds, the art-film revolution of the ’60s — almost none of this has been felt on Oscar night. (Indeed, not much of it has been felt in the American market in general.) The winning foreign-language films since 1990 have included movies good, bad and indifferent, but almost all have featured lovely cinematography and redeeming life lessons, from the feminist fable “Antonia’s Line” in 1995 to the grouch-plus-kid movie “Kolya” in 1996 to period costume dramas like “Indochine” (1992) and “Belle Époque” (1993).

Hardly anybody would pick those four pictures, pleasant as they may be, as the best examples of world cinema from those years. And hardly anybody would be surprised. As we’ll see later, most of the best foreign films of 2005 not only were not nominated, they weren’t even candidates for nomination. The foreign-language Oscar has become a kind of curiosity: What examples of Old World inoffensiveness can those geezers dig up this time?

Even as the honored films finally began to feel more contemporary, there was a kind of tokenism at work. Pedro Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother” won in 1999, more than a decade after he had reinvigorated Spain’s film scene and launched a worldwide wave of “queer cinema.” Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” won in 2000, as Hollywood finally noticed that Chinese-language action movies had conquered half the world. (Since then the category has reverted to scenery-and-spinach films, loaded with nutrition: “Nowhere in Africa” in 2002, “The Barbarian Invasions” in 2003 and “The Sea Inside” in 2004.)

It wasn’t always this way. Here are six of the first seven foreign-language Oscar winners after the Academy created the category in 1956: Fellini’s “La Strada,” Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle,” Marcel Camus’ “Black Orpheus,” Bergman’s “Virgin Spring,” Bergman’s “Through a Glass Darkly,” Fellini’s “8 1/2.” (The seventh, by the way, was a French film I’ve never heard of called “Sundays and Cybele.”) That’s probably about two-thirds of the syllabus in my sophomore-year Intro to World Cinema class right there. It goes on: Buñuel’s “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” won in 1972, Truffaut’s “Day for Night” in ’73, Fellini’s “Amarcord” in ’74, Kurosawa’s “Dersu Uzala” in ’75.

By the early ’80s, however, a pattern of rewarding winsome, unmemorable little films instead of ambitious artistic achievement had become well entrenched. In 1977, a now-forgotten French film called “Madame Rosa” won the award, beating out Buñuel’s “That Obscure Object of Desire.” In 1980, when Truffaut’s “The Last Metro” and Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha” were both nominated, the winner was a schmaltzy Soviet film called “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears.”

Basically it became clear that the foreign-language Oscar was now about picturesque villages (or urban versions thereof), tables groaning with exotic foodstuffs, and cute little kids. Yeah, Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” won in 1983, but that was a slam-dunk (and it fulfilled all those requirements). By the end of that decade, we’re talking cuteness parade: “Babette’s Feast” — maybe the absolute pinnacle of this paradigm — followed by “Pelle the Conqueror,” followed by “Cinema Paradiso.”

Of course, the last decade has also seen the blossoming of documentary films as an increasingly important quadrant of cinema. Documentaries now possess most of the cultural mojo that foreign films had in the days of Fellini, Truffaut and Bergman. Foreign-language movies, even relatively successful ones like “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” or“Caché,” creep around from specialty house to specialty house, attracting a tiny but devoted cadre of fans. That used to be how documentaries worked, but now those are the movies that become word-of-mouth breakout hits, like “Grizzly Man” or “The Corporation” or“The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.”

It would be unfair to claim that Hollywood hasn’t noticed. Once upon a time the documentary Oscar was reserved for nature films, history films and stories of artistic inspiration of the sort administered to high school students during mandatory cafeteria assemblies: Jacques Cousteau’s “The Silent World” in 1956, “The Eleanor Roosevelt Story” in 1965, “Arthur Rubinstein: The Love of Life” in 1969. Things began to change with “Marjoe” in 1972 and Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA” in 1976, and by the middle of the ’80s, the genre as we know it today was beginning to take shape. For every Oscar handed out to films about Isaac Stern or Artie Shaw, another seemed to go to chewier fare like “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984), “Down and Out in America” (1986) or “The Panama Deception” (1992), a highly controversial critique of the U.S. invasion of that country.

What people around the business occasionally say in private, though — if not so much in print — is that there’s one sure way to win the documentary Oscar. Between 1995 and 2000, five of the six award-winning films concerned the Holocaust and/or Israel (as did two others between 1981 and 1994). I see a kind of historical coincidence here, rather than a Zionist conspiracy: Hollywood was finally ready to acknowledge its own long-concealed roots, just as a new generation of Jewish filmmakers, many the children of Holocaust survivors, was emerging. But whatever the reasons behind this mini-wave, it has now passed; no film about Jewish topics has been nominated in the last three years.

There’s no question that the Academy strongly prefers documentaries (and all other varieties of film) that deliver liberal-minded political messages and uplifting fables about the human spirit. That’s not much of a news flash, and in fact those are things documentaries can do pretty well. This is arguably less egregious than boiling down the entire, vast range of world cinema to feel-good spectacles, but it does mean that other, more ambiguous forms of documentary filmmaking are consistently ignored. Popularity and critical acclaim seem nearly irrelevant: Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams,” Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb” and Spike Lee’s “4 Little Girls” were all infamously passed over in favor of forgettable spinach films. (The winner in 1994, when both “Hoop Dreams” and “Crumb” were eligible, was “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision,” whose director is also the head of the Academy board’s documentary branch.)

“Direct cinema” pioneer Frederick Wiseman, the most important living documentary filmmaker, has never been nominated at all. Albert and David Maysles have only two short-subject nominations between them, in 45 years of filmmaking. Errol Morris was virtually blackballed until winning in 2003 for “The Fog of War,” a makeup award if ever there was one. And I’m not holding my breath for the Academy to notice that Werner Herzog has become the visionary documentarian of our age, let alone to pay attention to Pirjo Honkasalo, Simone Bitton or a host of other filmmakers whose work is personal and not easily pigeonholed.

That’s enough history. What peculiarities and delights has the tortuous nomination process in these categories coughed up this year? Well, you won’t know the players without a scorecard, and here’s mine.

Foreign-Language Film 

“Don’t Tell” I promise I won’t. This everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Italian melodrama, from director-novelist Cristina Comencini, is the darkest of dark horses in the field. Everyone was caught off guard by this nomination, including Lions Gate, the film’s U.S. distributor, which frantically rearranged its release schedule to get “Don’t Tell” (the original title translates as “The Beast in the Heart”) out by mid-March. I was excited to see it, given how rarely American audiences get to see the strange farrago productions of Italian commercial cinema, but my excitement had pretty well faded after the first hour or so.

The people are beautiful and the Rome apartment where the central couple, Sabina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and Franco (Alessio Boni), live is simply stunning. Franco is a dimwit hunk in the finest Italian tradition, supposedly a theater actor of great integrity, while Sabina is a hysterical mope wrestling with a super-obvious secret from her childhood. She has a stunningly beautiful friend (Stefania Rocca) who is both blind and a lesbian with a deadly crush on her. Halfway through Sabina decamps to Charlottesville, Va. (!), to visit her expat brother (Luigi Lo Cascio) and unpack those uninteresting family secrets, thereby robbing the film of everything that might make it attractive to American viewers. (Although hearing her Southern sister-in-law speaking Italian with a Virginia accent is more or less its own reward.)

Back home, we have a promiscuous young actress eager to shed her togs for Franco (who is oh-so-conflicted about it), an intergenerational lesbian affair, a child born on public transit, and some earnest discussion about film with a bearded, fat guy. (Since he’s not beautiful, we can tell he’s a real artist.) Somewhat denser, soapier and stranger than your typical Hollywood “women’s film,” but not nearly as well made, this movie exemplifies what’s wrong with the entire category. Each foreign nation only gets one shot to submit a film, and you can bet nobody in Italy thought this was the best movie made there last year. They just thought, well, hell, this is the kind of sentimental crap the Yanks might like. Odds on this one: absolute zero.

“Joyeux Noël” A vastly superior film, but another illustration of why the rules in this category are idiotic. If this were a horse race and I were playing long-shot hunches, this supernally lovely and supremely old-fashioned World War I picture might be my pick. What’s profoundly unfortunate is that in the year when, for instance, “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” and “Caché” were released, “Joyeux Noël” was the sole official French candidate. (In case you’re wondering, “Kings and Queen” and “À Tout de Suite” were released in France in 2004, and so were not eligible this year.)

“Joyeux Noël” deserves a more thorough review than I can give it here (it opens Friday, March 3, in major cities). It’s fairly closely based on historical events, namely the widespread unofficial truce that broke out along the Western front of World War I during the Christmas season of 1914. Trapped in the gruesome trenches of what would soon be recognized as the worst (and perhaps most pointless) slaughter the world had yet seen, ordinary German, French and British soldiers crossed the lines at Christmas to drink, hold musical recitals, swap stories and photos, play soccer and generally ignore the orders of the despots and generals at the rear.

It’s a profoundly moving story of — yes! — the human spirit rising above horrible circumstances, and simultaneously a work of nostalgia for the gentlemen’s war that marked the end, or the beginning of the end, of Christian Europe’s world domination. It’s got gorgeous music (from classical arias to Scottish bagpipers), lovely photography, just enough killing to make it feel morally serious, and nice performances from Guillaume Canet, Daniel Brühl and Alex Ferns as the French, German and Scottish officers, respectively, who enjoy some civilized bonhomie amid the carnage. Odds on this one: Still not the favorite, but it fulfills all the requirements and comes with no controversy. Coming up fast on the outside.

“Paradise Now” Topic of the hour: Is Hollywood providing aid and comfort to terrorists by even nominating Hany Abu-Assad’s film about two would-be suicide bombers from the West Bank, which was nominated by a nation (“Palestine”) that doesn’t officially exist? The word “irony” gets misused a lot, but I suppose it was invented to describe situations like this one: “Paradise Now” was produced with money from various European countries, but it could most accurately be described as an Israeli film.

I’ve reviewed “Paradise Now” already, and I think it’s a terrific film of unquestioned artistic integrity. It tells the story of two men who turn to violence with unclear motivations, and it neither judges them nor endorses their actions. That said, let’s be honest: If my wife or children had been killed by a suicide bomber, I wouldn’t like it too much either. And in fairness, the Israeli petition asking the Academy to un-nominate “Paradise Now” isn’t suggesting that the film should be banned or suppressed, just that it shouldn’t be considered for the industry’s most prestigious award. I don’t share that view, but it’s not a ludicrous or loathsome position.

I don’t blame outraged Israelis and American Jews, or offended anybodies, for this controversy. To coin a phrase, I blame the media. Some of the coverage has been beyond moronic. From Britain’s Observer, we learn that the bomb attack that is about to happen in the film’s last moments “is unarguably portrayed as heroic,” since the perpetrator, Saïd (Kasi Nashef), is the film’s protagonist. Hello? I guess that means Fritz Lang’s “M” is telling us that murdering small children is heroic, or that, I don’t know, “Lolita” and “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and “Taxi Driver” are all … you get the point.

The Observer article, which helpfully never asks Abu-Assad or anyone else involved with “Paradise Now” about their intentions, goes on to say that the real problem with Saïd’s character is Nashef’s “Hollywood looks,” which create an atmosphere of “sexy jihad” around his attack. His friend Khaled (Ali Suliman) evidently refuses to commit mass murder because he’s insufficiently hot. “Paradise Now” has less chance than it ever did of winning an Oscar (and it never had much). But that article deserves an award for cultural journalism at its most distinctively odious, combining slipshod reporting with half-baked postmodern theorizing. Congratulations! Odds on this one: You have got to be kidding.

“Sophie Scholl: The Final Days” A fascinating, serious and memorable film about Germany’s most famous anti-Nazi resistance leader, with a great performance by Julia Jentsch in the title role. (Read more comments, and my interview with director Marc Rothemund, here.) Not quite great cinema, but already an award-winner in Germany and at festivals around the world, and pretty much tailor-made for Oscar. It’s always possible the Academy voters have burned out on Holocaust-related topics, but “Sophie Scholl” carries with it a cleverly packaged contemporary message about the need to speak out against repressive governments that violate their citizens’ trust. As Rothemund assured me, he would never dare to compare George W. Bush to Hitler. Such suggestions are of course outrageous. Odds on this one: Still the strong favorite, but fading slightly in the stretch.

“Tsotsi” Here’s the likeliest breakout hit in this category, both for its vibrant portrayal of the music, violent street life and distinctive dialect of Soweto, Johannesburg’s legendary ghetto, and for its passionate, melodramatic story about a gang leader transformed by his accidental abduction of a baby. (Read more about the film, and my interview with director Gavin Hood, here.) I found “Tsotsi” prodigiously moving and entertaining, and its elements are those of classical fable: crime and redemption, an endangered infant, a disabled man dispensing wisdom, a stunning Earth-mama type. But while it’s a gorgeous movie (and nothing truly awful happens to the baby), I suspect its violence is a little too raw, and its journey too jagged, for Oscar voters to embrace it unreservedly. There’s also the question of which weighs more heavily in the voting: Hollywood’s semi-conscious racism, or its desire to correct for it by voting for a film with a virtually all-black cast. I suspect they cancel each other out. Odds on this one: Viewed at first as the No. 2 contender, but has faded. Can’t be ruled out, but would be a major surprise.

Documentary Feature 

“Darwin’s Nightmare” Among the most depressing films ever made, which doesn’t knock it out of contention entirely. Hubert Sauper’s study of the dire poverty found around Tanzania’s Lake Victoria, and the near-catastrophic ecology of the lake itself, is a brilliant but flawed work of reporting. Sauper’s suggestions that the Russian pilots flying hundreds of tons of filleted Nile perch (an exotic and destructive species that has literally eaten everything else in the lake) to Europe’s fish markets are also importing weapons for Africa’s various civil wars is never authenticated, and sad to say it also seems almost irrelevant. The real story is, if anything, even worse than that. While European and Tanzanian bureaucrats alike praise the lake’s bountiful perch fishery, local people eat the discarded heads, tails, bones and offal, often rotten and crawling with vermin. If they eat anything at all, that is; the country is gripped by famine and we see children sleeping in the streets, getting high by sniffing glue made from melted-down industrial plastic (specifically, the containers used to package those goddamned perch). It’s a stomach-turning tale of globalization at its very worst, though what any of this has to do with Darwin is unclear to me. Seems more like Adam Smith’s nightmare than anybody else’s. Odds on this one: Oscar voters generally like some message of redemption to go with their bleak visions, so it’s a long shot.

“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” Alex Gibney’s snappy film on America’s biggest corporate debacle was a smash hit by the standards of most documentaries, grossing more than $4 million in United States release. As I wrote on its release last April, “Enron” spins a thrilling yarn of American capitalism run amok, or maybe just American capitalism followed to its logical extreme. Much as I admire the enterprise of Gibney and journalists Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (who wrote the book on which this film is based), I think the movie relies too much on TV-style infotainment techniques. That may not matter much to Oscar voters, but two other factors militate against this movie: It made money, and it’s about an issue that has largely receded from view (although current headlines generated by the Enron trials may help). Odds on this one: Pretty long.

“March of the Penguins” So, you take a French movie about the mating habits of Antarctic birds, stick on a new soundtrack and narration by Morgan Freeman, and you get — what, exactly? A really nice Wednesday-night slot on the National Geographic channel? No. You get a ballpark worldwide theatrical gross of $115 million, that’s what. Don’t get me wrong, I liked this movie: The deep-freeze scenery is impressive, and those fuzzball baby penguins sure are cute! And yes, it does make you cogitate on the essential similarities, the universality of the biological imperative, etc. But on some level I frankly don’t get it. And to whatever extent this film was adopted by Christian conservatives, I’m confused: Since God created us and the penguins on different days, and we’re in no way related, how can it be seen as allegorical at all? Odds on this one: Regarded as the favorite, but I’m not convinced. It made too much money, and nature films have not historically fared well in this category.

“Murderball” Based on an article in Maxim magazine, of all things, Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s docu about the disabled athletes who play a full-contact wheelchair sport called quadriplegic-rugby was expected to be a huge hit. Marketed persistently, and peculiarly, as a macho, balls-out sports film for dudes, it pretty much tanked, bringing home just $1.5 million despite massive media coverage. It didn’t exactly knock my socks off either, but it definitely tells a compelling yarn with a lot of thematic and visual integrity. It presents its characters not as heroes or angels or martyrs but as the same conflicted, competitive aggro guys they were before, now forced to adjust to a new set of circumstances. In some ways, “Murderball” was a surprise nomination, but this is definitely a category where box-office flopdom is no impediment. Odds on this one: I have a feeling here. It’s well-made, pushes nobody’s political buttons and addresses a social issue without beating you over the head. Besides, the film’s distributor screwed up the release, and now everybody feels bad about that. A golden combination.

“Street Fight” A terrific political documentary, shot during the 2002 mayoral campaign in Newark, N.J., pitting longtime Mayor Sharpe James against a newcomer, City Councilman Cory Booker. (The same duo is likely to square off again this year.) This race was widely understood at the time as a contest for the future of African-American politics: James is an old-time machine politician, who survives via widespread patronage and political tactics that could generously be called questionable, while Booker is a squeaky-clean football all-American, who was raised in suburbia and attended Stanford and Yale Law School. Filmmaker Marshall Curry tells the story almost entirely from Booker’s side, which partly reflects his own starry-eyed view of the young councilman and partly reflects the fact that James’ campaign treated Curry as if he were simultaneously radioactive and wearing a white sheet.

It’s difficult even to describe James or his methods without risking libel; suffice it to say that during the campaign he and his minions describe Booker as a white, Jewish Republican controlled by far-right groups. (Booker is in fact a black, Baptist Democrat, somewhere toward the Clintonite center of his party.) James does, however, manage to turn the election into a referendum on blackness and authenticity, and gets Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson on his side (while claiming to have Clinton’s support as well). Curry can’t do much to get below the surface of this explosive topic, or to represent the point of view of James’ supporters. That said, it’s an electrifying, suspenseful film, full of street-level political drama. By the way: Who can understand the rules in this category? Definitely not me. “Street Fight” was broadcast on PBS’ “P.O.V.” series last summer, and is now up for an Oscar. Eugene Jarecki sold “Why We Fight” to the BBC, and that somehow made it ineligible. You tell me. Odds on this one: It’s such a good film that it has an outside shot. But the very thing that makes it so interesting — its troubling racial politics — is also likely to scare Academy voters away.

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