This year’s Oscars, once again, reminded me of my old fantasies—to be a movie reviewer. Once upon a time I used to fantasize that I would get paid for what I love to do every weekend for free; namely, analyze movies.
Before I became a political commentator, I used to have the same problem with political discussions that I have today in talking about movies. I would engage in political arguments at parties, with the result that people would resent me, even shun me.
All that changed after I became a self-appointed political pundit. For one, my need to express my political opinions to the common man and woman melted away; because now, I was getting published in important newspapers for saying the kinds of things I used to say at parties. And secondly, when I did open my mouth at parties, instead of dismissing me as a mere third world woman, people began to listen, because, if the likes of National Public Radio broadcast me, I must have something important to say.
Despite getting aired on the British Broadcasting Corporation, the ultimate in punditry, my opinions on movies have not yet received their due.
Most Americans unfortunately have been trained in the Hollywood school of movie critiquing, which is to say that most Americans haven’t seen a movie they didn’t like. But to me, what fun is it to see a movie, if you can’t analyze the plot, the characters, the pathos, and the humor, afterwards?
Whenever I go to a movie, a common scenario plays out. I say, “So how was it?” My friend replies with, “Oh, that was wonderful! I mean did you notice those cute streets of Paris? And that woman? Wasn’t she so beautiful?” Etc., etc., etc. It is hard to counter this sort of effusive reaction with something like, “But did you think the woman was realistic? Or was it just sort of a trick?” Once or twice I tried that approach, with disastrous results. People felt as if I had pricked their balloon; made them realize that they had wasted their money. That I was being over-critical and smart-alecky.
I love critiquing movies, simply because I love them so much and have seen so many. I love to analyze the pluses and the minuses so I can find an epiphany. Sadly, this year’s Oscar fare, as usual, left me without any epiphanies.
I knew from the beginning that a movie like In the Bedroom would never have a chance at an award because of its macabre theme. And I hadn’t bothered to see all the movies in the running this year because I was weary of the Oscar hype. But still, A Beautiful Mind? Come on! A movie that failed to explain its title and therefore its premise, gets judged as the best picture? That film failed to tell us why John Nash had a beautiful mind. It didn’t even touch upon his greatest discovery in math, for which he received the Nobel Prize. For many mathematicians and scientists in the audience, like me, this wasn’t just a minor flaw, but a glaring omission. More importantly, the movie didn’t tell us why we should care about John Nash as a human being. After all, we don’t care about every person who becomes insane, do we? The fact that he was real wasn’t enough of a justification for caring either. I suppose the Hollywood dream-makers thought that playing out the mathematician and the human side of John Nash would take away from other, more important story gimmicks, like fooling the audience into believing that John Nash’s hallucinations were real. Not that they didn’t work, but the soul of the movie got lost in all those directorial and acting touches.
You know a movie is not working when you look at the screen and feel like screaming, “director, director,” because the director’s hand is so obvious in a particular shot or scene. And the same goes for acting. How many times did the audience notice Russell Crowe’s forced mannerisms, his fake accent, his deliberately bland haircut?
But in a good movie, the director’s hand is invisible and so is the actor’s effort, because the audience is lost in the story and believes it to be real and has no time to think about the directing or the acting. Take Ingmar Bergman’s classic film Scenes from a Marriage for example, which I rented after all the Oscar hoopla had died down. Now there is a movie that should not work, but does. Filmed almost in a documentary style, and beginning with an interview, the movie slowly creeps up on us. The love scenes as well as quarrels are so authentic that one is continually surprised and yet pleased because one sees vignettes of real life, real suffering, real relationships, in the interactions of the two main characters, Marie and Johan.
Outside of the Oscars, things have been disappointing as well. There wasMonsoon Wedding, which received a lot of praise. It was not so much a movie as a trailer full of colorful images and vignettes that never really came together as a story. And the characters were only skin-deep. Of course the American audience was ecstatic because most of it had never witnessed an Indian wedding before.
Is this what the state of filmdom boils down to today? Morality tales out of mainstream Hollywood and glimpses of ethnic life out of the alternative cinema? Where are the likes of Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Bergman? Are we now trading special effects for real story telling, as in Lord of the Rings?
There is only one thing we can all do about the continually diluting standards in moviemaking. We must retain our critical facilities; we must give credit where credit is due, but sparingly, so that future generations might have a chance to encounter directors of the caliber of Bergman and Kurosawa and Ray.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.