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Steve McQueen’s low-tech triumph: Looking at this year’s Oscar winners

By James Tweedie


The annual Academy Awards ceremony draws weeks of media attention, hours of live television coverage beginning with stars strolling down the red carpet, and around 40 million viewers nationwide on Oscar night. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences relegates the awards for technical achievement to a separate ceremony a couple of weeks before, a sedate affair in a hotel ballroom rather the spectacular setting of the Dolby Theater. While this division between the arts and sciences is clear in awards season, that boundary has almost disappeared in the movies themselves, as computer-generated imagery and digital 3-D now occupy a prominent position in most major studio productions.

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Academy Award for Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom at the Walt Disney Family Museum. Photo by Loren Javier. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.
For almost a century popular American cinema has been primarily a storytelling medium, with the motion picture sciences playing a more secondary role, but the distinction between the popular arts of Hollywood and the engineering of Silicon Valley is blurring. The movie business is being incorporated into a TED world where technology and design are the cornerstones of most big-budget entertainment.

For the first three hours of Sunday’s broadcast, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity seemed to be soaring toward a Best Picture Oscar, a victory that would have marked a new stage in this transformation of the American movie industry. A tour de force of technological innovation, Gravity won a total of seven Academy Awards, including the bellwether prizes for Best Editing and Best Director, and the voters appeared on the verge of bestowing their top honor on one of the first films to utilize the full potential of 3-D, a film that creates an almost visceral, stomach-dropping sensation of weightlessness as the camera and bodies appear to bob and drift through space. At other times the camera hurtles forward and the storyline rushes us from one space vehicle to another, propelled by an accidental explosion or the blast of a strategically deployed fire extinguisher. In those moments the weakness of Gravity is as unmistakable as its technical prowess: its virtuoso, gravity-defying feats are accompanied by an almost absurdly insubstantial and implausible plot, even by the standards of Hollywood, where happy endings have been arriving on cue for decades and most cars seem to have a magical sixth gear that allows them to fly over rising drawbridges. The narrative seems almost like an afterthought in Gravity, a pretext to link together one floating space platform and the next and to celebrate cinematic technology in itself, untethering it from earthly concerns like the plot.

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Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But the Academy voters obviously had a different narrative in mind when they submitted their ballots, and in keeping with a long tradition of last-minute plot twists, they managed to compose a far more heartening conclusion to the year in film. In your average year, the Academy Awards are, to borrow the title of one of this year’s Best Picture contenders, an “American hustle.” Every March, we anticipate the canonization of a new Citizen Kane or Vertigo, half-forgetting that these films, among the most revered American movies ever made, won a grand total of one Oscar (Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, for the screenplay for Citizen Kane). Kane was nominated in nine categories and lost eight of them, and Hitchcock and the other makers of Vertigo left the Pantages Theater empty-handed in 1959.

The list of regrettable Academy Award decisions and omissions (for example, Hitchcock’s career-long snub in the Best Director category or the single statuette given to Stanley Kubrick in his lifetime, for visual effects in 2001) is at least as long as Oscar’s triumphs. While viewers tune in for the glitz, glamor, comedy, fashion, and, on occasion, a genuinely moving acceptance speech (or a train wreck taking place at the podium), the ceremony also promises to provide an annual assessment of the state of American cinema. The opulent spectacle arrives each year without fail, but the Academy almost habitually overlooks the truly vibrant pictures and artists working in the film industry in the United States. What does Oscar reward instead?

The recipients of the major awards are usually not the most lucrative blockbusters (which have already received their rewards at the box office) nor are they the type of formally innovative and idiosyncratic pictures that enter the canon retrospectively. The films that tend to be overrated by the Academy are well-meaning films that appear to address an important social issue, while discovering some heroes and reasons for hope in an otherwise trying situation (Slumdog Millionaire, Crash, and Million Dollar Baby, to name three of the last eight Best Picture winners). Films by recognized American auteurs like Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers, or Kathryn Bigelow have also fared well (see, for example, The Departed in 2006, No Country for Old Men in the following year, and The Hurt Locker in 2009), as have historical films that depict a triumph over hardship, with the formula for contemporary cinema—adversity, heroism, survival, and even a measure of vindication—retooled for use in the past. (See The King’s Speech in 2010 for the most recent example, but note also the run of five consecutive awards beginning in 1993 for Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, The English Patient, and Titanic, which together established the historical film as a one of the surest paths to the podium.) What matters at Oscar time is the appearance of importance and a willingness to return to historical tragedies or to glance at contemporary social ills.

Viewed in retrospect, the Academy Awards perform something of a bait and switch, as instead of recognizing the best films created in the previous year they provide a barometer of the social and historical problems that continue to haunt us, including (to focus on this year’s nominees) political corruption, the excesses of Wall Street, uneven development, slavery and racism, the AIDS crisis, and the persistence of homophobia. This year’s Best Picture nominees have been justly scrutinized precisely because they seem so intimately linked with the problems they address. Four of the nine nominees are based on actual events drawn from the very recent past, another (Philomena) recounts a true story spanning a 50-year period from the middle of the twentieth century to the present, and 12 Years a Slave retells the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free African-American from New York who was kidnapped and sold into bondage in Louisiana. Add Gravity to this strong group of films, and oddsmakers were predicting the tightest contest in recent memory, with these many returns to history pitted against an immersive, high-tech cinematic experience of the future.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, a real-life financial scam artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio, finds himself unable to drive home after an overdose of Quaaludes that leaves him prostrate on the front steps of his country club. Summoning all his strength, he manages to slither across the driveway, hoist himself into his gull-winged sports car, and steer through a series of obstacles unscathed. Or at least that’s how the events unfold the first time, in what appears to be Jordan’s experience of reality. Immediately after that sequence, we see the police arrive and Scorsese presents us with a revisionist version, with a wreckage of cars and signposts left flattened in his wake. Hollywood’s approach to the past often resembles the first, more delusional of these scenes, with the heroic figure emerging triumphant from history.

In 12 Years a Slave the historical devastation caused by slavery is more frightening because the damage is all pervasive, because nothing is left uncorrupted by the system that frames every interaction through the lens of property. Screenwriter John Ridley and director McQueen had the courage to let Solomon Northup’s story remain largely unchanged from the original autobiography and to frame the most searing images in the simplest, most direct way, as in the agonizingly long take where a near lynching unfolds almost in slow motion. And in the best tradition of classical Hollywood cinema, McQueen manages to combine a compelling narrative with a series of subtle character portraits, as Northup travels through a looking glass from his prior existence as an accomplished musician and family man in New York to what seems like an alternative universe, where survival depends on the stripping away of those markers of identity and humanity. Rather than present slavery as an incomprehensible evil from another time, the film also chronicles the everyday rationalizations that allow the master to accept depravity as a way of life and the foundation of an economic order.

In most years the Oscars ceremony performs a bait and switch, as we await the announcement of the year’s best films and hear the name of a soon-to-be-forgotten film. But the Academy Awards also remind us why we continue to care about movies and ascribe to them a social significance and power all out of proportion with the relatively modest ambitions of even the Best Picture nominees, let alone the more standard studio fare. The Oscars are an advertisement for the potential of cinema to engage with traumatic historical and contemporary realities, even if we usually have to look elsewhere for the films that address those issues in all of their complexity. 12 Years a Slave, one of the few masterpieces also to win the award for Best Picture, reminds us that sometimes those films can come straight from Hollywood.

James Tweedie is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and a member of the Cinema Studies faculty at the University of Washington. He is the author of The Age of New Waves: Art Cinema and the Staging of Globalization.

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