On Culture

The Oscars Fade to Bleak

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008

If a moviegoer manages to see all the Oscar-nominated films, a generous dose of antidepressants will be in order. This year's celebrated films make for compelling viewing, but an awful lot of characters die, toil in vain or lead otherwise pitiable lives.

Hollywood isn't helping us revel in the pleasure of life; it's commiserating with us over its misery. These are trying times and popular culture has become our primal therapy.

A short tour through this cinematic valley of sorrows includes Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," which got a nomination for direction. It is based on the true story of a roguish French magazine editor who had a massive stroke and was paralyzed from head to toe, except for one eye, which he used to blink out an autobiography with the help of a speech therapist. Schnabel manages to elicit a few earnest chuckles out of this sad tale and for that miraculous feat alone, perhaps he deserves an award.

Ruby Dee received a supporting actress nomination for "American Gangster." As the conflicted mother of the title character, she celebrates the gift of a house the size of Tara even though she knows that it was purchased with blood money. And Hal Holbrook is up for a supporting actor Oscar for "Into the Wild," about an idealistic young man who walks into the wilderness and to his death.

The joylessness continues with Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," a Best Picture nominee. Greed, ambition, morality and religion engage in a sloppy wrestling match in which there are no victors. The result is powerful but deeply disturbing. Anderson uncovers a breathtaking lyricism in an oil well explosion and in the burbling black muck that rises from the ground. But the cacophonous music, by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, so vividly expresses anger, melancholy and discontent that it becomes a character in the film -- a terribly annoying and disagreeable character that you'd like to see silenced by any means necessary.

Even the fleeting sense of satisfaction in a covert job well done in "Charlie Wilson's War," about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, is undermined by the veteran CIA man (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who questions each small success with a quietly skeptical: We'll see. The Zen master is alluding to the rise of the Taliban, etc., etc.

Couldn't someone from "Hairspray" have been nominated, just to ease the pain of so much angst?

The Oscars rarely celebrate frothy comedies or escapist fun. Both "Star Wars" and "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" failed to win Best Picture awards despite their box office success, critical acclaim and influence on moviemaking. Oscar voters tend to like triumphant underdogs and dramas that end on a note of hope. But the times give us the movies we need. And it may be that what we need now is catharsis. These films are a collective yowl. They speak to the notion that in times of sadness the last thing one wants is a jester trying to extract a laugh. Sometimes, the best salve is a good cry.

Like a lot of creative fields, it's hard to say precisely what inspires the confluence of similar sensibilities in moviemaking. What causes fashion designers from Paris to New York to one season create clothes in riotous floral prints? Why did furniture designers gravitate to shabby chic or mid-century modern? Why so many neo-soul singers? Nothing inspires imitation more than success, but the creative process remains mostly mysterious. Sometimes, the only explanation is simply that something is in the air.

These movies reflect the tenor of the times: the frustration with the war in Iraq, the downward-spiraling economy, the cries for change in Washington -- even our once deliciously naughty popular culture is imploding. We can no longer guiltlessly delight in the mischief of celebrities; their lives have gotten too bad. People have moved beyond schadenfreude over Britney Spears's tumultuous life to the bracing realization that something is dreadfully wrong. Compassion has taken hold. The sudden death of actor Heath Ledger is pure tragedy. The sordid tabloid headlines speculating on the cause offer no prurient titillation.

These films speak to fears of being stalked or trapped, of being judged greedy or immoral. Idealism and optimism are represented but they are doomed. The movies seem better suited for a graduate seminar than an awards show. Who wants to walk a red carpet and be asked "Who made your dress?" in between questions like "Is 'There Will Be Blood' an indictment of organized religion?" or "Covert wars: good or bad?"

As the writers' strike drags on, there may not be a splashy Oscar show. That would be disappointing for the nominees, for fashion designers and for armchair fashion and film critics. But in this moment of sweeping dissatisfaction with practically everything, a scuttled Oscar telecast would be sadly unsurprising. It would simply give everyone one more thing to howl about.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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