Values Again

Every year I trot out the old saw about values and lessons being the main determining factor in the choosing of Best Picture winners by Academy voters. People recognize strong stories, first-rate artsy elements and high-level craft, but more often than not the tipping factor is a film “saying” something that the Academy recognizes as fundamentally true and close-to-home — a movie that reflects their lives and values in a way that feels agreeable.

Ordinary People beat Raging Bull because the values espoused by the former (suppressing trauma is bad, letting it out is good, wicked-witch moms are bad) touched people more deeply than the ones in Raging Bull. What values did Martin Scorsese‘s film espouse? Art-film values. Great goombah acting values. Black-and-white cinematography values. The only value that resulted in a big Oscar was Robert De Niro‘s commitment to realistic performing values — i.e. putting on 50 or 60 pounds to play fat Jake LaMotta. But there were no values in the film at all. What, it’s a bad thing to beat up your brother in front of his wife and kids?

American Beauty won the Best Picture Oscar because it said something that everyone (particularly workaholic careerists) believes to be true, which is that we spend so much time and energy running around in circles that we fail to appreciate the simple beauty of things.

Casablanca won because it said the right things about nobility and selflessness just as the U.S. was about to enter World War II. And because it was very well made and performed and had obvious romantic appeal, etc.

Gone With The Wind won in part because it presented the Civil War trials of Scarlett O’Hara as a metaphor for what the U.S. had gone through during the Great Depression, and said that if you don’t have gumption life will run you over and trample you down.

I’m not saying each and every Best Picture winner has won because of the values factor, but it does seem to explain the triumph of Dances With Wolves over Goodfellas (respecting and understanding other cultures and creeds is a spiritually nourishing thing vs. life in the Queens mob in the ’60s and ’70s was volatile and tacky and bloody). And Crash‘s victory over Brokeback Mountain (a values rebellion due to the over-70 Tony Curtis contingent being unable to stomach the idea of the iconic American cowboy figure being messed with). And Kramer vs. Kramer beating Apocalypse Now (learning to be a good dad vs. “the horror” in a psychedelic Vietnam).

So what values are espoused by this year’s Best Picture contenders?

The Social Network doesn’t espouse as much as observe and frame a particular social world that’s evolved over the last six or seven years. It says that (a) geniuses aren’t very good with the social graces and that they also have trouble with loyalty if it gets in the way of a better business plan, and (b) what this particular genius wanted all along was a Rosebud-y girl who dumped him.

The King’s Speech says the nobody is so high and mighty that they can’t be helped by a good tutor who talks plain and straight and can cut through the pretense and the bullshit.

127 Hours says that arrogance and thoughtlessness invites tragedy, and that survival is a duty that must be obeyed, even if it means a huge sacrifice. The glories of life are worth what whatever it takes to simply stay alive.

Black Swan says that the performing life is tough and that self-doubt can metastasize like a cancer if you don’t face it.

What does Inception say? The Kids Are All Right? Another Year? The Way Back? Blue Valentine?

29 thoughts on “Values Again

  1. Hunter Tremayne on said:

    Jeff, you have it wrong about The King’s Speech. I would think the average Academy voter is going to see it’s values as overcoming adversity, self-sacrifice and achieving personal triumph.

  2. You really shoehorned The Social Network’s ‘message’ to fit your idea here. Unless your point is that it won’t win Best Picture.

    Just from reading this piece, it seems you’re saying TSN has more in common with Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Apocalypse Now, and Brokeback Mountain – which again, doesn’t bode well for it’s Oscar chances, if we are to buy into your theory.

  3. The big question is whether Americans (and the Academy) can accept a story that is a Tragedy. Virtually all Best Picture films are comedies (not in the sense of being “funny” but in the classic Aristotelian sense). The only exception might be “No Country For Old Men,” and “Unforgiven,” and perhaps “The Hurt Locker,” (depending on who you define as its protagonist). “The Social Network” is clearly a Tragedy – the protagonist learns too late that his Herculean efforts to connect with other humans (especially women) have, in fact, only hermetically sealed him off from the world. Strong stuff, but Americans are allergic to Tragedies (to the point where some even see the film as a Comedy – “He beat his opponents and came out the other end rich and powerful!”), so we’ll see…

  4. Jeff– The self sacrifice in The King’s Speech comes in because Firth’s character — who was apparently the abused ugly ducking among his siblings and felt ill-equipped as a ruler — suddenly stepped up to the plate since his brother fell for an inappropriate woman. England in wartime needed an inspirational leader and he became one after overcoming adversity.

    That was pretty clearly shown.

  5. I think that to say there were “no values” in “Raging Bull” “at all” is, at the very least, and overstatement and/or a simplification. Unless of course you mean “values” to be something entirely pejorative, which I don’t think you do. The film certainly very convincingly shows the awful toll that the consistently corrosive to others and himself behavior of LaMotta takes. And the unusual ways that redemption or at least a kind of resigned serenity can be had. Just because a picture isn’t didactic in the style of an “Ordinary People” doesn’t automatically consign it to nihilism, for Christ’s sake.

    Your use of the word “goombah” also grates. Incidentally.

  6. The Way Back ? ( The Long Walk ) What values ?

    If you hatch and pull off an escape fron a Gulag prison how can that not be a postive thing?

  7. Raging Bull expressed a very powerful and coherent moral argument: the desire to completely possess that which one loves leads to losing all that one loves. Again, it’s just that Americans tend to turn their brains and hearts off when they experience a narrative Tragedy. Watch a character make a WRONG decision that destroys them emotionally or spiritually!? No thanks! Those stories are depressing “downers” or, even worse, they “don’t make sense.”

  8. moviechick44: Suppose the story was written so that the protagonist, in order to escape the prison camp, chose to betray his family and friends and lost all that he was struggling to return to. What if, in the course of the escape, he turned into the very kind of animal that he was striving to leave behind? Now THAT would be a story! Remember “Sophie’s Choice”? How about “The Odyssey”?

  9. Time for me to quote my pal/mentor Monte Hellman who told me when I first came to Hollywood, “Movies that endorse the religion of the time generally succeed and movies that challenge the religion of the time generally fail.”

    I remembered this recently when we were in Venice doing interviews and he gots lots of questions about his travails in the marketplace of moviemaking and he said, “In Hollywood, you either get money or you get freedom. I got freedom.”

    Not sure the last time a freewheelin’ movie won Best Picture, but it does kind of put the whole season in perspective, which I suspect was Jeff’s point: on Oscar night you hope for art to triumph but you line the drinks up on the bar to comfort you through the heartache.

  10. Reminds me of the line in Blue Hawaii, when White Woman Protagonist confronts Native Hawaiian Woman on a religious comment she makes. Native responds with “I worship the one true God, like we all do.”

    I wouldn’t say most best Picture winners are comedies. Far from. I would say most of them have happy endings, or at least endings where is feels like justice was done. Slumdog Millionaire, Crash, Platoon, Gandhi, etc.

  11. How can anyone ask what Inception is about? It is about the central theme of all of Nolan’s feature films-what is the guilt/original sin of the protagonist and how does he deal with it or eradicate it from his life or is he able to?

    It is funny while his films have been compared to Ridley Scott or Kubrick…it really is Hitchcock who Nolan has the most common with. Englishman who started off in England, works now at the top of American commercial film industry, collaborates with his wife, obsessed with crime/guilt, but also infuses his personal style/viewpoint/perspective in these commercial films.

    I think that the shot which illustrates Nolan’s career the best to me is probably the film that most people think is his weakest: Insomnia. It is in the opening of the film as we see a man’s hands furiously scrub a blood stain out of some clothing. We are initially led to believe that it is the Robin Williams character…but it is revealed to be Pacino’s Will Dormer. His characters can never get the blood out…never can they remove the guilt that stains their conscience. My favorite shot in Inception is during Mombasa chase sequence where Cobb is trying to fit through the ever narrowing corridor…you just see Cobb surrounded by darkness trying to make it through to the shaft of light.

    And, if you want to look at secondary themes, Inception is all about the nature of collaborative filming. The money man (Saito), the director (Cobb), the viewer (Fisher Jr.), special effects (Yusuf), stunts (Eames), producer/assistant director (Arthur), conceptual design (Ariadane & Professor Miles), evil muse (Mal).

  12. Wow, well-written, djiggs. So, does the movie say something important then? I’d say … no. It didn’t speak to me, in any case, not in any way that stayed with me after I left the theater. But maybe I was too busy looking for The Big Twist to bother with becoming involved with the characters.

    My bad, no doubt, but I just can’t get excited about trying again. Surely I’d get more out of watching The Prestige a 2nd time instead.

  13. I realize I’m a bit late to the game on this particular post. I don’t disagree that Oscar voters tend to gravitate towards films that have values they can identify with. I think all things being equal, that’s pretty obviously true. I’m just not sure your examples are the best proof of your premise. Casablanca is widely regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made and Gone With the Wind was based on a beloved book and was a true American epic. No one’s going to argue that these aren’t films that both say something and are worthy of high praise.

    The Ordinary People and Dances With Wolves appear like better examples, juxtaposed as they are with Scorsese’s more “artsy” work, but there’s a major component you’re overlooking; People was directed by Robert Redford and Wolves by Kevin Costner. The largest voting bloc by far is actors, and, if given the chance (e.g. when the movie is “Oscar material”), they’ll vote for their own over a director – particularly if the film is the actor’s directing debut (as was the case with both of these). It’s kind of cynical, I realize, but I think it’s true. I’m not saying that their familiar stories did not have some impact, but in these cases, I just think the more directly personal (voting for one of the tribe) trumps the thematic elements as reasons for their victories over Scorsese’s (I believe) far better films. I think this dynamic also explains why Clint Eastwood is nominated anytime he makes an even reasonably Oscar-ish movie.

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