Skip to main content

Oscar's message: Reality bites. Deal with it

By A. S. Hamrah, Special to CNN
January 14, 2013 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A.S. Hamrah: Oscar-nominated films deal in disaster, trauma, upheaval, ruined lives
  • He says filmmakers this year depict consequences of exposure to violence
  • He says "Argo," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Lincoln" show grim events; "Les Mis" shows misery
  • Films also long, adding to ordeal, he says. Filmmakers' message: Deal with it

Editor's note: A.S. Hamrah is film critic at n+1, a print magazine of politics, literature and culture published three times a year. He edits the magazine's film review publication, the N1FR, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

(CNN) -- Sunday night's Golden Globes came hot on the heels of the announcement of this year's Oscar nominations, which were pushed up so they wouldn't come out during the Sundance Film Festival. Awards season is now a blur of gowns, cleavage and red carpeting. But in Hollywood, looking good is still more important than feeling good, except in the movies themselves, where the situation is often reversed. And in this year's dire crop of nominees, there is not much feel-good.

Consider "Argo," one of this year's nine nominees for the Best Picture Academy Award. The Hollywood sign that looms over Los Angeles was in reality spruced up just before the 1979 events depicted in the film, but it makes sense that we see it damaged and collapsing instead in Ben Affleck's movie about Hollywood's intervention in the Iran hostage crisis.

That's because all the Oscar-nominated films this year deal in disaster, trauma and upheaval. Whether the damage is historical or personal, familial or environmental, or some combination of the four, the films the academy singled out this year tell stories of catastrophe and its aftermath.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



While CIA movies like "Argo" and Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" are "based on first-hand accounts of actual events," as a title at the beginning of Bigelow's film informs us, this year even a movie as colorful as "Life of Pi" or a musical like "Les Misérables" brought us ruined lives and devastated landscapes.

For the first time in decades, the societal and psychological consequences of constant exposure to violence were actually something big-budget filmmakers took into account. That they have been rewarded for it at awards season is ironic and necessary in a year that witnessed a mass killing in a movie theater showing the last in a dark trilogy of superhero fantasies.

Even light-hearted genres were affected. Romance, in the neo-screwball comedy of "Silver Linings Playbook," blossoms between people with serious problems recovering from violent loss. That film, set in a recognizable lower-middle-class milieu, deglamorized the rom-com, moving it into a new era. In David O. Russell's film, the characters played by Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper don't dream of having it all. Happy to score a five instead of 10, they exult in their ability just to participate in normal life.

Opinion: Despite Newtown, we crave violent movies

Lawrence and Cooper are outpatients, but many of the academy-acknowledged films this year feature bedridden performances by actors playing characters with broken or failing bodies.

Ben Affleck's 'Golden' night
Tarantino: Why I used 'N-word' in film
Washington through Hollywood's lens
Golden Globes' effect on Oscars

Naomi Watts, nominated as Best Actress for her performance in "The Impossible," spends half the film on death's door in a Thai hospital. In "The Sessions," John Hawkes, nominated for Best Actor as a poet suffering from polio, spends the entire movie on his back. Denzel Washington, nominated for his lead performance as an alcoholic pilot in "Flight," wakes up in a hospital and suffers the physical effects of his crash through most of the film. In Michael Haneke's "Amour," we watch Emmanuelle Riva slowly dying, slipping into immobility, incoherence and unconsciousness as she suffers.

The desire for a new understanding of historical trauma accompanies this new investigation of damaged minds and bodies. Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino, in "Lincoln" and "Django Unchained," both show slavery as the original disaster of American history, an inhuman institution defined by vicious abuse that ended in bloody civil war. Neither film tolerates the conciliatory old Hollywood portrait of the South as noble and romantic. As violent as Tarantino's view is, Spielberg's is just as condemnatory. When Jackie Earle Haley, known of late for playing deviants and psychopaths, shows up in "Lincoln" as a representative of the Confederacy, you can be sure his cause is as wrong as it is lost.

The post-revolutionary settings of "Argo" and "Les Misérables" are chaotic and dangerous, but the greatest danger facing the characters in this year's Oscar movies comes from nature. The scope of this danger is biblical, but it's rooted in real events linked to climate change. Great floods wash away the bonds of family, among other things, in "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Life of Pi," "The Impossible" and "Moonrise Kingdom" (nominated for Best Original Screenplay). "Les Misérables" begins with an ark-like ship being dragged into port, a heavy symbol in a movie drowned in Anne Hathaway's tears.

Part of this sense of ordeal has to do with the epic length of the ever-lengthening Hollywood blockbuster. The average length of the Best Picture nominees this year was 135 minutes. Remove the indie "Beasts of the Southern Wild" from the list, by comparison a short subject at 93 minutes, and the average running time jumps to 141 long minutes, a length that sorely tests the ever-shortening patience of most viewers not to check their phones for texts.

For decades, disaster films were metaphors. In the 1950s, for instance, they turned the real threat of nuclear devastation into science fiction, helping viewers cope with a frightening future. In our post-collapse era, disaster is closer than ever. The new, post-metaphoric disaster movie avoids subtext by forefronting "actual events." The message here is: Deal with it. Did Hollywood finally catch up with the world, or did the world just catch up with the disaster film?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of A.S. Hamrah.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT