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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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