Skip to main content

Oscar's message: Reality bites. Deal with it

By A. S. Hamrah, Special to CNN
updated 1:18 PM EST, Mon January 14, 2013
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
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT