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 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT