Sunday, May 2, 2010

Top Of The Heap

It’s time for my annual moan about the Oscar for best foreign film, an award almost mystically unaligned with the substantive achievements of world cinema. None of the films on the Cinematheque Ontario’s recent “best of the decade” list won the Oscar (unless I’m missing something, none of them was even nominated), although one of them, Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her, did win for its screenplay. Almodovar is perhaps the only foreign-language director who occupies an old time Fellini/Truffaut mode, respected by critics while consistently reaching a fairly broad audience. Beyond that, a comically wide gulf exists between the directors who matter, creating bodies of original, challenging work (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jia Zhang-ke, Arnaud Desplechin) and the random non-entities who’ve waltzed away with the award.

Lousy Award

In recent years, procedural changes have generated a somewhat more respectable list of nominees. Last year, they included the Cannes winner The Class and the Israeli Waltz With Bashir. But the winner was the Japanese film Departures, which everyone had effectively assumed was only on the list to make up the numbers. Departures had a refreshing clarity and focus, and I won’t deny I was in tears for a good half hour of it, but it shamelessly embraced clichés and soft choices. This year, people really thought things were going to change. Michael Haneke was nominated for The White Ribbon, another Cannes winner, which took the Golden Globe’s foreign film award (much as people mock the Globes, and not unjustly, they have a much better track record in this particular respect) and Jacques Audiard was up for Un prophete, the unofficial Cannes silver medalist. Virtually every fortuneteller went for one or the other, except the few who’d seen Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret In Their Eyes, and knew Hollywood voters would see in it a kindred spirit. And so it went.

It’s surely revealing that a good chunk of those random non-entities I mentioned have subsequently ended up working in a more mainstream vein, with little distinction: Gavin Hood, who won for Tsotsi, directed X-Men Origins: Wolverine (I hope he has the Oscar turned so its eyes face the wall). No such migration is necessary for this year’s winner, because Campanella is already a king of prime-time TV, directing episodes of House, Law and Order: SVU, and the like. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I guess no one would expect such an accomplished craftsman to go home to Argentina and turn into Jacques Rivette. And indeed he didn’t. Dana Stevens in Slate basically summed up the movie as a really long episode of Law and Order. But also a highly accomplished one: “It's a cracking good murder mystery that, by the time the final twist kicks in, transforms into an moving meditation on memory and justice.” The movie received generally good reviews elsewhere too, in contrast to poor Departures, which was kicked from one end of the critical locker room to the other.

The Secret In Their Eyes

It says a lot that a cracking good episode of Law and Order would have no chance nowadays of competing for the Emmy, but apparently is considered just fine as a standard-bearer for world cinema. Sure, The Secret In Their Eyes is good viewing, but it’s also completely undistinguished and mostly undemanding. Set more or less in the present day but flashing back to twenty-five years earlier, it follows a federal agent (the Argentinean system being different from ours, he occupies a peculiar zone between district attorney and desk clerk) who puzzles for years over a particularly brutal murder, while all the time mooning over his direct superior, an attractive judge rendered unattainable by class and structure and his own reticence.

The details of the investigation are mostly contrived – for example, he makes a key leap by looking at old group photographs of the victim and noticing how frequently they contain another man who’s always looking at her. It’s a nice device, but if you or I were being lusted over by a potentially murderous admirer, how often would we find ourselves helpfully encapsulating the dynamic for a waiting camera? At another point they make a big leap when they realize (after long bafflement) that various mysterious names referred to in the suspect’s letters to his mother are all past players for the local soccer team, and therefore deduce he’s a diehard fan – as if such a compulsive fan wouldn’t ever refer to his passion more directly.

Of course, nowadays an investigator would simply type all the names into Google and discover the connection within seconds: the film’s evocation of a simpler age is certainly one of its charms. It also has some disturbing glimpses into institutional corruption, although they’re not central to the film’s purpose. But I’d like to know what Slate’s Stevens thinks the “meditation on memory and justice” actually amounts to. I’d sum it up as: wow, some people remember things for a really long time, and wow, justice takes strange turns sometimes.” None of which gives one much to meditate over.

What Might Have Been

Virtually all reviews of the film refer to its central set piece, a chase sequence where the camera travels from an aerial view of the soccer stadium right up to the protagonists, seemingly in a single shot. Whatever…it’s nicely done, but to no particular thematic or dramatic end – the scene itself is unconvincing and seems out of place with everything around it. At the end of the movie, we get a Hollywood-worthy degree of closure, and off we go. Stevens says it’s “substantial enough to go out to dinner after and discuss all the way through dessert.” Well, that’s not entirely wrong – we did go out to dinner after and talked about it a lot. But mostly just in the way I’m telling you about it now.

In contrast, Un prophete, although also full of conventional pleasures, constantly knocks you around with its startling choices and overflows with all kinds of implications for the new Europe. The White Ribbon brilliantly evokes the tangle of perspectives, from certainty (even if hypocritical and manufactured) to despairing, that underlie war, or indeed any national purpose. I think what annoys me about the Oscars is the whole idea of claiming to recognize the diversity and scope of foreign-language cinema and then screwing it up so badly: if they just dropped the award and acknowledged the whole thing’s just a big Hollywood party, it’d at least be honest. But ironically, the list of recent best director winners (the Coens, Scorsese, Bigelow, Polanski, Eastwood) is actually pretty respectable, even from an arthouse perspective. So it looks like the Academy really reserves the major shaft for the foreigners. No need to look too closely into those self-absorbed eyes to figure out that secret.

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