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The Oscars and America’s flight of fancy

After vowing to avoid the meaningless coronation of the over-praised and the undeserved that is the Academy Awards telecast, I imprudently succumbed to temptation in the hope of seeing my second favorite American film of 2010, David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” beat the odds, make history and win the best picture Oscar. Predictably, it didn’t, …


After vowing to avoid the meaningless coronation of the over-praised and the undeserved that is the Academy Awards telecast, I imprudently succumbed to temptation in the hope of seeing my second favorite American film of 2010, David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” beat the odds, make history and win the best picture Oscar.

Predictably, it didn’t, and neither did Fincher — one of America’s singular, most visionary filmmakers today — win best director. Instead, peeved critics from every part of the globe watched in bewilderment as an exceedingly traditional British period piece with little ambition and plenty of sentiment hijack the show, winning best picture, direction, actor and original screenplay.

The ascension of “The King’s Speech” throughout the tired course of the awards season is more telling though of the current mood in America than anything else. America has never been a nation willing to face its fears, a theory that largely explains the failure of nearly every single movie about the war in Iraq.

Before exploring further this notion, a quick roundup of the Oscars. Now, I’ve sat through numerous bad Oscar ceremonies in my lifetime, but hands down, the 2011 ceremony was easily the most boring, most unimaginative, most inane one I’ve ever seen. The two hosts, actors James Franco and Anne Hathaway, were, as you know by now, unwatchable, unaided by unimaginably thin material that doesn’t measure up to a third-rate sitcom in its dieing days.

The awards, as predictable as they were, still managed to offer some nasty surprises, namely nine-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins’s loss in the best cinematography category. Best foreign language proves, yet again, to be the most irrelevant category in there, a well-established fact confirmed with the triumph of Susanne Bier’s exceedingly mawkish and deeply flawed “In a Better World” over Giorgos Lanthimos’ edgy, unsettling and original “Dogtooth.”

On the other hand, the 10 nominated films for best picture were widely regarded as the best American films of 2010. The exclusion of Lena Dunham’s under-seen “Tiny Furniture” and Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” aside, the best picture list was surprisingly a compressive one. “Network,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Winter’s Bone,” “Toy Story 3,” “Black Swan” and “The Fighter” all deserve their place. And in an unprecedented feat, all best-picture nominees have been commercial successes — seven of them have grossed more than $90 million domestically to date.

The discrepancy in these films’ performance at the box-office tells of a very different story. In an insightful op-ed published a few weeks ago, New York Times columnist Frank Rich expounded on the huge popularity of The Coen Brothers’ modest, conventional and generally unessential adaptation of Charles Portis’s Western novel “True Grit” compared to Fincher’s “Network.” According to Rich, “Grit” embodies the ethos and definite principles of a simpler, bygone era.

There’s a sense of moral affirmation in the DNA of both Henry Hathaway’s 1969 adaptation, also a blockbuster smash at the time, and the Coens’ new version. There is a specific line separating the good guys from the bad guys; moral uncertainty is nowhere to be found in Portis’s old west. What “Grit,” with its classical narrative and characters provide the audience with is a sense of assurance, a promise that justice is served (the film begins with the saying, “The wicked flee where none pursueth, but the righteous are bold as a lion” from the Book of Proverbs), a contrast to the real modern-day America that is run by shady bankers and morally bankrupt businessmen who remain unpunished.

“Network” does not offer such comfort. Cold, spiteful and deeply cynical, Aaron Sorkin’s penned film is set in the here and now, portraying a skeptical picture of a self-absorbed generation abiding to no moral barometer; of a world defined by break-neck competition and the lust for power and privilege; a world where grand ideals such as friendship, loyalty and honor are perceived as a relic of the past.

No wonder then that most Americans gravitated towards “True Grit” and, later on, “The King’s Speech,” and so did the Academy members.

Like “Grit,” “The King’s Speech” — the last hurrah for the recently dismantled UK Film Council — is delineated by lofty values: comradeship, faith, perseverance, courage, familial love. Tom Hooper’s well-made entertainment/watered-down historical account is a crowd-pleasing underdog story about beating the odds and believing in oneself.

As I wrote in my review from Dubai (where the film had its Middle East premiere) last year, “The King’s Speech” in an inoffensive, by-the-numbers entertainment fronted by protagonists that are not particularly interesting. At the core of the film about how King George VI managed to recover from stammering is a friendship story between a prince and his eccentric speech therapist, and it’s in this friendship that Bertie ultimately manages to conquer his life-long speech impediment and lead England through World War II.

The over-romantic worldview offered by Hooper is the polar opposite of Fincher’s, patron saints of the misfits and the outsiders. Mark Zuckerberg, according to the film, succeeds in becoming the world’s youngest billionaire by stealing, cheating and back-stabbing his best friend. Zuckerberg is not exactly depicted in a flattering light, but neither is he entirely unsympathetic. In a world where fame, fortune and popularity are God, Zuckerberg’s actions come off as somewhat standard if not justifiable.

Other Oscar nominees that didn’t have the luck of “The King’s Speech” at the box-office treaded on a similar, and sometimes more extreme, vein. Debra Granik’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “Winter’s Bone” is an unflinching, bleak portrayal of a teenage mountain girl attempting to locate her meth-dealing father as she struggles to save her poverty-stricken family.

The brutally realistic “Blue Valentine,” nominated for best actress, charts the disintegration of a marriage over the course of two days. Cianfrance’s leads are ordinary blue-collar couple leading a glitz-free, ordinary life that contains none of the consolation imparted by Hollywood rom-coms.

Even David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” — another underdog yarn based on a true story — is seeped in an economically-troubled reality most Americans are forced to confront every day.

America has at all times sought movies for escape, especially in times of crisis. “The Social Network,” “Winter’s Bone” and “Blue Valentine” are no escapist fares, and in such a climate, their chances of attracting the large audiences that flocked to “The King’s Speech,” “True Grit” or “Inception” were naturally minimal.

The success of this year’s Oscar nominees proves that there is an audience for films that do not attempt to polish reality, but their likelihood of being embraced by both the wider public and Academy members is slim. “The King’s Speech” has beaten “The Social Network,” the first film to accurately capture the zeitgeist of an entire generation, at the Oscars. History, I predict, will have a different opinion.

“The King’s Speech,” “True Grit” and “The Fighter” are currently showing in theatres across Egypt. “The Social Network” is available on DVD in major bookstores in Cairo.

 

Collin Firth, left, and Geoffrey Rush are shown in a scene from, "The King’s Speech." (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company, Laurie Sparham)

 

Jeff Bridges, left, and Hailee Steinfeld are shown in a scene from "True Grit." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures)

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