Two years ago, when Ben Affleck was snubbed by the Oscar overlords for directing the historically inaccurate but entertainingly bellbottomed Argo, Hollywood and the media rose up in outrage, until Ben was given a Best Picture prize in consolation and peace was restored to the land. Will the same cavalry right the wrong done Ava DuVernay, whose Selma is not merely Important in ways Hollywood usually applauds but powerfully well made? I fear the answer to that question.
Thursday morning when I learned the Academy's list of nominees, I spent the rest of the day alternating between despair and rage. In fact, I have loved movies unabashedly since I was 18 months old and my mother took me to see my first feature. She waited for me to cry or act up, expecting to have to leave the theater, but I just stared at the screen mesmerized for two hours. Yet today a mainstream studio movie I actually want to watch is the exception rather than the rule, and Hollywood is repeatedly put to shame by the wealth of offerings coming from streaming and web series, from cable adaptations and original shows, even from network television.
Represent! People want to see themselves represented -- a sentiment brought home as I read the 400th article on how much Boyhood means to people. Certainly Richard Linklater is to be admired for fighting to make art unhampered by a system that seems interested only in commerce, and Boyhood was an inspiringly nervy experiment undertaken without fanfare. A special effects movie in which reality and time are the ingenious special effects, Boyhood performs a nifty hat trick of showing familiar actors -- actual flesh-and-blood people -- aging as other flesh-and-blood people do, but captured in time-lapse photography edited to a vérité simulation of life. Much as I enjoyed Ethan Hawke's spiky human turn and Patricia Arquette's grounded naturalistic performance, though, I wish the audiences on whom the film made a profound impression would explain to me how Boyhood's modest charms merit a top place in history.
My brother-in-law described Boyhood to me before I'd seen it, wondering aloud why it hadn't been called Childhood, since there's also a girl in it who grows up right front of us. Though she is a far more vibrant and colorful figure than her recessive sibling, the film ultimately abandons her story, leaving us to wonder -- perhaps only some of us -- what it is that renders her of less importance than her male costar. Perhaps we are just meant to understand that a girl's life is not as valuable or interesting as a boy's. As to my brother-in-law's question, I can't help feeling that a film called Childhood wouldn't be receiving the attention and accolades that Boyhood is, or be a front-runner for Hollywood's highest honor. Only stories about boys -- unless of "other" race or sexuality -- seem to be of interest to the film industry, an industry that essentially characterizes America for so much of the world. Not a reflection of the actual makeup of the world in which we live, as it happens, but a mirror image of those pulling the strings in America's Dream Factory.
There are no black people in Birdman, another critical darling leading the Oscar pack -- none except the voiceless musicians who play a huge part in making the picture watchable. Birdman has a bouncy credit sequence, a sweeping camera that functions as the film's most interesting character, and a drum-heavy score that propels us exhilaratingly through the story. I have always enjoyed Michael Keaton's comic mischief -- I still laugh at the memory of his performance as J. Lo's married FBI agent playmate in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight -- but I am mystified by the drumbeat for Keaton's self-conscious turn as yet another schmuck all women find irresistible.
Even the pleasure of the film's theatrical milieu is clouded by the question of whether we are meant to find the play Keaton has written a pretentious misfire or a poignant work from someone who's inadvertently stumbled upon meaningful truths. Equally perplexing are the tonally uneven performances -- Ed Norton's over-the-top but salient artist, Emma Stone's fusion of hot and cold, Amy Ryan's improbably tender ex, Lindsay Duncan's ferociously committed ludicrous-plot-device villain, Naomi Watts' and Jeremy Shamos' clichéd bad actors, Zach Galifianakis' unfunny hysteric. Perhaps they are intended to pay homage to the slapdash spirit of most superhero movies, the mishmash of cartoonishness and boffo effects and faux emotion pretending to reflect something about the human experience -- the idea that reality can be gleaned from artifice. I appreciate Alejandro González Iñárritu's audacity, but I can't help tiring of the Academy's self-love in trumpeting as masterpieces films about flawed yet irresistible middle-aged white dudes who deserve adulation for their Art.
In a time where young black men -- and sometimes women -- are literally erased through fear of some bogeyman; in a country where those who erase them are not held accountable but held up as more worthy; where politicians trumpet government intrusion as the ultimate evil, yet aggressively intrude on women's ability to manage their own bodies -- the disregard, contempt, shown Selma feels like another assault.
Hollywood has revealed itself to be as clueless as Congress, as blind to the power of its female and African-American citizens/consumers. If it is too much to expect the institution to recognize daring original indie films with female or nonwhite subjects -- Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child comes to mind, or Desiree Akhavant's just-released Appropriate Behavior -- it is still shocking when gifted filmmakers like DuVernay or Angelina Jolie who play by studio rules, and play well, are denied a place at the table. Until the Academy begins to recognize the artistry of women and African-Americans, and the value of stories other than the most narrowly defined (white, heterosexual) male ones, it will grow increasingly irrelevant to the world in which we now live.