MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: Cinema, Trump, and Oscar

Coming out of the likely Best Picture winner this year, 1917, I wondered why I found it so powerful.

Not the cinematography, masterful as it was, with Roger Deakins likely to win his second Oscar.

Not the rousing nature of the piece, as it actually isn’t the kind of movie that wants to give you any kind of Hollywood sugar high.

Not the single-shot concept, which is effective, but is in service of the story more than it is a magic trick and really, I am already sick of people talking about it.

What smashed me hard across the face about 1917, I think (like all great films, it will percolate for months and maybe years to come), was the simple earnestness about honor and, considering its time, manhood at a time when America is wallowing in a lack of honor and a dearth of what were once seen as the virtues of manhood.

Yes, 1917 is co-written by a woman. A woman I am sure is smart and tough. She and co-writer Sam Mendes never for a minute linger in easy sentiment.

And obviously, we all need to find new ways of discussing “being a man,” or in Yiddish, being a mensch. Everything that defined these as male traits are exhibited by women, then and now. It is about the quality of humanity, regardless of gender or anything else. But if you will be so generous with me, I don’t want to get distracted by the semantics of the moment in dealing with this thought. And it’s not because I don’t feel like having the conversation.

1917 is just one of the five period movies that specifically deal with male engagement with power. Jojo Rabbit, set in World War II, is about a young boy’s coming of age while immersed in the ultimate horror of stupid machismo, learning ultimately to rise above thanks to the love and endless patience of two women.

Ford v Ferrari, set in 1966, is an uber=buddy movie, as two men fight for an achievement at the highest level.

Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood portrays two men, one of whom is lost in the changing idea of what he is meant to be and the other who harbors an honorable but dangerous sense of the male ideal of what was already passing at the time.

And The Irishman is a powerful two father story, as a truck driver becomes a cold-blooded killer under the tutelage of one man/father who sees the world in black-and-white and is inevitably asked to kill the other man/father in his life who thinks his more nuanced/multi-colored way of thinking will protect him while dealing shamelessly with the men who see in black-and-white.

Men rule Hollywood, yes. Lots of Boy Movies have won Best Picture. But I don’t recall a season that was this machismo-heavy since 1974’s line-up of The Godfather II, Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny and The Towering Inferno. And if you look closely at those titles, they are almost all (can’t say The Towering Inferno was about anything but action) about the abuse by and distrust of the men in charge of the world.

Of course, 1974 was when Nixon resigned. But well before his exit, his criminality in his handling of the election and Vietnam were apparent.

After three years of the Trump presidency and another year of watching insanity grow across the globe, I do see a shared idea in the subtext of this year’s crop of films about men and what being a man means. All the films are all by well-established directors with particular voices. Scorsese shows a softer side of his tough guys, even having a woman quietly shame his lead. Waititi makes a joke of the male horror show, with the only sane, albeit broken adult male character openly embracing his female side by the end of the film. Mangold offers a man who is exclusively interested in being the best at what he does and loving his family. Tarantino seems to pine for the kind of man who he idolized on the movie screen, already in hiding by 1969. (To be fair, QT has complex tastes, a huge fan of, for instance, Paul Mazursky, who made asses out of most of the men and heroes out of women in most of his films.) And Mendes has just two women in his film, briefly, his young men representing the simpler, absolute honor of the past that we still often see in the modern military, but too often gets abused by political figures who have never served and would never seriously consider serving.

I don’t believe that people tend to make movies in a given year based on an interest in speaking to the politics of the moment. But what we have seen all over the world is that filmmakers tend to make films that represent the anxiety of the moment from their perspective, almost always aimed somewhere off the specific focal point of their anxiety. In most countries, that is because of repression. In America, it tends to be about box office.

Of all the most likely Best Picture nominees, only Marriage Story is floating in a time and place that is utterly apolitical and personal. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The other three modern pictures, The Two Popes, Parasite, and Bombshell, are steeped in the power of men, but unlike the period movies, they are direct. The Two Popes is a conversation between the past and the future. Parasite is about a family that is suffering in the way Trump voters seem to feel they have been suffering in America for a long time. Given the chance to flip the script, how far would they go? When do they go from victims to victimizers? And Bombshell is a whip-smart piece about abusive men and is, given the ripe territory, incredibly subtle and nuanced about the discussion of how and why this has continued to happen to women in recent history. (“Men are just assholes who think with their dicks” is not an unfair take… but the film’s takeis much more interesting .)

And finally, Little Women, the film set furthest back in history, which offers that women were always powerful, even as they were being limited and repressed openly or even proudly by the patriarchy. For me, the film is a scream of absolute love and joy about what is so glorious and unique (though not exclusive) to the female of the species.

My sense is that we are really at the beginning of the wave of films that will be about the desecration of the idea of honor in the era of Trump. Yet… Five of the Best Picture nominees, perhaps more depending on your perspective, will be heavily influenced by the moment.

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One Response to “20 Weeks To Oscar: Cinema, Trump, and Oscar”

  1. The Pope says:

    Yes, The Towering Inferno is action, action, action but the reason why the building went on fire was because the electrical subcontractor (Richard Chamberlain) cut corners. So, you could say corporate malfeasance. So how about malfeasant masculinity.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon