Flattery gets you everywhere

The Academy is nothing if not self-adoring... just look at the Oscar nominations

A sad week for cinema. Two influential figures are dead: Theo Angelopoulos, the 76-year-old director of The Travelling Players, Ulysses' Gaze and the Palme d'Or-winning Eternity and a Day, died yesterday after being hit by a motorcycle near Athens. (You can find a thorough and illuminating interview with him, conducted at the National Film Theatre in 2003, here. And Bingham Ray, a major player in the US production and distribution scene, died aged 57 after suffering a stroke at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah on Monday. Ray founded October Films, whose first release was Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet, and later headed United Artists, a speciality division of MGM. An obituary in the LA Times notes that he "often clashed [with MGM executives] over the types of films that Ray chose to champion, with the studio regarding his taste as too esoteric and arty."

Which brings me to this week's other, less significant but nonetheless disheartening news. "Academy Awards Nominations Play It Safe" is a headline of the "Dog Bites Man" variety; no one expects the "esoteric and arty" to be anywhere near the door-list. With each year, I feel more inured to the minor snubs and injustices, and more resigned to the parade of phoney prestige that constitutes the whole awards calendar, not just the Oscars. I'm not immune to its silly allure -- I vote in the London Film Critics' Circle Awards, and was happy to see The Artist and A Separation amply rewarded last week. While I haven't yet seen Kenneth Lonergan's acclaimed Margaret, its inclusion on our nominations list, and the tie-break win in the Best Actress category between that film's Anna Paquin and awards-magnet Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, did make a case for the importance of such rituals in bringing largely unsung work to wider attention.

We all know by now that this isn't the remit of the Academy Awards. The expansion of the Best Picture category in recent years to ten nominations was intended to accommodate popular favourites that might otherwise not have nabbed a place; at no point was it meant to shine a light on the overlooked or under-praised. But it's ridiculous to cast the net so wide when the quality of the films nominated does nothing to warrant it. Any awards body that is seen to be making up the numbers will lose what little authority it has. I'm sure this isn't going to trouble the Academy -- viewing figures count here, aided by the smoothness of the ceremony (hence the return to Billy "Safe pair of hands" Crystal after the botched experiment of Anne Hathaway and James Franco).

Reluctant as I am to share the opinions of someone who boasted of having walked out of The Artist, Bret Easton Ellis was correct when he tweeted that "The Oscars are a marketing tool but they give an indication of what Hollywood is thinking about itself. 2011 was an awful year for movies... In order for The Oscars to mean anything, if they mean anything at all, they have got to limit the number of best picture nominations to five."

I'm sure The Artist will win big; I hope it does -- it's not the best film made in the past year, but it is a smart and witty confection, and it's certainly the finest work within the boundaries of what the Academy is prepared to acknowledge. As the Huffington Post remarked, "films about films" like The Artist and Hugo (which leads the way with 11 nominations) predominate this year; the Academy is nothing if not self-adoring, and such movies are inherently flattering to the industry's sense of itself as magical.

Keeping the glass half full, it's encouraging that A Separation has been recognised in the Best Original Screenplay category, as well as the expected Best Foreign Language Film. Another plus: Bridesmaids got a Screenplay nomination, and a Best Supporting Actress nod for Melissa McCarthy -- she could very well win, as it's one of the few categories where unbridled comic turns are tolerated. (See Mercedes Ruehl in The Fisher King, Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway.) And a Best Picture nomination for The Tree of Life -- flawed though that movie is -- alongside Best Director for Terrence Malick is not to be sniffed at.

Expect to see Malick sitting in the front row on Oscars night, jeering and braying loudly. Next to him is that born hellraiser, Joey the horse from War Horse, who leads the charge as the pair of them "do a Kanye" when The Artist scoops the gold. Well, if we can't have esoteric and arty, let us dream of scandal and horseplay...

 

 

 

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage