Oscars 2012 and America’s Nostalgia Obsession

Last week, the nominations for the 2012 Academy Awards were announced. The German media mainly focused on the fact that Wim Wenders has been nominated in the documentary category for Pina, his 3D documentary about the life and work of the late choreographer Pina Bausch, though two German filmmakers are also nominated in the short film category. Pina is most likely a deserved nomination and this time Wenders actually stands a chance to win, unlike his previous nomination in the same category for Buena Vista Social Club. Because no matter how good the film – and Buena Vista Social Club is good – no way is a portrayal of Cuba as anything other than the ninth circle of hell ever going to win an award in the US.

In general, I actually agree largely with this year’s nominations. The big favourites are The Artist and Hugo respectively, both of which seem to be charming movies (Hugo hasn’t opened here yet). Plus, a French film that’s in black and white and silent as the big favourite of this year’s Oscar race – now how cool is that?

However, this year’s slate of nominees also confirm a trend I already noticed a couple of months ago, namely that the US seems to be losing its taste for contemporary stories. Because it’s very telling that this year’s two big favourites to win, Hugo and The Artist are both historical stories set in the early 20th century. And if you look through the nomination list, you’ll find a lot of other historical subjects.

The Help, nominated for best picture and several acting awards, is set in the currently trendy early 1960s and addresses racism in the typically patronizing Hollywood way. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a time travel tale in which Owen Wilson time travels to 1920s Paris and meets all sorts of cool bohemian types. Terence Malik’s Tree of Life is partly set in the 1950s. Albert Nobbs, which is nominated in a couple of acting categories, is a transgender tale set in 19th century Ireland. My Week with Marilyn, also nominated in a couple of acting categories, is set in the 1950s. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, nominated in the acting and screenplay categories, is set in what appears to be the 1960s and early 1970s (the novel came out in 1974 and was contemporary then). Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, a WTF nominee in the best picture category, is about cavalry horses in World War I and plays into the typically American sentiment that the on-screen death of an animal is somehow worse than human deaths (15 million human deaths in WWI and Steven Spielberg expects me to care about a horse?). One could ever make a case for The Iron Lady as a historical film, since it features a dementia ridden Maggie Thatcher nostalgic for the glory days of her political career twenty to thirty years before.

Meanwhile, if you check the nomination list for non-historical subjects, you end up with The Descendants, a sappy family drama about infidelity, single fatherhood and death, which could have been made at any point in the past fifty years. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is contemporary, but Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander spend most of the film trying to solve a mystery from the 1960s. There’s also Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Moneyball, which deal with the twin American obsessions of September 11th and baseball. Besides, I don’t think you can call a film that depicts an event that happened ten years ago truly contemporary, even if that event continues to have grave ramifications for the present. And the events in Moneyball (which I keep calling “Monkeyball” for some reason) took place in the 1990s, i.e. not exactly contemporary either. We also get an Iranian divorce drama, the usual immigrant dramas and boxing movies (why boxing movies?) and a crude comedy with a handful of nominations each. Meanwhile, the banking crisis drama Margin Call and the political drama The Idea of March, both much hyped for their alleged relevance, have only managed to gather a single nomination each.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather see The Artist or Hugo honoured than such obvious Oscar bait as Margin Call or The Ides of March. Though being obvious Oscar bait obviously hasn’t hurt The Help. But it’s certainly telling that hardly any of this year’s Oscar nominated films actually deal with current issues, while most of them dish up a version of the past (the first half of the 20th century in particular) that’s at least pretty to look at, even if it’s not actually a good place to live.

I guess we’re seeing a situation where American moviegoers and critics are eager to escape a present troubled by a financial and economic crisis, at least in the US, into some kind of feel-good nostalgia. And even the more serious of those nostalgia pictures like The Help or War Horse are ultimately feel-good films, because the horses are pretty and the nice white woman stands up against racism. It’s also probably no accident that this year’s nostalgia pictures are mostly set between 1900 and 1980, i.e. at a time when the US was at the height of its political and economic power.

At Time, Touré makes similar observations, though he also goes into the political and racial implications.

In short, it seems as if this year’s entire cinema output that is deemed award-worthy is basically Midnight in Paris – just step into a past that’s so much cooler and more glamourous than the present.

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4 Responses to Oscars 2012 and America’s Nostalgia Obsession

  1. Estara says:

    I can totally follow your argument about the choice – I haven’t bothered with the Oscars for years, so it was interesting to see the relations.

    In case you haven’t seen this yet: Authors talking about how much presence to show to the reader – beyond the book – in the comments of this post by MWT on Chachic’s book blog – actually all the articles and comments are quite interesting on the Queen’s Thief week.

    Re: The Help – I read somewhere that the author abused the stories of black women who worked in her family’s household to portray them much more passive than they were – let me see if I can find the links.
    http://abcnews.go.com/Health/lawsuit-black-maid-ablene-cooper-sues-author-kathryn/story?id=12968562
    http://blogs.indiewire.com/womenandhollywood/the_controversy_over_the_help

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the links.

      As for The Help, it was obvious from the subject matter that the book and film had the potential to be hugely problematic. But if the author misrepresented the stories of actual women who worked for her family, then it’s doubly nasty.

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