Greatness, and the 2015 Academy Award Nominees

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NASH SIBANDA

Here at the CATH Centre we’ve seen a few momentous changes, not least of which being the Great Turnover of 2014 that saw a whole bunch of us graduate out, and a whole bunch of us (myself included) get inducted in. It’s something of a new dawn here, and we’re doing our very best to keep the place afloat and not on fire. We’ve recently decided on our topic for the 2015 CATH postgraduate conference, happening this summer; in the process, we considered and set aside a number of potential alternatives. One of the frontrunners was along the lines of awards shows, and the role they play in both the mediation and production of film and television. After all, it’s awards season, so I can only hope we’d be forgiven for having Oscars (and BAFTAs, Emmys, etc.) on the mind. Spoilers ahead for many of the big awards nominees this year.

This year’s Academy Awards have already attracted their fair share of controversy and attention, with this year’s major snub casualties including The Lego Movie, Jennifer Aniston and, most notably of all, Selma, which only managed a pair of nominations despite being overwhelmingly well-received and being about Martin Luther King Jr., surely the most Oscar-appropriate subject matter there ever was. This has been seen as symptomatic of a wider representation problem that Hollywood still carries within its bones, despite overtures of fairness and representation. Non-whites got a raw deal this year, as did women. Every film that was nominated for Best Picture (bar Selma, which got this nomination as well as Best Original Song) was about white men and their lives and exploits. The coverage has mainly looked at this state of affairs as a void, which ought to have been filled more equally and more thoughtfully. It could be argued that this is in fact a statement of sorts; Hollywood is not only telling stories about a narrow range of people, but a fairly narrow range of stories indeed.

I’d like to talk about a few of the films featured prominently in this year’s awards-season parade, particularly Whiplash, Foxcather, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and American Sniper. All these films are about great men, or men who long to be great. It’s rare that so many films with extremely similar DNA all get simultaneously lauded, and it may indeed be saying something that they are, at this moment in time.

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“I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is an absolute necessity.”

I watched Whiplash at the Leicester Showcase recently (which is both a great and terrible cinema in equal measure, for reasons I’ll need to elaborate upon further some other time) with my fellow CATHolic James, and we were both struck by the mentality it portrayed, and its apparent ambivalence towards the ambitions of its characters. The film attempts some argument about the lengths to which you must go in order to achieve “greatness”, and as far as the nobility of such an ambition goes, it doesn’t really take much of a stance. Prodigal drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller, who’s not bad on the sticks himself) only wants to be the best drummer in the contemporary jazz world, and his health, relationships and car all get totalled in the process. His (tor)mentor Terence Fletcher – played by J.K. Simmons with a Malcolm Tucker-esque performance that I’m betting is going to make him an Oscar-winner – abuses him, belittles him, emasculates him, and during the spectacular finales ultimately shames him in the one arena he thought he belonged in. Andrew proceeds to flip the script, fly into a drum solo, and take the entire situation under his own control. Fletcher sees what’s happening, responds in kind, and they both seem to elevate each other to that place of greatness they’ve longed for. Whether the ends justify the means is uncertain, but what is made clear is that to get this good, you not only need to work for it, you need to suffer for it.

Fletcher wants to be the man to find and train a new great musician, a Charlie Parker or a Buddy Rich, and Andrew wants to be that musician. Both men despise each other’s flaws and failings, but by the end both recognise that to be what they want to be, they need each other. It’s a relationship that echoes a lot of the sentiments felt by the protagonists of the biopic Foxcatcher. Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, creepily charmless and almost unrecognisable) wants to lead the American wrestling team to victory in the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, with his wrestling brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). John du Pont (Steve Carell, also creepily charmless and even less recognisable) wants to be the man to take him there. We watch as the brothers drift apart, with Dave’s happy family life coming into conflict with Mark’s desire for the Olympic gold; and as Jean, John’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave), tells her son how little she thinks of his wrestling aspirations whilst he tries and fails to tell her what it means for his manhood, his own idea of what his claim to du Pont greatness actually consists of.

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“Mark, you have been living in your brother’s shadow your entire life. It’s time. It’s your time now.”

Whilst Fletcher’s abusive methods are explicitly stated as being necessary for true inspiration in Whiplash, John du Pont’s own ideas of what it takes for excellence are shown to be just as manipulative and distasteful. He drives a rift between the two brothers, attempts to brainwash them into considering him their mentor and leader (despite having no input with training), and ultimately finds it necessary to kill Dave Schultz, when it is clear that Dave won’t be moulded into the vector for vicarious greatness that he wanted. Whilst Fletcher works with experience and deftness, du Pont works with the imperious self-righteousness of the particularly wealthy; he feels that because he paid for this team, and gave them a home to train in, that he has earned the right to know what’s best for them. Fletcher built his world and his reputation, du Pont merely bought it.

Du Pont is a man living under the shadow of a legacy he can never hope to match; the Du Pont fortune, its rich history as an American institution, all serve both as resources to fund his interests in birds, in stamps, in wrestling, but also as a perpetual reminder of his own shortcomings and inadequacy. When John welcomes Mark to the Foxcatcher estate, he lends him a video tape that tells the story of the Du Pont fortune; by the film’s end, John has made his own videotape, telling the story of himself, it with as much pomp and glory as the other. Mark Schultz is a working class man with nothing much to show for himself aside from an Olympic gold medal from the 1984 competition. He feels the effects of other shadows, of his brother Dave who coached that winning team, of the medal that should have made him an American hero but has left him forgotten to everyone unless he speaks up at elementary schools (in his brother’s place). Unlike John, Mark has already done his great deed; it just didn’t make him a great man.

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“You took up space in a theatre which otherwise would have been used on something more worthwhile”

Mark and Andrew are outsiders entering a world they hope will lead them somewhere transcendent. Mark is a working class wrestler who takes a chance on the gilded world of the Foxcatcher estate; Andrew is a schoolteacher’s son who takes a chance on the equally gilded world of Fletcher’s studio band. Belonging is something they both desire and fear; neither wants to be like their benefactors, but both want to make them proud, because that’s the only way to make the world proud, and become recognised for the great men they are. Riggan Thompson is another outsider looking for validation. Birdman follows Thompson (Michael Keaton, rising phoenix-like into what is hopefully a golden age of his career) as he strives to pull together the final few days of previews for his Broadway debut, a Raymond Carver adaptation that he’s directing and starring in, based on an adapted script he also wrote. Much has already been said of the parallels between Thompson’s past as comic-book hero Birdman in a popular series of nineties action movies and Keaton’s own past as Batman twice in 1989 and 1992. Both actors have a lot to live down, and both are using the events of Birdman to do that (Keaton’s success and acclaim at the awards this years testifies to the shrewdness of that plan).

Thompson’s benefactor is the icy theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson, who writes for the Times and is known as a kingmaker for the New York stage. A good review from her would cement his place in the annals of legitimate artists, alongside his hero Carver, and his co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton, also Oscar-nodded), whose presence serves as a perpetual reminder of just how different it must be to be accepted, to be acknowledged. No one likes Mike, and Mike knows this; he’s made a deal along the way that he can either be liked or he can be great. Riggan would like to be both, and by the end he somewhat manages it, albeit at enormous cost. The spectre of Birdman always looms, a presence he can’t quite shake off; he worries that the only reason anyone cares he exists is because of the character, who follows his every move in the film, plaguing his thoughts. A part of him would like to throw in the towel, dive back into the comic-book world he once dominated, and rise again. He would not be the person he wants himself to be, and he would make true everything Tabitha accuses him of being – “blissfully untrained, unversed and unprepared to even attempt real art”. But for a few moments, in eyes of millions of movie fans across the world, he would at least appear great.

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Some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world.”

When the actors in Birdman talk of greatness, they talk of Marlon Brando and Raymond Carver; when Andrew Neiman talks of greatness, he talks of Charlie Parker. The sins of these men are eclipsed by their achievements in their fields, and it would be fair to say that this sentiment carries throughout the general culture. It would not be especially controversial to call them great, without qualification. This might be something reserved for artists, with consensus being that artistic excellence is often accompanied by personal demons and troubles. There is a sense that Parker’s addictions and Carver’s alcoholism were prices that can be paid for their contribution to the world. This is an argument that some have claimed Clint Eastwood makes during American Sniper, the story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper, doing great work) and his astonishing career as a Navy SEAL sniper.

Unlike the men of Whiplash, Foxcatcher or Birdman, Kyle has no desire for greatness. And unlike the men of those other films, Kyle’s greatness is shown as being uncomplicated and unquestionable. The film’s ending shows real footage of the parade of mourners watching his hearse travel through Texas, whilst American flags wave and he is canonised in the figurative halls of American heroes. American Sniper wants to depict what makes a great man, and it does so in a relatively conventional way. It’s a war film for one, and in the tradition of films such as Saving Private Ryan, the politics is beside the point. If this were a film set in World War II, it would probably be easier to concede that point, as an audience. But this film wants to poke around in fresh history, and the war in Afghanistan is certainly not World War II.

That may be unfair, though. This is not a film about a war; it is a film about a soldier. That distinction ought to make this a clearer picture, but it doesn’t; Chris Kyle’s own sins have come to light quickly and fiercely as detailed in his book, on which this film is based. The film omits Kyle’s disturbing politics, his disregard for the lives of those he killed and his inability to see the enemy even as human. The man from the book is far from the unblemished American hero we see in the film. Yet what is a biopic if not a tale of true lives, and where appropriate true greatness. Even when the facts of the story are not entirely accurate, the spirit of the thing must speak to some truth. Showing Kyle in this way turns his true story, one which bears all-too-human hallmarks of unappealing cruelty and sadly familiar anger, into a fable. American Sniper subscribes to the belief that the efforts of soldiers in armed conflict must be seen as a noble sacrifice, regardless of one’s opinions about the nobility of that conflict, or the soldier’s own sense of why they are doing what they do. It does create an unsettling situation whereby we hold up as an unquestioned hero a man who “shoots a lot of people and doesn’t think twice about it.”

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“I know it’s not ordinary. But who ever loved ordinary?”

The two British biopics The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything have a lot in common. Both are biographical films about great English scientists of the twentieth century; both are informed by the personal struggles their subjects faced; both are as much about the women in their lives as the science; and both have received much praise for their lead male performances (with the lion’s share going to Redmayne, who is blowing up right now). Perhaps it is an important distinction to make that these two films are the most uncomplicated hero stories of all these awards-season darlings, and both are mainly love stories. The deeds of Schultz, Thompson, Kyle and Neiman all take precedence over their humanity and their emotional lives – or rather, it is the deeds of these men which create and inform their emotional lives. Yet whilst the struggle to perfect the bombe decryption machine plays a large part of the drama of The Imitation Game, it is Turing’s boyhood relationship with a fellow schoolmate, and his intellectual relationship with Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), that form the heart of this film. The science of The Theory of Everything is barely delved into at all, likely because the sheer complexity of Hawking’s achievement makes it difficult to translate to screen; much better explored is his relationship with Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones, who is also blowing up right now). [Meanwhile, it took me ages to realise that Sienna Miller played the wives of both Dave Schultz and Chris Kyle. It’s so strange that she played two widowed wives of two American “heroes”, who were both killed by mentally disturbed people they thought were on their side. Anyway.]

The attitude these films take towards their protagonists is telling of a certain sense of heroicism, one that’s perhaps divorced from the American sensibility. The American films mentioned – save for, perhaps, Birdman – all share a common sense of hard work being sufficient for glory and greatness; the men are shown to have some sort of talent for what they do, but it is the lengths to which they discipline and train themselves that show the greatness therein. Meanwhile, these British films are about intelligence, an innate and unpredictable force that either you have or you do not. Both Turing and Hawking are seen to work hard, but their greatness is assumed even from the outset; both because we know the achievements that these men ultimate reach, and because the work is always seen to be the attempt to unleash this intellect on the world without succumbing to forces beyond control. It is not struggles of discipline, training, dedication or leadership that they need to overcome; it is social awkwardness and hidden homosexuality that besets Turing, and the degenerative effects of motor neuron disease that Hawking has to face. Their strength of character (re)defines their greatness. It’s a theme that’s been done before, because there’s not much else to say about national treasures; we must know their persons, because their deeds are already known.

There’s more to be said, I’m sure. This has been an interesting batch of films, and if there’s one thing that awards shows might be said to do consistently, it’s to flag up patterns where they might otherwise go unattended. This year, we have had numerous stories of greatness; of men aspiring for the greatest heights they can achieve, and of men whose greatness is apparently self-evident. Riggan Thompson’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone, with my favourite monologue of the year) might understand the ephemeral power of retweets and YouTube views, but the deeper sense of worth that “greatness” speaks to is something the white male protagonists of 2014/15 are very concerned about.

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