80th Academy Award nominations: a very poor showing

January 31, 2008

80th Academy Award nominations: a very poor showing
By David Walsh
28 January 2008

The Academy Award nominations, announced January 22, are more or less representative of contemporary filmmaking; the problem does not so much lie with the nominations or the nominators as with contemporary filmmaking.

Both There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson) and No Country For Old Men (Ethan and Joel Coen), two brutal films that purport to make sense of American reality, earned eight nominations, including best picture and best director. The ‘timeless’ love affair, Atonement (Joe Wright), and the legal drama, Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy), each gained seven nominations, including best picture. Juno (Jason Reitman), about a pregnant teenage girl, was the fifth nominee in the best picture category.

Of the films garnering a large number of nominations, Michael Clayton is the most thoughtful, although one of those works that tends to fade somewhat from memory. It relies on a few too many formulas and hardly breaks new ground. In any event, its treatment of the cutthroat corporate-legal world rings true. George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton, the film’s three lead performers, all received nominations. They deserve them; however, the degree to which the film threatens to be honored sheds a light on the enormously weak competition.

Bloody-mindedness dominates the nominations, with There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men leading the way. For best supporting actor, Johnny Depp and Viggo Mortensen received nominations in two more exceptionally violent films, Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton) and Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg), respectively. One could add Casey Affleck, as best supporting actor, in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik) and Amy Ryan for Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck).

Hollywood has chosen to sum itself up this way: a fascination with violence, on the one hand, or a belief that violence as a thing in itself rules the world, and, on the other, sentimentality, overt or disguised (Atonement, Juno, Away From Her). A few tame independent efforts, I’m Not There (Todd Haynes), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel), Into the Wild (Sean Penn) and a number of others, round out the selection.

Sicko, one of Michael Moore’s weaker efforts, is a nominee in the best documentary category. James Longley’s Sari’s Mother, about a woman seeking medical attention for her seriously ailing child in war-blasted Iraq, is a worthy choice for best documentary short subject.

The war in Iraq, now one of the longest and most disastrous conflicts in US history, received little attention from the academy voters, although their choices were limited. Tommy Lee Jones received a nod for Paul Haggis’s murky In the Valley of Elah and No End in Sight was nominated as best documentary.

The latter was directed by Charles Ferguson, a former Brookings Institution fellow and co-founder of a software firm, who, as the WSWS noted in a review, “is a liberal establishment figure who believes that the war in Iraq has gone horribly wrong. He makes clear in interviews that his purpose in making the film, which he financed himself, is to point out the mistakes made by the Bush administration, so that future administrations can carry out interventions more effectively.”

In addition, Philip Seymour Hoffman received a nomination for Charlie Wilson’s War, Mike Nichols’ defense of the ‘good neo-colonial war’ in Afghanistan.

Nominated in the best foreign language film category, Austria’s The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher), directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, is an honest account of an episode during World War II. Jewish concentration camp prisoners are forced to create counterfeit bills as part of a Hitler regime strategy to destabilize the British economy by flooding the country with forged Bank of England notes. One Communist Party printer refuses to participate, precipitating a crisis.

The nominations, taken as a whole, however, are a pretty miserable showing.

Films are written, directed and performed by human beings who breathe the same air as everyone else. These individuals too live in a world dominated by increasing social inequality, war and the threat of more devastating wars, deep financial crisis, suffering on a massive scale—why are they so unlikely to reflect on these realities?

This year’s award ceremony may take place under exceptional circumstances. If no settlement is reached in the film and television writers’ strike, and actors respect the writers’ picket lines, the ceremony itself February 24 at the Kodak Theatre will be a shadow of its usual self, for better or worse. Social struggle is impinging directly on the academy’s activities, but the films honored …

The state of the world finds such a pale and inadequate reflection in American filmmaking in particular. This wasn’t always the case. The Depression, war, fascism, the character of the ruling elite and problems of everyday life made their way into studio filmmaking of another day, albeit in a muted and sometimes misshapen fashion. What’s the problem today?

Hollywood is a money-making operation, presided over by massive companies with a stake in existing social relations. The filmmakers themselves are often privileged and insulated from economic hardship. These facts explain some of the difficulties, but not all of them.

There is the matter of the social atmosphere and the three-decades’ long period of political reaction. Social solidarity, compassion, a concern for the plight of the oppressed, a belief in the alterability of the world for the better—these ideas have been systematically attacked. The powers that be are enormously sensitive to any effort to pierce the veil with which the American media attempts to conceal harsh social realities.

Understanding the world is never easy. The artistic knowing of reality, which takes the form of thinking and feeling in images, is distinct from scientific cognition. “The nightingale of poetry, like the bird of wisdom, the owl, is heard only after the sun is set. The day is a time for action, but at twilight feeling and reason come to take account of what has been accomplished.” (Trotsky)

However, some ‘nightingales’ are more prepared to sing than others. Even if we accept that art must ‘limp’ after reality, US filmmaking at present is hardly moving its limbs.

Certain very unpleasant characteristics predominate. The obsession with extreme violence, in mainstream, ‘independent’ or low-budget horror films, is clearly bound up with the brutality of American society and the bellicosity and aggression of the current administration, its reliance on force, its use of torture and abuse, its declaration of war on much of the world.

But the reaction of the filmmakers is terribly superficial and impressionistic. One would be led to believe, by the current crop of nominees, that the source of the problem lies in the ‘American character,’ indeed, one would draw the conclusion from many of these films that the ordinary American is a psychotic. The pretense is that in portraying the most savage behavior the filmmaker is somehow penetrating to the ‘heart of darkness,’ one is shedding illusions about humanity, that one is, in fact, being ‘realistic.’

Can anything be explained in this manner? There is something self-serving, and lazy, in this cheap misanthropy and bleakness. It’s also a libel against the population, who are the victims of exploitation and violence, not its initiators.

The source of the brutalities in American society, ultimately, is to be found in the violence of its class divisions.

The notion that any population is inherently cruel, that it might be almost eager to exhibit its indifference to suffering is utterly wrongheaded; it is also belied by everyday experience. And the opposite of misanthropy and facile pessimism is not a resort to happy endings or prettification of the oppressed, or anyone else. It is a serious, painstaking engagement with the world and with humanity, with its capacity for nobility, treachery and everything else in between.

The filmmakers are responding uncritically to real historical and social problems. A vast political vacuum exists in the US. Where should the population turn for help? Where would it see examples of selflessness and self-sacrifice? What has become of the organizations and movements it believed represented its interests? If the filmmakers addressed themselves to these questions, they might get somewhere.

Contrary to current popular wisdom, inflicting pain on another human being is not something that comes ‘naturally,’ it is one of the hardest, most unnatural acts to perform. Being evil is difficult and exhausting. The German playwright Brecht wrote in the 1930s, when fascism was raining blows on various populations: “Is there no way of preventing man from turning his back on atrocities? Why does he turn away? He turns away because he sees no possibility of intervening. No man lingers in the presence of another man’s pain if he is unable to help him.” And further: “Brutality does not come from brutality, but from the business deals which can no longer be made without it.”

This concrete social understanding is very far from the minds of most of our contemporary filmmakers. It is not encouraged by the media. Instead the most trivial nonsense is written about films. We will continue to hear mostly about which film will receive a “boost” from an academy award nomination. It is difficult to make films that reveal the truth, but it has to and will be done.

Cartoon of the Day

January 29, 2008


January 26, 2008


por ti
tantos golpes
en la piel,
que ya ni de pie
cabemos en la muerte.

En mi país,
la libertad no es sólo
un delicado viento del alma,
sino también un coraje de piel.
En cada milímetro
de su llanura infinita
está tu nombre escrito:
En las manos torturadas.
En los ojos,
abiertos al asombro
del luto.
En la frente,
cuando ella aletea dignidad.
En el pecho,
donde un aguante varón
nos crece en grande.
En la espalda y los pies
que sufren tanto.
En los testículos,
orgullecidos de sí.
Ahí tu nombre,
tu suave y tierno nombre,
cantando en esperanza y coraje.

Hemos sufrido
en tantas partes
los golpes del verdugo
y escrito en tan poca piel
tantas veces su nombre,
que ya no podemos morir,
porque la libertad
no tiene muerte.

Nos pueden
seguir golpeando,
que conste, si pueden.
Tú siempre serás la victoriosa,
Y cuando nosotros
el último cartucho,
tú serás la primera
que cante en la garganta
de mis compatriotas,
nada hay más bello
sobre la anchura
de la tierra,
que un pueblo libre,
gallardo pie,
sobre un sistema
que concluye.

La libertad,
vigila y sueña
cuando nosotros
entramos a la noche
o llegamos al día,
suavemente enamorados
de su nombre tan bello:

– Otto Rene Castillo

Music Video of the Week

January 26, 2008

Common – The People

Sign of the Times

January 26, 2008

Voice of the Day

January 26, 2008

“We either teach our children it’s okay to write and talk about the things they think to be the truth or else we teach them that it’s more acceptable to silence their beliefs, or even not to have beliefs but to settle for officials truths that someone else has carefully prepared for them.”

– Jonathan Kozol

Picture of the Day

January 26, 2008

VIRGINIA—The black movement for integration. Teaching the illiterate to write so that they can vote, 1960.

Boomerang History

January 24, 2008

Boomerang History

I believe the U.S. Government will leave Iraq,

when “Shooter Cheney” is arrested for war crimes.


when I learn to fly by jumping off the steps of my

apartment building.

The Bush-Cheney administration “IS” Empire.

Bush will not go down as the worst president in

United States history.

This administration is the “Hitman” administration.

In January 2009, you will see a Barbie Doll make over.

“What America needs is a new direction”

Bull Shit.

The U.S. Empire has to stop being an Empire.

Greed has to stop being greed.

Our dinosaur economy has become someone else’s cemetery.

The oil in Iraq has become U.S. holding tanks.

Excuse me while I get an oil change in the next state.

– Mike Hastie

Vietnam Veteran

January 22, 2008

Cartoon of the Day

January 24, 2008

The Blight That Is Still With Us

January 23, 2008


January 22, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist
The Blight That Is Still With Us

Columbia, S.C.

The political mantra this year is “change.” But South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies on the grounds of the State Capitol, is a disturbing example of how difficult it is for people of good will to dispose of the toxic layers of bigotry that have accumulated over several long centuries.

On Saturday, in a cold, steady rain, voters turned out for the Republican primary. Nearly all of them – close to 100 percent – were white. At a dinner here Saturday night, I was reminded ruefully byone of the guests: “It used to be the Democratic Party that was the white man’s party in South Carolina. Now it’s the G.O.P. The black people vote next Saturday.”

They still honor Benjamin Tillman down here, which is very much like honoring a malignant tumor. A statue of Tillman, who was known as Pitchfork Ben, is on prominent display outside the statehouse.

Tillman served as governor and U.S. senator in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A mortal enemy of black people, he bragged that he and his followers had disenfranchised “as many as we could,” and he publicly defended the murder of blacks.

In a speech on the Senate floor, he declared:

“We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.”

Real change is more than problematic in a state so warped by its past that it can continue to officially admire a figure like Tillman.

The host of a dinner party I attended was Bud Ferillo, a white public relations executive who produced and directed a documentary called “Corridor of Shame” to call attention to the terrible neglect of rural schools in South Carolina.

If you were to walk into some of those schools – which are spread along a crescent-shaped corridor on either side of Interstate 95 from the southern edge of North Carolina to the northern edge of Georgia – you might forget that you were in the United States.

A former South Carolina commerce secretary, Charles Way, talks in the film about the time his car broke down near one of these schools and he went inside to use a phone.

“I just couldn’t really believe my eyes,” he said. “It was the most deplorable building condition that I’ve ever seen in my life. How the hell somebody could teach in an environment like that is really just beyond me.”

Among many other problems, ancient plumbing has resulted in raw sewage backing up into some schools, bringing in vermin and unbearable odors. The first school profiled in “Corridor of Shame”
was built in 1896.

Some 700,000 students attend these rural schools, and they are being left behind in droves. One principal complained about nonfiction books in the school library that dated back to the 1940s and ’50s, including a volume that promised “one day man will land on the moon.”

The rural schools in South Carolina are symptoms of a much wider problem. Only about 50 percent of the state’s children graduate from high school.

There has been a spasm of political campaigning here, but that will soon end. In presidential elections, South Carolina is reliably Republican. A state with Pitchfork Ben standing guard at the Capitol hardly could be otherwise.

The Democrats are here this week fighting over the black vote. It’s ironic that in a state so racially polarized, there is so little serious discussion among the candidates of the race issue.

Senator Barack Obama, with his message of unity and healing (and not wanting to be seen solely as a black candidate), has tried to avoid addressing the issue of race head-on. Bill and Hillary Clinton have worked hard at turning that posture into a negative, aggressively courting the black vote, while at the same time spotlighting (directly and through surrogates) the fact that Mr. Obama is black.

The result has been a churning of the issue of race to no constructive effect, even during last night’s debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.

This was probably inevitable. In South Carolina the Confederate flag is flying right out there in the open and Pitchfork Ben is on display for all to see. But in most other places, the hostility to blacks remains on the down-low. No one wants to deal with it.

Despite big and important advances over the past several decades, including Senator Obama’s crossover campaign, racism remains alive and well in much of the country. And yet no one – not Bill Clinton, the man touted (absurdly) as the first black president; or Hillary Clinton, who’s running for president; or Barack Obama, the first black person with a real shot at the White House – is willing to talk honestly and openly about it.