Friday, January 3, 2014

Why "American Hustle" Is Just As Important As "12 Years a Slave"

Nothing guarantees Oscar consideration quite like tackling an Issue so Important that it deserves two capital I's. This is usually most effectively done through the retelling of history. I can almost imagine the members of the Academy asking themselves "But is it good for you?" while viewing screeners of Best Picture candidates.

Life of Pi, for one, would have been a better movie without the faith hook, but would it have resonated with the Academy enough to win Ang Lee his second Best Director Oscar (and his second for a film that didn't win Best Picture, since Brokeback Moutain's gay cowboys in forbidden love weren't deemed as Important in 2006 as the racial politics in Crash)? Did Gravity need the dead daughter subplot to be seen as more than a special-effects-laden popcorn film?

Occasionally, pure fluff does end up taking the top prize (see Shakespeare in Love, the rare relatively recent Best Picture winner that wasn't a drama based on real life or an acclaimed novel, though it did tick the Oscar box of being set in the past), but Oscar generally likes his Best Pictures a little hard to watch, more admirable than enjoyable. Even a genuine crowd pleaser like Chicago made a statement about stars and the lengths/depths people will go/sink to in order to become one or create one: People will do anything for a little bit of celebrity.

Replace "celebrity" with "money and glory," and you could be talking about American Hustle. Just like how Chicago was up against the more obviously Oscar-friendly The Hours in 2003, American Hustle will likely face the more obviously Oscar-friendly 12 Years a Slave come Oscar night 2014. Unlike Chicago and The Hours, both of this year's potential contenders were based on a true stories, but Hustle director David O. Russell (his name rhymes with his movie's title -- how brilliant!) immediately freed his work from the constraints of real-to-reel transference with a simple opening disclaimer: "Some of this actually happened."

It was a tongue-in-cheek moment that immediately lightened the tone, shouting, "Don't take this too seriously!" That actually might have been one of the shrewdest filmmaking moves of the last year. Russell handily exempted himself from possible claims that he'd taken too many liberties with ABSCAM history while telling audiences with a wink, "Just sit back and enjoy." But American Hustle was no pulp fiction (or Pulp Fiction, the 1994 Best Picture nominee that inexplicably lost to Forrest Gump, a film packed with the sort of pat sentiments that Oscar often favors). That it ended up being deceptively deep is one of its virtues, and perhaps one that many filmgoers, so accustomed to being force fed serious topics garnished with disturbing images and over-earnest performances, might have missed completely.

For those who were too busy enjoying the movie's flashy '70s kitsch and tapping along to the winning soundtrack while trying to keep up with the byzantine plot, there was actually a moral to the story, several of them: 1) The world is neither black nor white but dominated by shades of gray. 2) People do terrible things, but most of us are good enough to try to justify the awful things we do as being for a noble cause, for nobody thinks of himself or herself as a bad person. 3) Everybody at the bottom crosses paths eventually, as Edith (Amy Adams) actually says in the movie, or desperation makes people behave more stupidly than usual. 4) Entrapment is basically the law's way of saying that anyone can be coerced into committing a crime. 5) The '70s was the best decade for movie music.

12 Years a Slave, though winning plaudits and perhaps destined to be the next Best Picture winner is far more ambitious in its scope but for all of its overreaching, its message is a deceptively simple one: Slavery was horrible. Duh. Tell us something that we don't know. Even if we hadn't paid attention in U.S. History class or sat through decades of slavery films, we'd all have figured out that one by now.

For all of its great performances and sturdy filmmaking, 12 Years a Slave didn't really offer anything new. Sure Simon Northrup's personal story, documented in his 1953 memoir that gave the movie its title, had never before been told onscreen, but anyone who watched the 1977 TV miniseries Roots had already witnessed the re-enacted horror of Kunta Kinte (and scores of other black Africans) being snatched from freedom and shackled into slavery.

I'm not sure why Northrup has been presented as such a standalone hero when for centuries black Americans had to endure everything he did without coming out on the other side. Is it because he had tasted freedom before slavery? Well, so did the Mandinka Africans in Part I of Roots, which offered what remains the most indelible image of slavery ever presented to me, possibly because at 7 years old, it was the first, the first of way too many over the next nearly four decades.

If 12 Years a Slave had shown us more of what Northrup's life was like as a free man in New York City before his capture and scenes of what his family had to endure during his absence, that would have been something different, a side of black life during the first half of the 19th century that we really never get to see. Think The Clearing, the 2004 kidnapping drama that strayed from the kidnapping formula by being devoted equally to the captured vs. the captor (Robert Redford and Willem Defoe) and the wife the captured left behind (Helen Mirren).

But McQueen was too eager to get to the whippings and the ceaseless cruelty -- you know, the hard-to-watch stuff that makes you know you're in the middle of an Important movie and practically guarantees Oscar consideration -- to bother with Northup's family and what life was like for free blacks in the north, not even to at least provide us with some contrast with his life in captivity. And of course, unlike Hustle, it wasn't about to jeopardize its potential with the Academy by being loosely based on a true story. It had to tell Northrup's story the way he told it.

I don't mean to minimize that story or the insidiousness of slavery, but after McQueen's parade of brutality had passed me by, I wasn't left with much to think about. After all, I'd seen that march so many times before. But American Hustle left me contemplating avarice, vanity and human nature, all things that remain relevant today, via multi-layered characters that weren't all good or all bad. It proves that you can laugh, be entertained and think, all within the space of two hours.

Given a choice between the two, I know which one I never ever want to watch again.
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