Violent films not as ‘Untouchable’

'Yuma,' 'Eastern' prove context determines art

As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences becomes a younger voting body with each passing year, some awards analysts feel that violence in weighty, serious Oscar contenders might not be the drawback it once was. It may actually be a selling point.

“American Gangster,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “Eastern Promises,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” represent a handful of 2007 films with violence — sometimes lots of violence — on display. All are expected by insiders to be fixtures in the upcoming awards season, but that notion seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom regarding the Academy’s typical voting practices.

Oscar watchers have some theories about violence in campaigning movies.

David Carr is a film reporter for the New York Times who edits the Gray Lady’s Oscar blog “The Carpetbagger.” He says that though Academy demographics can lean toward the conservative when it comes to voting, that didn’t stop violent films like “The Departed” and “Braveheart” from succeeding in their respective years. Sometimes, he says, it has everything to do with how violence is conveyed.

“There’s a tendency in important films to aestheticize the violence so you can’t resist it,” he says. ” ‘No Country for Old Men’ does that. You have a villain there (Anton Chigurh, portrayed by Javier Bardem) who is going to enter the pantheon right behind Hannibal Lecter. And ‘300’ is the ultimate in succumbing to the visual seductions of violence. I really couldn’t look away from that film.”

Still, after David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” landed nominations in 2005 for picture and director with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.’s Golden Globe awards, the Academy didn’t follow suit, although the film nabbed a supporting actor nom for William Hurt and one for adapted screenplay. Perhaps there is a line out there as to what is accepted and what isn’t.

Sasha Stone, editor of the buzz-collecting website, says filmmakers like Cronenberg can be quickly stigmatized by the Academy when they deal in what she calls “perverse violence.” “There’s violence and then there’s violence,” she says. “Once it becomes really, truly disturbing, they tend to recoil. But on the other hand, we’re seeing things on television today that we never would have seen 10 years ago. And because of the way our society is built, we actually censor sex more than we do violence.”

Not the best of news for Ang Lee’s racy “Lust, Caution.”

Dave Karger, Entertainment Weekly’s resident Oscar expert, makes the argument that, with violence, it takes more than seduction to attract the Academy, or repulsiveness to turn it off.

“I feel like the Academy is willing to endorse a violent movie if the violence is speaking to a greater issue,” he says. “If it’s speaking explicitly to something, like the war in Iraq, that doesn’t seem to be working. But allegorical violence works for them.”

Indeed, Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning “Unforgiven” was an anti-violence film cloaked in the disguise of a blood-letting Western. So it goes that violence might be penetrating the rank-and-file membership of the Academy more so than in years past simply because it has become another accepted tool in the filmmaker’s work shed. No one expects to see “Saw IV” or “Hostel II” showing up in the Oscar race, but as serious filmmakers continue to find artistry in depictions of violence, the Academy is sure to continue taking the bait.

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