Oscar Best Pic Contenders Reflect America’s Anxiety

Some of the year’s most acclaimed releases mirror a society in spiritual and economic paralysis

“Art is not a mirror to reflect the world,” said Bertolt Brecht. And angst may be in the eye of the beholder. Still, this season’s best picture contenders seem to be serving up equal parts entertainment and very modern anxiety, whether the films are set in the near future, the distant past or the perilous present.

Cynics on both the left and right of the political spectrum might agree that the film with the finger planted on the pulse of contemporary unease is “Catching Fire,” the “Hunger Games” sequel featuring an oppressed 99.9%, a ruling class that follows no rules, and an “entertainment” industry gone berserk.

This year, the deck seems to be stacked against the kind of rosy resolutions that used to be Hollywood’s stock in trade: “Her” examines how young people are increasingly alienated and cut off from each other; “Dallas Buyers Club” underscores how America isn’t solving people problems with any sense of alacrity; “Inside Llewyn Davis” posits the message that talent doesn’t necessarily translate into recognition; and “Nebraska” depicts a somber landscape drained of color, vitality and hope. As the New Yorker’s David Denby noted in his review: “(Alexander) Payne’s movie ‘The Descendants’ posed the question, Who will inherit Hawaii? ‘Nebraska’ says that there’s nothing left to inherit.”

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But as in most significant works of art, drawing parallels — whether to the current uncertainty or the human condition in general — is more in the eye of the beholder than the creator.

“I’m not going to say what things in my film represent,” says Payne, whose “Nebraska” would seem to represent a Middle America in economic paralysis and spiritual decline. “As Antonioni used to say, and I quote pretentiously, ‘Don’t you know anything I say will limit rather than enhance your understanding or enjoyment of the film?”

Payne does concede that, during the 10 years since he first read the Bob Nelson script, the country has changed — as might the interpretation of the finished work.

“Well maybe, just because the economy hit the skids and that shows up,” he says. “I thought it gave it a nice current dimension. A lot of the empty storefronts you see and broken signs — they’re not created. We found those. Added to that the fact that it is a black-and-white film, it ended up acquiring a bit more of a modern-day, Depression Era flavor.”

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Payne’s Midwest is a good place to portray the pernicious solitude of the modern human — if one needs to stay on earth. Both Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” and Robert Redford in “All Is Lost,” portray solitude in extremis — one lost in the cold expanse of space, the other in the blue expanse of sea. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) certainly feels like he’s been cut off in “12 Years a Slave” — not just from his family, but from humanity itself.

“What it comes down to is, you have people who have an inability to see people as they would see themselves,” says “12 Years” screenwriter John Ridley. “And you can call it American slavery, you can call it Nazism, you can call it the slaughtering in Cambodia, you can call it what’s going on in Syria right now.”

That social divide — whether between the haves and have-nots or warring ideologies — is a leading factor in the kind of existential alienation one finds in certain current features, in which a sense of us-vs.-them is pervasive. Viewers can find themselves on both sides of the argument: While auds will be feeling for Tom Hanks’ besieged character in “Captain Phillips,” there’s a certain amount of sympathy to be had for his Somali pirate captors, who in a previous era might have been portrayed as pure evil, rather than representatives of a Third World on the outside of prosperity.

Should poverty-stricken Africans be expected to watch the bounty of the developed world plow through their waters while a world economy passes them by? “There’s nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose,” director Paul Greengrass says of the pirate Muse, who may be the bad guy, but not necessarily one without a moral leg to stand on.

Back home, economic need is a factor in the tragicomic arc of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the new film from the Coen brothers, about a talented folksinger cut from the Dave Van Ronk mold scuttling about a pre-Dylan Greenwich Village watching (or letting) all the good breaks pass him by. Any pre-millennials looking for a metaphor might find one in the jobless environment and economic straits in which Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) finds himself; there’s a financial fatalism to the story, one with which young people today might be familiar.

However: “I think (the starving artist situation) is built into our culture,” says Joel Coen. “It isn’t going to go away. The movie is less about the starving artist per se than it is about why is somebody successful and another very talented person isn’t.”

In other words, it’s timeless. “Look at ‘La Boheme,’” says Ethan Coen. “It’s not about the state of the economy.”

The plight of Llewyn Davis, adds Joel Coen, “has to do with youth. When you’re young and starting out, you’re alone for the first time, you’re living in the world. And you need money!”

Or drugs. In “Dallas Buyers Club,” Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof concocts a scheme to smuggle experimental AIDS medications from Mexico to the United States, where a combination of bureaucratic foot-dragging, petty politics and homophobia — anyone hear an echo? — has meant a virtual death sentence for the HIV-infected. “DBC” tells a story set in the ’80s, but what seems to be its principal message — essentially, that if you’re an American, you’re on your own — will resonate with many of today’s audiences, especially in light of the ongoing healthcare crisis.

But while the connections to current events seem more than evident, director Jean-Marc Vallee says they weren’t intentional.

“Yes, I was aware of it, but I was not the only one,” says the Canadian director. “The producer, the actors, we were all seeing what was going on — the pharmaceutical corporations, the power behind those companies and the control they have over people. But we weren’t making it try to reflect what’s going on now. We were trying to be faithful with what happened then, and trying to tell a story.”

Vallee says it may be too early to try and find parallels between the now and the then. “We’re so close to it,” he says. “Maybe in a few years we’ll go ‘Oh my God this happened at the same time with health care in the States’ and make a parallel. But it wasn’t our intention to create that parallel.”

It may well be that we confront what we’re looking to confront at the movies, whether it’s the absurdity of virtual romance (in “Her,” where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his “server”), our inner scam artist (in the Abscam movie “American Hustle”) or the human capacity for rationalizing evil (“12 Years a Slave”). In truth, all filmmakers can likely do is make a good story and the message will follow.

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  1. By far “12 years a slave” is the best film of 2013, Chiwetel Eijifor best actor; Michael Fassbender best supporting actor; Steve Mac Queen best director; and also best story; probably best photography.

    Cate Blanchett best actress for “Blue Jasmine”

  2. GKN says:

    Yes, a pox on all of them! We all definitely need better and more honest leadership, in all countries. Which is why I was glad this article seemed to be pointing out more interest in ‘issues’ via films this year. But we seem to have hijacked this comment thread with overly long posts on other subjects, so I’m signing off. All the best to you, John!

    • John Shea says:

      Amen, GKN! I’ve seen none of the Oscar contenders yet and may never see some of them. I’m not much into fictional issues movies and novels, as I value entertainment over messages in fiction. Where some turn to such movies I turn to non-fiction, and even website comments sections like this one(!) We’ve both voted with our feet by remaining outside the USA, for various reasons, but we are vastly outnumbered by those who have done the reverse and I respect their choice too. All the best to you too and Season’s Greetings!

  3. GKN says:

    So did you ever live in the States in your adult life, John? I’m American too, but only moved here in my late 20s and at the time, I think I was paying more income tax than I had been in the States. But I think it’s more equivalent now, from what my American friends and family tell me – except that they get far less for their money. 75%? For the largest fortunes, right, if they can’t find tax loops. For more average incomes, it’s closer to a quarter. But I agree that 47% max should be enough for any government. (Btw, has that that changed? I vaguely recall the Beatles complaining of 90% – unless it was a joke!)

    As for this article, I don’t think Anderson meant or said that the angst in the most talked of films this year is peculiar to America. He’s just noting a change from the usual fluff, both in what’s being produced – and getting appreciation from audiences there. Which is a welcome change, in my book. It could mean, I hope it means, Americans are starting to think a little more and have become overly saturated with escapism. But who knows?

    • John Shea says:

      I have not lived in the US as an adult, GKN. Both my sisters returned there but eventually returned to Ireland for various family reasons. Your experience and that of your family and friends is interesting. Everyone’s mileage varies, as they say!

      France’s 75% personal income tax rate is new and the highest standard top rate in the world now, to my knowledge. I believe it applies to annual incomes exceeding one million euros. Gerard Depardieu is among those leaving as a result, headed to Russia in his case, and 13% max. I never thought I’d see a day when the USA’s top tax rate was three times that of Russia!

      I can’t speak for France, but I do know the US, British and Irish tax systems have no big loopholes for individuals anymore. Corporations are a very different matter. Ireland is a notorious tax haven for giant corporations and tax hell for individuals. The standard Corporation Tax rate is 12.5% for multinational giants. Small Irish corporations pay more, of course! The ‘Double Irish’ system and other devices aided and abetted by the Irish government allow Apple, for example, to pay as little as 2%.

      Britain’s top rate was indeed mind bogglingly high in the 1960s and 1970s, like other Western countries, though there were many loopholes then. The 47% effective rate was cut from 52% earlier this year, shortly after the US raised its 39% effective top Federal rate to about 43%. The state income taxes paid by most, though not all, Americas are extra and raise the top rate above Britain’s in some states.

      John Anderson’s article is titled ‘OSCAR BEST PIC CONTENDERS REFLECT AMERICA’S ANXIETY’ and centers on ‘Middle America’, the ‘Midwest’, ‘American slavery’, ‘health care in the States’ and so on. But if you see similar angst in France, fair enough.

      Just as I see no necessary contradiction between low tax rates and good health care, neither do I see thought and escapism as necessarily opposed. It is said that J. R. R. Tolkien once defended escapism to C. S. Lewis by asking him to consider who it was that hated escapism the most. Tolkien’s answer? Jailers!

      • John Shea says:

        I didn’t follow the Romney thing very closely, GKN, but Warren Buffet claimed to be paying a similarly low rate, quite legally, without loopholes. It all depends how you define ‘income’ and ‘income tax’. I suspect Buffet’s ‘income’ was probably mostly Capital Gains, taxed at 15% in the US at the time (now 20%) and dividends, which are also taxed at a low rate since the corporation has already paid corporation tax on them, a double tax. You don’t have to be rich to have both forms of ‘income’ but they are probably a much greater proportion of the ‘income’ of wealthy investors like Buffet and Romney. And share prices go down as well as up, sometimes down to zero, something we hear rather less about. The stock market is too much like a casino for my liking.

        ‘False addresses in the Cayman Islands’ sounds like outright evasion, which is illegal and not a matter of loopholes. If that Senator has any real evidence of such a crime he should report it.

        If I really idealized the USA I’d probably go back there right now. In these comments alone I’ve strongly criticized its wasteful and ineffective Government health expenditure and high tax rates. High health costs are something that might discourage me from ever living in the US again, though probably not all by themselves. I have strong family and other connections to Ireland.

        You seem to have found your greener grass in France, and that’s good. Our mileages, and those of our friends, do indeed vary.

        Angst has been worldwide since the dawn of time, but I am reluctant to be ruled by horror stories and learned fears. Americans are taught to fear proper health care will raise their tax rates. Europeans are taught to fear lower tax rates will destroy their health care. Both fears are unfounded but counter-support each other, imposing a false dichotomy on us. A pox on both their houses!

      • GKN says:

        I’m not sure about those loopholes, John. Wasn’t Romney caught out paying about 13% last year? And I hear a lot about false addresses in the Cayman Islands, so as to pay nothing. One U.S. senator said not long ago that if that was stopped, it would pretty much wipe out the national debt. But thank you for the interesting data too!

        I think that angst has been worldwide for some time, especially since 2008, but health care is so important that it’s surely worse in what I still call ‘home’. I’ve seen many people go without, because they have to – in the richest country in the world. Last trip home, I miscounted the pills I take for blood pressure and ended up 3 short. Every hospital and dispensary I was referred to offered me 3 pills at a minimum of $100. But this is chicken feed compared to other tales I’ve heard. I’ve come to suspect you may be idealizing a tad! The grass is always greener… (though surely no grass is greener than in Ireland. :) I’ve seen it.

  4. cadavra says:

    All of which can be boiled down to: SAVING MR. BANKS wins Best Picture.

  5. johntshea says:

    The USA seems terrible indeed. Until you consider the alternatives…

    • GKN says:

      Do you mean like universal medical coverage and free college throughout the rest of the western world, John, for about 2% more in taxes? Sounds frightful!

      • John Shea says:

        Interesting, GKN. I happen to be a US citizen, brought to Ireland as a child by my Irish-American parents for various personal reasons, certainly not in search of better social services, since Ireland had less than the USA at that time.

        6 million is indeed significant, depending on over what period, as you acknowledge, but most Americans remain descendants of emigrants from the last two centuries, unlike most other countries, and all western counties except Canada and Australia (depending on one’s definition of ‘western’ of course). And the US population continues to increase, so there is still no net outflow.

        I’m no expert on Irish university costs, except that people complain about them here a lot. The French situation certainly sounds better, but Britain seems to do just as well with an effective top income tax rate of 47% versus France’s 75%.

        US healthcare is indeed exorbitantly and scandalously expensive, for a lot of reasons, lacking in proper priorities, extravagant in some trivial areas and none existent in others. Yet more government money is not the answer. The Affordable Health Care Act is a good idea in principle, except if its reliance on HMOs produces a kind of public/private mishmash, the worst of both worlds. I’m more inclined towards the European-style single payer system, which puts me to the left of President Obama in that particular area, and could save public money, ironically.

        I remain unconvinced that the anxieties John Anderson lists are peculiarly American. ‘HUNGER GAMES’ for example, strongly echoes the Japanese ‘BATTLE ROYALE’ series, and not all his movie examples are even set in the USA, or on Earth in the case of ‘GRAVITY’. And most American movies still reflect an optimism unequaled in any other culture. Some call that optimism deluded of course, but some call all optimism everywhere deluded.

      • GKN says:

        Actually, there are about 6 million Americans who have expatriated themselves, according to wikipedia, John. I can’t vouch for how recent their statistics are, and don’t know if you’d consider that significant enough. Obviously, famines, war and genocides considerably raise the number as a rule. But lacking anything half as harrowing, it seemed like quite a lot.

        Yes, I’ve heard those stories about Ireland from Irish friends (re taxes and health care), and I’m very sorry to hear it. How much do universities cost, on average? I’m in France, where students pay say 200 – to 500 euros a year for inscription and insurance. Not ‘truly’ free exactly, you’re right – but it sure beats 25,000 to 40,000 per year. And I’ve never had to wait or pay out of pocket for any operation or necessary medication.

        To say the US pays twice as much on health per citizen sounds a bit off to me. Someone must’ve averaged those figures out, don’t you think? Considering that so many Americans have had no coverage for so long and can’t afford to take care of themselves or their families, or have lost their homes trying. While on the hand, what is charged for medicine and care is exorbitant, often to scandalous degrees.

      • John Shea says:

        My point, GKN, is that so many people the world over still vote with their feet for the USA, which is almost unique in never having experienced any outflow of its population. When Americans start emigrating in any significant numbers to ‘the rest of the western world’ I’ll reconsider your arguments.

        Nonetheless I see plenty of room for improvement in the USA, mainly in its government, like all countries. Much of ‘the rest of the western world’ has tax rates lower than the USA. About half the members of the EU have top income tax rates of 20% or less, and Russia’s top rate is 13%. Britain lowered its top rate a few months after the USA raised its top rate earlier this year.

        The USA spends twice as much public money per citizen on health than any other country, so Americans are already paying for universal medical coverage twice over. In a few weeks they’ll start getting some of it. I am not aware of any country with truly ‘free college’.

        I live in Ireland, one of the highest taxed of all countries for individuals, where everyone complains endlessly about the universal health coverage and the state runs a parallel private insurance company which allows people to pay extra to avoid the long waits for treatment, which can last for years. And there are copays.

        If where you live is better than the USA, GKN, I’m glad to hear it.

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