Female Oscar Coasters

February 28, 2012

Over two years ago, I wrote these words about a female directed Oscar contending war film: “The film plays this war as it is—an emotional roller coaster of fear and boredom, action and waiting.” Of course, that film was Hurt Locker which would go on to be a (the) big (only) best director Oscar win for a powerful female flick. But I could just as easily so begin a discussion of this year’s female helmed nominee for Best Foreign Picture, Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness, about another war, the Second World one this time. While I do sometimes pen here about both Holocaust and anti-war cinema, due to reasons both familial and political, neither of those themes will be my concern, but rather I will focus instead on this question of Sturm und Drang,  gender and prizes. Can women only win Oscars when they make in a male mode?

For, In Darkness is also first and foremost an unyielding, visceral, ride of a flick that’s macho in form and content: about big issues, History, while also being kinetic, energetic, pulse-popping. Now, what was remarkable about Hurt Locker was how Bigelow not only was all kinesis all the time but also so boy-like in how she stripped emotion from her spastic journey: no melos in her drama.

But Holland’s ride, while also fast and furious, necessarily links this unabating almost intolerable energy to unceasing and deep feeling. Which, of course means that watching this picture is painful: an emotional explosion, a perceptual paroxysm, a sentimental binge and purge. Like a good woman’s film, this emotion occurs in a (very, very, very) contained domicile: a gruesome, enclosed, rat-infested, stinky sewer that a small group of Polish Jews are forced to make into home for over a year. Unlike your typical weepie, however, the suffering is always linked to the home and the (Nazi) state, the personal and the political. And furthermore, keeping her eyes on this particular prize, Holland doesn’t turn the movie into a celebration of her own liberations from the (self-imposed) confinements on her craft. For, also quite recently I wrote this about men shooting films in caves: “both Cave of Forgotten Dreams and 127 Hours use the strictures of extreme, if confined filmmaking (think Dogme 95) as both metaphor and inspiration for the macho and masochistic, exposing a ritual set of beliefs that underline much of filmmaking culture (think Fitzcaraldo or Apocalypse Now): it is this film that will either bring out the man in me, or kill me, or both. As if filmmaking itself is war or torture; as if shooting in caves is mountain climbing or spelunking itself.”

While I may have gotten too mixed up in all my cinematic maneuverings, my point remains pretty simple. It’s exciting and curious to see female directors work so well within forms that we have typically understood as male, while it is always critical to understand how they’ll make them over just the same.

I recently watched Brothers (in a theater) and Taking Chance (at home). They tell opposing tales about Americans’ relationships to our troops—disavowal and send ’em to the dustbin versus hero-worshipping, god-fearing sentimentalism—but they frame depictions of the Iraq War through a shared (and safe) jingoistic, family-values, misogynistic vision of America that ameliorates whatever criticism they may (or may not) be making about our illicit war.

This seems to be the tack of most of the contemporary narrative films about Iraq. While the anti-war movement (or what remains of it) has embraced the position of “supporting our troops,” as any decent, moral human being would do, this can easily slide into supporting our military, our war, and its overt agenda of corporate invasion and empire, or at minimum celebrating the beauty of macho shock and awe. I fear that this slippery slope defines most of what we’ve seen.

I was truly baffled by Taking Chance, which re-imagines American as a fantastical place where people actually care about the war in Iraq, think deeply about the lives that are being lost, and will slow down their busy lives (to convoy remains for five hours through winding mountain highways, for instance)  to honor the sacrifice of our troops. This tear-jerker belies the much sadder reality where most Americans have forgotten the war exists.