27 January 2007

Seeking a Sense of Hope at the Oscars

Earlier this week I remarked on how the Newbery Medal (granted this week) and the Oscars (nominees announced this week) both tend to go to Serious work, as our culture defines it. Pirates of the Caribbean movies don't win Best Picture Awards, even when they’re very, very good.

I also opined that this year’s Newbery honorees match most other current Serious children’s novels in offering a “sense of hope.” That doesn’t mean the protagonists succeed at all they’ve set out to do, but the books end with those young people (and, presumably, young readers) looking up again at the road ahead. Does the same apply to Serious movies these days? Or are movies for adults (like novels for adults) able to leave their audiences with feelings of resigned acceptance, ennui, cynicism, fatalism, etc.?

Now whenever we consider how books or movies leave their partakers, we have to talk about how they end, so this posting will be nothin’ but *** SPOILERS ***.

Let’s consider The Depahted. (I use the indigenous pronunciation out of respect for my Boston neighbors.) What “sense of hope” does that movie leave us with? That a rogue ex-cop can exact revenge for his colleagues and escape his past as a white rapper? That Alec Baldwin is still alive and available for 30 Rock? That a really great Beacon Hill apartment has suddenly come on the market? That's not much hope.

And yet The Depahted is considered one of the more commercial, crowd-pleasing movies in this Best Picture lineup. For one thing, it's in English, almost. It has a lot of plot twists and gunshots. But it sure doesn’t end with assurance that all is well.

For adults, it seems, catharsis can be enough to complete a story. Plot resolutions don’t have to be wrapped up with a hopeful ribbon. As for the road ahead, it would be hard to imagine a movie in which more major characters end up dead. But then there’s Letters from Iwo Jima. (And, I suppose, Hamlet.)

The Queen is a terrific drama or social comedy, depending on your mood, but it’s like visiting your grandparents and realizing how you accommodate all their strange habits just because they’re your grandparents. At the end I felt closer to all the main characters, but I felt no hope that any of them can become better people.

I think Babel is a “sense of hope” movie in the most modern sense, making the case for global connections even in the face of global divides. And the comedy Little Miss Sunshine certainly throws hope at viewers: reassurance that when you put your little daughter in a hotel room with your junkie father, he may die but she’ll still learn to dance like a stripper when it counts. But of the five Best Picture nominees, I think a majority don't offer a “sense of hope” as a main ingredient.

That’s not to say that Oscar-winning movies are less bound by traditions and expectations than children’s literature. Indeed, as I noted before, I think the tradition of honoring mostly Serious work is even stronger in cinema than in kids’ books. But at least right now movies for grown-ups aren’t measured by their “sense of hope.”


Sherry said...

The hopelessness of a great deal of adult literature and of Oscar winning, film critic favorite movies is the reason why no one I know has even heard of, much less seen, most of the movies nominated for Best Picture. If we want children to avoid the Newbery Award books in droves, perhaps actually staging protests against hopeless books rather than resigning themselves to reading something adults give awards to and actually ending up liking them sometimes, take out that pesky little sense of hope. (And take out all the fun, too.)

The only one of the movies nominated for Best Picture that I have heard of, out here in the hinterlands of Major Suburbia, is Little Miss Sunshine. I haven't seen it, but I'm assuming from the title and some of the reviews I've read, it has a sense of hope. I have no hope that that it will win the Oscar.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sherry and other hopeful readers,

I too went to see Little Miss Sunshine, thinking that it would be lighthearted and uplifting. I did not find it so.
In my opinion,
heroin addiction is not funny,
heroin overdoses are not funny,
and overdosing with heroin in a situation such that a child will be the first one to find you is not funny at all.

Don't get me started on families who would let their little girl sleep in a motel room with an older male drug user while the girl's mother stays with her husband, son, and brother in a diffferent room. There were other male adults in the family who could have been in the room with the drug user, and the girl and her mother could have roomed together. To do otherwise is not taking care of the child.

As you may be able to tell, I found the movie very disquieting. It was meant to be funny, but it was not.