Oscar Emerges from Chaos at NYFF
by Stephen Holt
‚ÄúChaos reigns!‚Äù said the suddenly talking fox in Lars von Trier‚Äôs latest gore-and-upchuck opus ‚ÄúAntichrist‚Äù at this year‚Äôs New York Film Festival. One thing that that misogynistic, repellent, controversial film made clear to me though was, there was no way the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members were gonna pop THAT DVD into their players come nominating time. Despite stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg giving their ALL (and maybe way too much), this was NOT an Oscar movie.¬†Female genital mutilation in graphic close-up left people, me included, wanting to scream and run for the exits. I couldn‚Äôt believe that both TIFF and NYFF were screening it. Extreme torture porn masquerading as art, however, is NOT the Academy‚Äôs dish.
Although extreme topics are not outside Oscar‚Äôs lately edgy and historically lefty world view.¬†Like for instance, the ironically titled ‚ÄúPrecious‚Äù (Based on the novel ‚ÄúPush‚Äù by Sapphire) which was all the rage and the center of the Oscar hurricane that always begins to take shape at this time of year as Toronto, and then the New York Film Festivals pave the way for the road to the Oscars.
With producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry in the mix ‚ÄúPrecious‚Äù was the Numero Uno Oscar topic at both TIFF and NYFF. With the Best Picture nominations now a field of ten, ‚ÄúPrecious‚Äù I feel is IN. Like Flint.¬†‚ÄúPrecious‚Äù deals with extreme subject matter, too. Incest, rape, abuse of all kinds -sexual, physical, psychological against a bitter background of welfare offices and the mean streets of¬†Harlem¬†housing projects¬†- but it does it in a rather magnificent, original way. One that strangely reminded me of Charles Dickens and his hapless underclass orphans being pursued by the evil Bill Sykes and his ilk.
There‚Äôs an uber-villain at the dark heart of ‚ÄúPrecious,‚Äù too, the likes of which you‚Äôll never forget. As personified by stand-up comedienne Mo‚ÄôNique, it‚Äôs a role that I think has already won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Or at the very least, a nomination in that category, even though she is ostensibly one of the two leads.¬†This heretofore under-utilized, but supremely gifted African American performer just tears up the screen and terrorizes the audience as much as she does her hapless 300 lb. daughter, Precious. Mo‚ÄôNique‚Äôs ghastly, violent Welfare-Mother-from-Hell is a creation that will haunt your dreams. She‚Äôs right up there with Hannibal Lechter and Anton Cigurh as one of the great, horrifying screen villains. That she‚Äôs a woman and a mother makes Mo‚ÄôNique‚Äôs protrayal even more horrific. And lest we forget, both Hannibal the Cannibal and the helmet-haired Anton Cigurh of ‚ÄúNo Country for Old Men‚Äù won Anthony Hopkins and Javier Bardem, who played them, Oscars. Hollywood loves to honor its‚Äô most dastardly villains. ¬†
Precious has been raped and impregnated not once but TWICE by her own father(!) much to her mother‚Äôs and her own mortification and fright. It was, the skilled filmmaking of director Lee Daniels points out, something neither of them had any power to stop.¬† Newcomer Gabourney Sidibe as Precious is seriously looking at an Oscar nomination as Best Actress¬†herself for her searing, unforgettable portrayal. Her wealth of humanity and heart moves the audience to tears and cheers when she finally stands up for herself. Daniels‚Äô nuanced directing of Sidibe and Mo‚ÄôNique as well as an almost unrecognizable Mariah Carey as a caring social worker could also garner him Oscar attention. If so, he‚Äôd be only the second African American nominated for Best Director. John Singleton was the only other previous Oscar Nominee for Best Director for ‚ÄúBoys N the Hood.‚Äù
Another film at the savvy NYFF that has already sealed its‚Äô Oscar deal, this time for Best Foreign Film, is Michael Haneke‚Äôs masterpiece ‚ÄúThe White Ribbon.‚Äù ‚ÄúDas Weisse Bande‚Äù (in German) is Germany‚Äôs official selection for Foreign Film and like Mo‚ÄôNique‚Äôs ghastly Ghetto mother in ‚ÄúPrecious,‚Äù I think ‚ÄúThe White Ribbon‚Äù an even more horrifying, grisly film with no redemption in it whatsoever, has already won its‚Äô much-deserved Oscar.¬†‚ÄúThe White Ribbon‚Äù is one of the best films I‚Äôve ever seen.
Made in stark, icy Black and White, shot in HD, and with a pace that is initially slower than a funeral march, Michael Haneke gradually, carefully weaves his spider‚Äôs web of intrigue, murder, child molestation and yes, again that topic that informs ‚ÄúPrecious,‚Äù incest.¬†A seemingly inexplicable accident fells the horse of the town‚Äôs only doctor at the beginning of the film. A wire, it turns out, was strung from tree to tree at ankle‚Äôs height, tripping up the horse and injuring the doctor, who seems at first the only sympathetic figure in this tiny, rural village in pre-WWI Germany. At a snail‚Äôs pace, the film lulls you into a false sense of security as you watch the seemingly trivial daily grind of these farmers, their families and the other village authority figures, who run all the peasants‚Äô lives with a grip of iron. Slowly, Haneke piles deceptive detail upon deceptive, domestic detail building a thriller as well as a whodunit, until about an hour in, he springs the trap and you‚Äôre caught, like a wild animal or one of the film‚Äôs several child victims, all trying to escape. But it is useless to struggle, you‚Äôve been had by a master of suspense at the height of his dark powers.
All the many families depicted here also have many, many children. At first, there are so many of them, all with wide blue eyes and blond hair that it is almost impossible to tell them apart. The central family, you don‚Äôt realize til you‚Äôve seen them several times, is the village‚Äôs vicar. And you really need to pay attention to who is who and what is what in this frightening film with a large cast of incredibly talented, but unknown German actors, adult and children. The Protestant church and its‚Äô stringent teachings, with its rigid regimen of discipline and punishment, and of course, prejudice against any outsider or anyone wavering from the Christian norm, is the true villain here.
‚ÄúThe White Ribbon‚Äù is a scorching indictment of nearly every character depicted in the film, and of the German people themselves, clearly, carefully, coldly laying out the circumstances of just how Nazi-ism and the Third Reich were able to rise to their horrible destiny from the simplest, simply mundane origins.¬†As the film ends with endless shots of wheat fields glowing in the summer sun, it is not just WWII and the holocaust that is indicted and anticipated here, it is the coming of WWI and Germany‚Äôs destructive force in Europe, which irrevocably marred the 20th century, and all our lives. In its simplicity, horror is even more horrifying in Haneke‚Äôs dark masterwork.