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The State of the Race: Hand Covers Bruise

In each of the five films nominated for Best Director by the Directors Guild yesterday, overcoming an obstacle to become a winner drives the main characters. Micky needs to rid himself of his brother’s shadow and his own lack of self worth, Nina needs to rid herself of her repressed, infantilized vision of herself to become a perfect dancer. Cobb needs to overcome the guilt he feels in planting the idea in his wife’s head that the dream was the reality. And finally, George VI needed to overcome his fears of being King, of speaking publicly, of rising to the occasion and ruling a country at war.
The one character who stands in stark contrast to these four is Mark Zuckerberg, the version of him created by Aaron Sorkin, David Fincher and Jesse Eisenberg — he found a faster way around his lack of social skills: he built a social network to do that for him, and in so doing became the youngest billionaire in the world.

Critics of The Social Network seem to misinterpret their own dislike for Zuckerberg as an unintended consequence of the film, a flaw as it were, a reason the film can’t win Best Picture Рbut the truth of it is a bigger pill to swallow. And that reason is this: we aren’t used to digesting characters this intricate and complex. The Zuckerberg on screen isn’t your usual cinematic hero Рhe’s spectral Рdark and brooding, vulnerable at times, funny, awkward, and yet coils like a rattle snake when he feels threatened. The truth of Mark Zuckerberg is that he wanted to do something “big” and no one really saw him coming.

There are only two movies right now that have been nominated for every guild: The Social Network and Black Swan. Ironic, being that both films feature imperfect, supposedly “unlikable” characters. Women (and film critics) supposedly didn’t like Nina because they thought she was too weak. Women supposedly didn’t like Zuckerberg because he was sexist or because he throws out zingers like “Ma’am, I know you did your homework so you know I don’t care about money but right now I could buy Mount Auburn Street, take the Phoenix Club and turn it into my ping pong room.” Enough viewings of the film will betray Zuckerberg’s lashing out, however, because the brilliant Jesse Eisenberg balances this with moments of sadness and isolation Рwe do feel for him, against our better judgment. Andrew Garfield is, without question, the film’s emotional center Рbut who doesn’t have moments of true like and empathy for Hannibal Lecter, Eve Harrington and yes, Mark Zuckerberg?

Similarly, Nina plays the aloof, frigid swan queen to her fellow dancers. She is a portrait of fear and insecurity. And what a boring performance hers would be if we didn‚Äôt also see shades of what truly drives Nina to emerge victorious. Hitchcock observed that the audience is with a character even when that character is doing something distasteful – he used the car sinking in Psycho as an example. We somehow want that car to sink, we want Bates to cover his crime – not because we rationally want him to get away with a brutal murder but because, in that moment, we are with him. We are with Nina, we are with Zuckerberg — we can‚Äôt help ourselves. We judge them, and so we must judge ourselves: what would we do to create a platform like Facebook that has infiltrated every corner of the internet? What would we do to dance Swan Lake with the kind of perfection that is written about for decades?

Doesn’t Nina, does Mark remind us of the very Oscar race we are covering? Isn’t there a bit of that manic drive in every one of the filmmakers and contenders in the race? The bloggers, the journalists, the publicists Рall fighting to win?

Since the guilds are most indicative of what Oscar will do, and since Oscar represents a snapshot of us at a particular moment in time, what do these two movies say about us as we head into 2011?

I have been covering the Oscar race before, during and after 9/11 and I have been observing how that day changed everything. It did impact the Oscar race. Things had to shift because our consciousness has shifted and shifted further. We have headed out of the Bush era, and into the Obama era. For a while there, we were hopeful. But that other shoe dropped quickly and the recession hit the world over. At the same time, bigger things have shifted – how we consume products, who builds them, who sells them – how we communicate with each other, meet and fall in love with each other, stay married to each other.¬† If the Oscar race reflects the mood of the country, and if we are currently witnessing a Renaissance within the Academy — where great films are once again being recognized, despite their darker, more hopeless themes — it can‚Äôt be that surprising that of the five films nominated for the DGA, three of the strongest ones are far more dark and more complex than any other films in the race.

The Social Network, Black Swan and Inception are three different ways of representing reality. The other two films, The King’s Speech and The Fighter are fairly straightforward true stories about unlikely heroes. The Fighter, though directed by David O. Russell with a feel-good ending, still feels like a dark, unconventional pick for the Best Picture race. O. Russell is one of the darker filmmakers anyway, so his touches are all over The Fighter, even if they are at odds with the film’s truth.

The King’s Speech, in its own way, represents a deconstructionist’s view of the monarchy. This has become an ongoing process of dismantling their projection of superiority Рstarting with Princess Diana’s exposing of them, evolving with The Queen’s more sympathetic but still revealing look at Queen Elizabeth, and now this, a unique perspective on the more familiar story of Wallis Simpson. We now sympathize not with her and her own fallen King, but with the reluctant King Рthe one who couldn’t speak very well.

In looking at the main characters in these five films, one of the main similarities between them is their inability to articulate themselves adequately Рthey can’t just blurt it out, partly because they physically can’t, as in King George VI, but partly because they won’t. Deeply buried hostilities and fears prevent them from expressing themselves.

Micky is a reluctant fighter, Nina is a reluctant ballerina, King George is a reluctant leader, Cobb is a reluctant participant in real life: he can’t let go of her, so he can’t let go of the dream. And finally, Mark is reluctant or unable to communicate adequately with most people, so he invents the ultimate tool out of that misery.

Among all five main characters, four of whom are men, the two most compelling are the two most “unlikable.” Perhaps it isn’t, then, about likability but about complexity; they fascinate us with our contradictions much like the characters in films that dominated the 1970s РFive Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver, Chinatown, The Godfather.  It’s worth mentioning here that The Godfather won big twice, even though its main character was one of the meanest, coldest characters every put to film. But that was in the 1970s. The awards race hasn’t circled these kinds of darker characters or themes. Until now.

In fact, this year might very well have been represented by the former rebels of cinema: Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, Clint Eastwood, Peter Weir Рall of whom have films out this year. Instead, we have the new generation of rebel wunderkinds. As someone pointed out on Twitter, it’s hard to believe that David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan, David O. Russell and Joel and Ethan Coen all have films in the Oscar race. What a year for visionary directors 2010 has been.

The directors lead the charge this year because most of them at the top of the pile have been doing great, uncompromising work for years and are only now starting to enter the Oscar race in a big way. Christopher Nolan is one who has never backed off of what he wants to say with his films and with Inception, he has made nothing less than the most daring film out of a major studio this year — daring because it doesn‚Äôt treat the audience like they‚Äôre a pack of stupid people — and daring because it has invented a completely different world that exists inside of us. He pulled it off because he focused on the story. The visual effects are there only to enhance what is at the root of Inception. One has to spend some time ruminating on it but that‚Äôs a trip worth taking.

And so, it comes down to this: We are intelligent people more than capable of appreciating characters who are deeply flawed, confused and confusing. We see ourselves in them; we don’t look for corrections.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t still some lingering and profound need for an uplift. There is nothing quite as sweet or moving as the way King George VI finds his voice and gives, imperfectly, the speech of his career. When Micky starts training again and finds his own “voice” he fights to win. He has everything he wants Рhis family and his ability to finally fight on his own. Both films offer some relief from the otherwise bleak landscape of Oscar 2010.

But to see, finally, that the guilds have found a universal liking for The Social Network and Black Swan ought to finally put to rest the idea that voters can’t handle the kinds of complexities of story offered up here. They look at them and they see what are just plainly good movies, maybe even great movies.

The best stories, after all, take you somewhere else entirely. And, to close with another quote from T.S. Eliot, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”