Ben begins: After I watched Ikiru, I couldn’t sleep. Literally could not sleep. The film wrecked me. Wrecked me good. The next day I sought intellectual sanctuary from the overwhelming emotional damage I was experiencing. But the excellent historical and analytical commentary in the Criterion special features was no help. I was depressed. The film depressed me. For a number of days. And here’s the thing. What depressed me was the hope in it. So faint, so fragile, so dignified…so sad.
That was some years ago and looking back on it now, I challenge anyone reading this to come up with higher praise for a work of art. This is not to revel in an adolescent “emo” celebration of the feeling of being devastated inside. This is maturely to acknowledge the phenomenology of personal feeling as such. To be so profoundly affected by a work of art, whatever the feeling, this is a gift that isn’t often given. It is actually extremely rare, truly precious. So the first thing I have to say about Ikiru—and ultimately to Kurosawa—is thank you.
I tendered my review at the time in order to initiate my own therapy. I had seen and reviewed Rashomon immediately prior to viewing Ikiru. So I initially staked out a claim on my mental health by the tried and true tactic of comparison. What follows with respect to this is a revision of my position back then. Then, I only tentatively suggested that Ikiru should be ranked above Rashomon. That was just a crippled critic barely talking. Today I do not tentatively suggest this—I state it plainly.
Rashomon is a total head case. Ikiru is a spike to the heart. Certainly this is a vulgar oversimplification. Even so, Rashomon resonates morality secondarily; strongly, very strongly, but ultimately as an epiphenomenon of the epistemological study at the center of it all. And it is very much a study, an intellectual exercise, almost an academic investigation. It is authentically situated socially and this contextualization is what allows it to be genuinely ethical too. Still, Rashomon is first and foremost a sort of mental chess game about the relativity of truth. It’s a film for lawyers, if you will, and the impression that all is sophistry is only erased by the ethical redemption that inexplicably and perhaps unconvincingly occurs at the very end of the film.
Ikiru, on the other hand, is a shotgun blast of existential desperation. It is suffused with moral anguish that seeps from every pore. Eventually this takes on an overtly politicized expression. We are deep into Camus territory. Not just the Camus of The Myth of Sisyphus, the Camus too of The Rebel. The singular person isolated in the universe, confronted by the sheer fact of personal death, is ground zero. Thus, the point of departure is itself the destination; let’s just call it, shivering naked unto darkness. This is gut level. To be or not to be, and by the way, whatever.
And yet, Ikiru enters into the question that remains to confront the individual who paradoxically rejects suicide in order to die freely: What is to be done? Action, some action, must be taken. The sadness and loneliness of Ikiru are inescapable and difficult to bear. But an action is taken. Not just a gesture, not just symbolically—real political praxis. This independent, practical, contribution to the commonwealth, this private act that comes into being as a public Good, with a capital “G”—this is what makes the film sublime.
At the end of Rashomon, when the woodcutter adopts the abandoned baby, the monk thanks him for restoring his faith in mankind. Clearly, Ikiru doesn’t even come close to handing us this ice cream cone. with its triple scoop of idealistic virtue. Ikiru is bleak man. But it is against this black canvas that one stroke of white paint stands out as so much bright light. Watanabe does build the park. He does! And we do get to see children playing in it. When he has the epiphany that he can do something, the other people in the restaurant sing “Happy Birthday” in an incidental scene, but it is clear, Watanabe is born again. Kurosawa alludes to the tune in the background music later on as well. The man ends his life on a swing, a happy child…for just the briefest of moments. He dies with the Zen wisdom of one who “doesn’t know any better,” doesn’t know that “it can’t be done.” Hence, he got it done.
Not alone though. The Camus interpretation of Ikiru—like Camus’ political philosophy generally—is only so illuminating. I won’t go so far as to suggest that Ikiru is a socialist film with obvious class consciousness. But I do want to point out that Watanabe’s activism does not confirm any sort of liberal atomistic view of society. It does not take place in a social vacuum and Watanabe is no solitary Christ on a cross. The long wake scene—almost a film in its own right—is by itself a scathing satire of fellow-feeling subjected to hierarchical management, compassion in the service of career advancement. Placed in the film as a whole, the scene builds on the exposure of the ineffectual procedures and hypocritical policies of the government. That the film presents a critique of the civil service and public institutions in the supposedly “new” Japan of the post-war period is impossible to miss. That this reconstruction of Japan is under the thumb of US imperial design is not as plain, but still evident. When the women finally complain after being given the bureaucratic run-around that they are not going to be bamboozled by bogus “democracy,” they are turning the American ideological warfare bombarding them against itself.
And speaking of these women, they are not trivial in this film. In fact, the role of womanhood is serious business throughout. If it is reasonable to put Ikiru into any sort of socialist focus, this could only be seen by looking through a feminist lens. The dead wife, the girl who quits the office, even the dancehall whores—but I will confine myself to the community mothers in relation to Watanabe’s existential/political turning point. They are a unified collective. They have social consciousness. They bring a practical problem forward and in doing so, they give Watanabe the opportunity to actually do something with his life. Their solidarity gives him a second chance. What is more, the women truly acknowledge him. They are the benefactors of his life’s work and to this they are his witnesses. They really did come to know Watanabe and they genuinely mourn his death at the wake. He is not an unknown soldier. They will tell their children who built the park.
Ikiru is a monster artistic achievement. If asked to select one and only Kurosawa film as definitive of his entire oeuvre, I would select Red Beard. But Ikiru is the masterpiece that also had to be made and had to be made first in order for the artist to create his definitive work. Be this as it may, Ikiru is my personal favorite. And if asked to select one and only one scene from Ikiru as definitive of the whole film, I would reject the assignment, especially considering Criterion screwed up this time by putting it on the outside of the DVD case. Be this as it may, my “favorite” scene is of Watanabe standing alone in the street, beyond despondent, with all of the noisy urban commotion going on around him. Kurosawa completely turns off the audio track momentarily. There’s not a sound. For an instant Ikiru is a silent movie. And the image on the screen is absolutely heartbreaking.
The film starts appropriately enough with the shot of an x-ray, for with Ikiru, Kurosawa plans to peer into the dark heart of post-war Japan’s fear and loathing. The cancer eating at the gut of Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), the film’s protagonist, is clearly symptomatic of a systemic illness that has struck Japanese society. As Stephen Prince points out on the Criterion disc of Ikiru, given the film’s rather savage critique of conditions in post-war Japan, it could not have been made even six months earlier, when all productions needed governmental (and American) approval. So, it is something of a minor miracle of timing that Ikiru got the go ahead; beyond that, Ikiru is something of a monumental achievement in filmmaking.
You won’t go so far as to suggest that Ikiru is obviously a socialist film. Well, it is true that as a younger man, Kurosawa flirted with Marxist politics. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to build a playground. Sure, you could take the Capra-esque position that good things happen in Ikiru because an ethical individual won’t allow a moribund system to prevent them from happening. But the film also anchors us in the social reality that there is an entire community of people out there who want good things to happen, and will not rest until it is so. So, if not strictly socialist, Ikiru is still rooted in the notion that collective action is essential in matters of social change. As for the hausfraus, you are definitely onto something, as they are a vital humanizing influence on this faceless bureaucracy, as well as the conscience of this fractured community.
The structure of the film is fascinating, when taken from this vantage point. In the film’s first half, we watch first hand Watanabe’s response to the news of his impending mortality, and he is not exactly gracious in acknowledging this defeat. He is at turns morose and pitiful, indulgent and angry as he drinks, sings and whores his way around Tokyo. However, the film takes an interesting turn upon Watanabe’s death at the half-way mark. Somewhat surprisingly, we learn second hand, through a series of flashbacks, that our hero enjoyed a change of heart and dedicated himself to a cause. And he does not take up just any old cause; it is the aforementioned cause of the housewives, the community’s conscience. In the end, Watanabe finds meaning not by indulging his grief, but by moving outside of the personal (his death) and into the political, the communal (his tenacious pursuit of a children’s playground.)
The film’s structure reinforces this message. In the first half of the film, Watanabe is immersed in his own misery; he cannot seem to find meaning in anything. He is part of the problem, as his foot dragging is symptomatic of the entire moribund bureaucracy, and guarantees that nothing will ever get done. However, when Watanabe’s story unfolds through the stories of members of his colleagues in the film’s second half, we see a man who has found purpose through public action. The community informs us that Watanabe did not remain wallowing in the knowledge of his death; instead, he used that knowledge to spur his commitment to do some good for the people of his community. It is easy to see why he is one of Kurosawa’s favorite actors, as the craggy-faced Shimura gives a performance, which by necessity covers the waterfront. It is one of cinema’s finest.
Therefore, the film must be seen to have small moments of hope. While it is tempting to get all cynical and remember that all the bureaucrats backtrack on their promises to become more involved and constructive in honor of Watanabe’s memory, one of them does stop to look at the playground. One does remember him. And yes, certainly, the women will carry on his memory through their children.
Still and all, the film’s iconic image—of Watanabe on the swing—is just so awesome and beautiful that, years later when you think back on the film, you will almost forget that this is one of the saddest movies ever made.
Yes, one of the (minor) bureaucrats does stop on the bridge to look at the playground. It is the same guy who most sincerely spoke of Watanabe’s achievement at the wake and who later attempted to do something on the job, momentarily challenging the authority of the new supervisor. But this outburst comes to nothing. And it is after this incident that he is shown on the bridge with the sunset Watanabe discovered again behind him, watching the children in the park. Of course, it’s ambiguous. But for me, this individual does not represent hope. All I’ve got is the mothers. And their kids, especially the kids.
Don’t give up on that bureaucrat! At least he has a conscience, which distinguishes him from most around him.
Yes, he has a conscience. And he once tried to take action. But will he try again? He’s no Watanabe. (He’s not even a wannabe Watanabe.) But he can hardly be blamed for this, what with Watanabe being something very close to a saint. Which brings me to an analytical and even slightly critical consideration of how his character is revealed to us in the film.
I have already touched on the long wake scene pretty much being a little film in its own right. But the way it works in the film as a whole is even more remarkable. We never see Watanabe doing his good deed, we hear about it after the fact from others. Hence the tremendous impact of seeing him one last time at the end of the film. The return of his image is a visual coda that feels like him coming back from the dead. Naturally—no, almost supernaturally—this seals the deal on his reputation for having walked in the footsteps of Christ while he was alive; for devoting himself completely to a work of charity; for performing an act that is best understood as a minor miracle.
Minor miracles are the same as major miracles, however, when subjected to realistic scrutiny. We never see Watanabe taking care of his saintly business because it is highly improbable that he would have been able to take care of even basic business. In his special features commentary, Stephen Prince points out that one of the great strengths of Ikiru is that it fundamentally avoids what Hollywood turns into a sensationalistic orgy—the explicit demonstration of the physical agony of the terminally ill central character. This is correct. For the most part, we do not see Watanabe suffer physically. Prince is astute but at the same time, this is the unrealistic aspect of the film. The banal truth is, Watanabe would have been too riddled with pain or too doped up and way too weak from his disease to walk down the street for a coffee and a slice of pie, never mind lead a small revolution.
Let’s call this unbelievable solitary stoicism the return of Camus at the hard core of Ikiru. Or if you prefer, it’s the poet Kurosawa doing what he is licensed to do. Either way, though, Watanabe is an unrealistic character insofar as his suffering is invisible to others until well after the fact. No, his suffering is not absolutely private. He does make it known to the girl working in his office and to a total stranger as well. But this happens before we learn of his missionary work, before we know of his conversion, before we are sure that here is a man who will follow the highest ethical calling before he dies. In short, it doesn’t count because he has yet to become a martyr. In the wake of his death, he undergoes veritable canonization. And we in the audience can only accept this mythology about the man because we have been denied access to a candid telling of his complete history; no doubt (and alas) featuring in the end a hospital bed and significant palliative care.
Kurosawa does not face this realistically in Ikiru. But no worries. For he looks it straight in the eye in his definitive work, Red Beard.
Why Ikiru avoids a realistic depiction of Watanabe’s physical deterioration is a question worth exploring, for it certainly does render his final acts more miraculous than realistic. Further, you refer to Watanabe’s “solitary stoicism” as a key aspect of the character’s unbelievability during his transformation from piteous self-involvement to admirable community-mindedness. Simply put, Watanabe would be suffering unendurably during his crusade, and we are kept at arm’s length from this. It certainly defies the tenets of realism to believe that he would have been capable of such a determined effort while enduring this disease’s final stages of suffering.
This is all true. Of course, the counter argument, as suggested by Prince, is that there would be a very real danger of slipping into melodrama while attempting to depict a character getting all these things done as he struggles with the debilitating effects of cancer. And so I understand Kurosawa’s reticence here, because there are certainly moments during the wake when matters edge a little bit too closely to soap opera excess. It wouldn’t have taken much to push the film over the edge, so considering this, I will grant the filmmaker some latitude.
Further, Watanabe’s character presents a difficult conundrum for Kurosawa at this point. If he presents his protagonist’s physical deterioration honestly, his accomplishments would seem beyond belief, verging on the superheroic, which would have destroyed the film’s often meticulous verisimilitude. Yet, keeping Watanabe’s terrible pain largely to himself leaves Kurosawa equally open to charges of implausibility. All of which is to say, I’m torn about this aspect of the film. It is a Hobson’s choice I am glad I did not have to make. I will say that the film we are left with is devastating; I am not sure if any other ending would have had the same effect upon me.
Dan Jardine is the publisher of Cinemania.
Ben Livant is a jazz lover and good friend of Dan’s who he has been lending movies to for a while now.
Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva
Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.
The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.
Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.
Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.
There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”
Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.
An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.
Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.
To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.
Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.
Berlinale runs from February 7—17.
Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology
These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.
The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.
Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.
Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.
What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.
These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.
Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.
Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.
The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.
The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.
A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.
It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.
Berlinale runs from February 7—17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing
Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?
Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:
People, actual fucking people, are watching scene after scene like this and are saying “bruuuh! best. movie. of. the. year”?
This is objectively bad. Someone with no idea about editing will notice it. My brain is on fire thinking that this is an OSCAR NOMINATED MOVIE! FUCK! pic.twitter.com/QVDCxe2iaf
— Pramit Chatterjee 🌈 (@pramitheus) January 26, 2019
Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that seems like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)
We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: BlacKkKlansman
Should Win: BlacKkKlansman