As the last in a long, exhausting, three-month parade of self-congratulatory awards shows and “best of the year” recaps, the Academy Awards sometimes come as more of a relief than a climax. Finally we can shut the door on the year that was and move on to the next big things.
When we watch the Oscars we’re often surprised to be reminded that yes, that film from a year ago was from just a year ago. So it goes in our hyperspeed forgetful culture, where it’s hard to remember last week’s viral YouTube clip let alone last year’s blockbuster films. It’s no wonder Academy voters tend to nominate only movies released in the last few months of a year. Everything these days — even the best movies — are so swiftly consumed and disposed. Very little lingers. I’m pleasantly surprised when Academy voters recognize anything from before October (this year’s token early-in-the-year nominee was Beasts of the Southern Wild).
It seems our collective cultural memory is ever more truncated. Who of us can remember the Best Picture winners from recent years? Or if you watch the Oscars more for the fashions, who can remember what anyone wore?
Memory can be as untrustworthy as it is beloved, as fragile and dangerous as it is indispensable. Perhaps because our frantically paced, fragmented contemporary world reinforces the tenuousness of recollection more than ever, many of this year’s films seemed to wrestle with that very theme.
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained played with our culture’s collective memories of slavery and the Civil War, wrestling with the iconography of national heroes and institutions and the lingering stains of a peculiar period in American history.
Zero Dark Thirty and Argo also explored American history, albeit much more recent episodes. The former, like Lincoln, received plenty of criticism for its portrayals of the way things happened — in this case the way torture was or was not an influential part of the quest for Osama Bin Laden. The difficulty of that question—and the feverish handwringing from politicians and commentators that accompanied it—underscores the difficulty we have as our society with truth: locating it, understanding it, reckoning with it, even when it’s such recent history.
Ang Lee’s Life of Pi dealt with this in its own (perhaps heavy-handed) way. The film ends with a postmodern monologue that acknowledges the difficulties we have with narratives of our history (who can ever know what actually happened?) while celebrating the art of storytelling in a “who cares what’s true!” sort of way.
Ben Affleck’s Argo seems to advocate a similar stance toward truth. Both in its celebration of cinematic storytelling as a liberating force (literally) and in its own unabashed stretching of the facts in the historical episode it narrates, Argo traverses the same epistemological terrain as Life of Pi, though perhaps more unknowingly. Affleck probably didn’t set out to make a film that presents so vividly the conundrum of historical truth’s elusiveness and storytelling’s distorting power, but that’s what Argo turns out to be (and not in a good way). In his recent takedown of Argo, critic Andrew O’Hehir calls the film “a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology.” He continues:
Affleck and Terrio are spinning a fanciful tale designed to make us feel better about the decrepit, xenophobic and belligerent Cold War America of 1980 as it toppled toward the abyss of Reaganism, and that’s a more outrageous lie than any of the contested historical points in Lincoln or Zero Dark Thirty. It’s almost hilarious that the grim and ambiguous portrayal of torture in Kathryn Bigelow’s film—torture that absolutely happened, however one judges it and whatever information it did or didn’t produce—was widely decried as propagandistic by well-meaning liberals who never noticed or didn’t care about Affleck and Terrio’s wholesale fictionalization.
It’s unfortunate that Argo appears to be on track to become the next Crash (that is: an extremely undeserving Best Picture winner). Because there were many other 2012 films that more eloquently wrestled with the preoccupations and eccentricities of our present age.
One I commend to you is Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a Turkish drama from Nuri Bilge Ceylan that explores the theme of the elusiveness of truth in a beautifully restrained, curiously ambivalent manner—one that leaves you unsettled precisely because it hits so close to home. The Imposter is another deeply unnerving, absolutely gripping film from 2012 that explores the tension between truth and storytelling. It’s a documentary that depicts a stranger-than-fiction story of identity theft, breached security, and (most disturbingly) one family’s willful self-deception.
The anxieties about truth on display in all of these films seem fitting for a year like 2012 — a politically charged, rhetoric-saturated election year. A year in which the hiddenness of truth and the reality that there are very few “no-spin zones” left in this world became depressingly pronounced. Ours is a world where subjective narratives of every sort — whether 140 character tweets, cable news talking head banter, or blog commentary — bombard us from every which way at nearly all hours of the day. It’s no wonder skepticism about truth and uneasiness about narrative reliability thread through so many of our films.
This present awareness of our weak connections to truth and our fragility in a world so crazed and chaotic has a positive consequence in film as well: a renewed emphasis on the power of human connection and love as a coping mechanism. This can be seen in 2012 films like Moonrise Kingdom, Beasts of the Southern Wild,Silver Linings Playbook, Amour, and Rust and Bone—movies where terrible things happen and suffering abounds, but love for one another becomes an almost salvific balm. This is also evident in my favorite film of 2012, The Dardenne Brothers’ The Kid With a Bike (read my review), which powerfully depicts the redemptive power of sacrificial love between a single woman and an orphaned boy who stumbles into her life.
Of course, relationships can be as fragile, fickle and untrustworthy as are our connections to truth. Films like On the Road. Killing Them Softly, and The Loneliest Planet underscore this point, showing how tenuous our connections to one another can be and how quickly they can turn, especially in an environment of skepticism and “every man for himself” individualism. We live in a world where (for good reason, perhaps), people are more guarded than ever. We’ve seen tragedy and expect it. We’ve been let down too many times and will not be surprised by it again. In such a world it’s hard to open oneself up too readily to anything purporting to be substantial — whether it be love, or “truth,” or a stable family.
Some of the best films—of this year or any year—are those which chip away a bit at this guardedness and invite us to believe in things like love and truth again. For me this year, that was The Kid With the Bike. What was it for you?