Sin City (Oscars Postscript)

So which is Hollywood’s greater sin — rewarding cheeseball blockbusters with serious praise, or rewarding itself for its political awareness with equal seriousness?

The critics tore into “Avatar” for its simplistic political allegory about the environment and corporate greed that portrayed the noble savage as both white man’s burden and salvation. But in his essay in the current New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn wonders why the critics concentrated on the political and ethical issues of the story rather than on whether or not it was original.  Why decry the use of antiquated stereotypes for ethical reasons but not artistic ones? It does seem that the latter is accepted and forgiven (and probably expected) while the former is not. The two are not equally offensive, and perhaps they shouldn’t be.

But the critics seemed to have missed the point completely with the other cheeseball movie that won significant praise last Sunday night: “The Blind Side.” And “The Blind Side” doesn’t have the gorgeous, exuberant 3D world that made the  plot of “Avatar” easy to accept and sit through. While the critics did slam “The Blind Side” for its heavy-handed and sappy delivery of a true story, they neglected to take it to task for its much larger problem. It was a sappy and heavy-handed movie about a rich white woman in the South with an earthy take no prisoners attitude (whom Sarah Palin undoubtedly adores) who decides to take in a black boy and save him from what would surely have been a less privileged life.  That he ends up a successful professional football player seems to only thicken the problematic plot. While it is based on a true story (one that I was kind of shocked to learn was written by Michael Lewis) and the real life family are undoubtedly wonderful, generous people, it is a bit bizarre that the major critics didn’t find fault with the story of a poor black boy finding salvation through white people and through football. When I saw the preview I actually could not believe  this movie was produced and then could not believe its trajectory. Best Picture nominee? Best Actress Oscar? 

The Academy seems to have awarded Sandra Bullock the Oscar for her role as America’s New Sweetheart, and that’s nothing new,  Julia Roberts won the America’s Sweetheart Oscar for her earthy heroine role in “Erin Brockovich.”  But usually that type of Oscar is awarded for a role that is pseudo-political in a very uncontroversial way, or is a fun somewhat cinematically serious romp (like Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line” and Gwyneth Paltrow in “Shakespeare in Love” ). This movie seems to fall into the pseudo-political uncontroversial camp, but it really isn’t. While individual moral actions are probably more important than one’s politics, the tone of the story seems to have more of a Tea Party appeal of “real America” and individual action as a way to buck the broken system.  The critics stood up for the Navi by criticizing  the antiquated stereotype of the noble savage  but did not find  fault with “The Blind Side” where real people in a real America are portrayed.

At a roundtable discussion on Charlie Rose before the Oscars,  that included A.O. Scott from the New York Times and several other prominent movie critics from Slate and Salon, this issue did not arise once.  Actually A.O. Scott predicted that “The Blind Side” might be the dark horse for best picture (!) . Of course that does not equal endorsement but he also didn’t qualify his prediction and did not find fault with the movie on this level in his review in the Times

“The Blind Side” is perfect  for trying to decide which sin is greater — rewarding a  hammy script and hammier acting vs. Hollywood praise and self-congratulation for a movie that is actually ethically and politically kind of appalling. That the Academy considers itself “liberal” and “progressive” underscores how out of touch it seems to be and creates perfect fodder for people like Andrew Breitbart — canny conservatives who pounce on the easy targets of the politically naive and self-righteous folks on the left.  It’s ok to be a celebrity with a cause, it’s actually probably even a good thing, sometimes a great thing. But really? The Blind Side?

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