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What We Talk About When We Talk About Film

What We Talk About When We Talk About Film
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By Alison Bailes

In reviewing films these days, it is almost impossible to focus solely on what is on screen rather than the hubbub brewing around them. Is “Boyhood” a magnificent, intimate epic about growing up or is it a glorified home movie patched together with a clever soundtrack? Is “American Sniper” a gripping portrayal of a boots-on-the-ground soldier doing what he is trained to do or is it a xenophobic, simplistic portrait of rah–rah American patriotism with a blood-thirsty maniac at its center? It is becoming increasingly difficult to separate one’s viewing experience from the myriad op-ed and water-cooler dissections of the politics and maneuverings behind the machinery of filmmaking.

And never more so than at this time of year, when film studios and marketing agencies spend millions of dollars to sway the court of public opinion in favor of their product with an eye to taking home a coveted Academy Award. Viewing “The Imitation Game”, a thrilling, old-fashioned piece of cinema, we now have to consider what to think about the petition that has landed on the doorstep of Prime Minister David Cameron to pardon 49,000 men convicted of Gross Indecency by the British Government in the 1950s. The protagonist of the film, Alan Turing was indeed pardoned, mainly because it became known that he was instrumental in cracking the Germans’ Enigma code machine during the Second World War. What about the others? Surely they deserve the same treatment. And if a film can effect social or political change, then we should applaud. But is this sidebar what we should judge the film on? A film should be judged on its merits as effective cinema…superb acting, clear scripting, tight directing…rather than merely its political message or good intentions. If it can do both, then all the better.

Last week I reviewed “Fifty Shades of Grey” and found myself neck-deep in the hot topics of male chauvinism, female submissiveness and self-actualization. I came out in favor of the film (despite the lovely, cringe-worthy cheesiness of it all). At the end, Anastasia Steele, our nervous Nellie protagonist becomes a confident woman who knows what she does and doesn’t want. She chooses self-dignity over obsessive love and walks away from a gorgeous, rich, attentive man. But the polemics that are raging over this box office hit!!! The feminist group Stop Porn Culture called for a boycott as did several domestic abuse organizations and the Roman Catholic archbishop of Cincinnati.

The mind boggles at the thought of the archbishop actually watching Christian and Ana in the Red Room of Pain, but if he had, he might have come to the same conclusion I did: mediocre movie about a consenting sexual relationship between two adults. Big whoop. Having not read the sequels to “Fifty Shades of Grey”, but knowing they exist, I am well aware that Ana will not be able to stay away from Christian. Should this information have influenced my opinion about the ending of the film? No, because I judged it on what was on the screen rather than what is still to come. Maybe I’ll change my mind about her choice next year, but until then, she remains a strong female character with a mind of her own.

And when we sit down in front of our television screens this Sunday night to watch the pomp of the annual Oscar show, how many of us will howl if Michael Keaton steals that Best Actor Oscar from Eddie Redmayne? Yes he’s been around longer than the young Brit and it’s a great comeback story. But was his performance really stronger? What in fact are the Academy members actually voting on? Is it on screen or the story behind it? When people talk about “Birdman”, they tend to focus on the cinematography (here I’m happy for it to win) and the uncanny casting of Keaton. These things eclipse conversations about the real substance of the film. Often when we talk about film, we are talking about everything but.



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