K. Hariharan analyses the departure from traditional Hollywood screenplay principles in this year’s award-winning films.
Some 20 years ago when the U.S. armed forces launched the “Iraq War”, few could imagine that it would embed itself into the American consciousness as their new “crusade”. Have we noticed that whenever the U.S. attacks it is called the “Iraq War” or the “Vietnam War”? But at home it is called the “Indo-Pakistan” war. Elsewhere it gets called “the Sino-Japanese” war or the “Franco-German” wars. Somewhere, there is an implication that the U.S. never has a “personal” problem. They just fight to bring peace and order to the world. The American media has mostly played up this “god-almighty” mentality but a few Hollywood mavericks have dared to address these aggressions as shameful and hegemonic. In films like Apocalypse Now by Coppola, Full Metal Jacket by Kubrick and Platoon by Stone, we have seen a critical search of the American conscience to question this self-righteous attitude which allows a nation/ state to aggress into other national territories.
This character has disappeared in the four big Oscar winners of this year. Instead of taking this search further, they have moved back instead to entrench themselves in the sophisticated battle-rooms of the Pentagon. Cold, impersonal yet entertaining! Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained seat themselves in rooms watching “race wars”, while Bigelow and Affleck chill out in the “West Asian” observatory. Watching these films I emerged benumbed, asking myself as to what happened to the Spielberg who made poignant films about racial exploitation like The Color Purple and Amistad, or Tarantino who ignited young minds with his whacky choreography of violence in films like Reservoir Dogs or Kill Bill. One does not expect much from Bigelow, who specialises in B-grade macho movies like K-19 and Strange Days, or actor- director Affleck but I was shocked by the kind of citations that the venerable American Film Institute (AFI) showered while awarding these films.
About Zero Dark Thirty, it says “the world’s greatest manhunt with the electric intensity of a glance and the very question of what it is to find the truth. A definitive tale of our times, where the battle waged is one of intellect over arms”. The Argo citation reads “Affleck skilfully leads an escape that marshals the forces of American films — a masterful screenplay and an all-star cast that inspires laughs and cheers amid heart pounding suspense. And to those who doubt this is one of the best films of the year “ARGO f**k yourself!”
Do these juries really understand/mean what they are talking about? These citations belong to crusaders who assert that their beliefs are “right” and all non-believers have to be extinguished. Does the AFI realise that they are now an alter ego of the CIA and the Pentagon? And do the Oscars’ members realise the import of bringing political personalities like the President’s wife to come and give away awards? This is not some diatribe but a cry of betrayal by several film lovers across the world who believe and know that that “Artists” in Hollywood have to often struggle to exercise their freedom of expression despite the cold-blooded profits-oriented corporate sector under which they have to operate.
Looking deeper into these four films walking away with eight top Oscars, you will notice a fundamental departure from traditional Hollywood screenplay principles. It is all about the power of American machismo without the slightest understanding of how antagonistic forces have to be structured, at least for the sake of entertainment. Lincoln is about the amendment to abolish slavery but does not have a single African American to debate the efficacy of such a constitutional bill. Invoking one’s partial knowledge of history to state that there have been no instances of “Blacks” participating in such a discourse is plain laziness or “white” arrogance.
American screenwriting gurus have always stressed upon addressing “demands” made on the screenplay by the sheer subject one has chosen! If a screenplay called Amistad could be chosen by Spielberg to empower an atypical African, Quince in 1839 to defend his rights, what prevented him in this film of 1865? On the other hand Tarantino’s Black natives are stupid, submissive and saleable products watching white aggression passively. Should a filmmaker accept this as some “given” reality or should he not as a responsive American reorganise conflicting forces to provide some depth to the worst racial exploitation ever witnessed in history? Whatever has happened to simple sensitivity? Since Tarantino also subscribes to the white supremacist crusading forces passively, he is awarded the “best screenplay writer” of the year!
In Argo and ZDT, the Islamic groups are plain fanatics, devoid of intellect and driven by sheer ammo-power. The scripting logic of exterminating such forces get invoked for crusaders by playing back “recorded” sounds of women and men wailing during the 9/11 attack. No other “screenplay motive” seems to be required for the Americans to shoot down Muslims who are just “naturally-born-terrorists”! So, considering that we have made far better films on our own border conflicts with Pakistan, I suggest that the duo of Bigelow and Afleck get some good training under JP Dutta (LOC) or even Vinod Chopra of Mission Kashmir. Indeed a sad year for the “Oscars” but hopefully a strong wake-up call for the “independent” American filmmaker! I must however conclude noting that this “independent” spirit was amply visible in the delightful Silver Linings Playbook, which depicts the true white American society today jostling with Blacks, Hispanics and even Anupam Kher, the NRI!
The writer is director, LV Prasad Film and TV Academy.