Fantasy and Reality: Oscars 2018

Fact vs. myth. Reality vs. fantasy. Vengeance or forgiveness. Sunny spring or snowy nor’easter. The first weekend in March is the time for the shiny node of Los Angeles to parade its sun and glitz to the world, a perfect contrast to the blizzards of the northeast and a stark reminder of the unreality of the movie world. It’s Uncle Oscar’s birthday!

That unreality was pushed even further by the triumph of this year– the Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. The win has prompted some heated debate in the household. We all liked the movie when we saw it, and my 20-year-old daughter was particularly delighted as she’s been a del Toro fan since Hellboy.  My wife said it really made her think about how they took the “fish out of water” idea and explored it from so many angles. But then, she wrote a short story called “Fish out of Water,” so I guess she oughta know.

Shape of Water, Oscar Best Picture, caricature drawing
Shape of Water cartoon courtesy of Los Angeles Magazine

Best Picture?

Despite what I am about to say, The Shape of Water is an excellent movie, interesting, sophisticated, innovative in its way, and worthy of an award. This award? Well, I don’t know. This is the second year in a row where a fantasy has been close to the top prize, and between La La Land and this movie, I am wondering if there’s a new category of adult fantasy that’s started some sort of trend.

Perhaps because the world is going to hell in a handcart, we need more to take our minds off? (Like during the Depression, when they had all those Busby Berkeley musicals?) On the other hand, since most of the screens are taken over by Marvel, DC Comics, Star Wars, and every other toy-turned superhero, the fantasy genre seems pretty crowded. I happen to be a big, “knowledgeable” fan, so I have seen an awful lot of monster/alien/Other gets captured by the police/army/FBI who are supposed to be the good guys but aren’t, until the monster/alien/Other is allowed to escape by the plucky downtrodden band of society’s misfits. They don’t all have explicit sex scenes with the creature or musical numbers in them.

Some do, though. I realized that this movie reminded very much of 1984’s Starman with Jeff Bridges and Margot Kidder. Just as in The Shape of Water, the portrayal of the Other in Starman was sophisticated, the romance was tender and meaningful, and both films grabbed Academy Award nominations. In the end, neither movie pushed the envelope for me. I enjoy the triumph of a deaf mute and monster, aided by a sassy black cleaning woman and a downtrodden closeted gay man, over the Fifties’ barbarous FBI men as much as anyone. But Best Picture? Despite the Many Fish Out of Many Waters theme, it really didn’t make me think very much.

Jeff Bridges in 19xx Starman
1984’S Starman–the Shape of Water for its time, courtesy

I don’t think “The Shape of Water” is a great movie. But I do like it. And I don’t know how it won, but somehow it did.
–Wesley Morris, NYTimes film critic

Best Cinematography

The fantasy part wasn’t the problem, either, since one of my favorite movies on Oscar night was Blade Runner 2049. Amid all the CGI-effects spectacles that spread across the multiplex these days, Blade Runner stands out, with its sophisticated story about the nature of humanity, and about what it is to be human. The film won awards for cinematography and visual effects in a very crowded field and deserved both.

To be fair, I am a huge fan of the original Blade Runner. I still remember sitting in a graduate school auditorium of folding chairs looking up at a no-frills projector screen when the opening image of that dark, rainy Los Angeles 2019 came up, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. It was the opposite end to Star Wars; it was not a galaxy long ago and far away but one that could be a foreseeable future. I felt exactly the same way when I watched the recent remake, seeing a California that could be my future. The opening image reveals massive solar arrays poking out among the smog across a drought-ravaged landscape; we in northern California had a February with almost no rain, so it’s not unimaginable.

California 2049 from Blade Runner, Oscar winner for Visual Effects
The opening of Blade Runner 2049, courtesy from BR Wikia

In the movie, the problem with replicants from the earlier years has been solved to make them obedient; they are integrated into society. As the movie unfolds, it becomes increasingly unclear which “people” are the replicants and which are the humans, which are villains or heroes, and even whether a hologram could be as “real” as the rest.  All the lines are blurred. As with the original, I could not help but wonder, what are we making of ourselves? Wealthy people are now cloning their pets; are we at the the start of something? As a fantasy, Blade Runner 2049 carried ambiguity and nuance into the debate, which rages on in the chat rooms and Twittersphere.

Best Actress/Best Supporting Actor

Another of the Best Picture nominees that spurned tons of debate was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri which won Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell Oscars for their acting. This is probably the most loved/hated movie on the list. McDormand’s grief as a mother whose daughter has been brutally murdered drives her to violent, often unfairly targeted, actions. Rockwell’s racist dolt of a backwoods police officer carries a back story with of neglect and abuse. Some viewers took issue with the notion of a story that seemed to hover around a possible redemption for his character. Others claimed that the movie was not about redemption but the foolishness of vengeance. We had another heated debate in the household over whether the ending had the characters traveling one way or another; it’s not clear.

Frances McDormand, Three Billboard
Three Billboards’ Frances McDormand, courtesy of UK Sunday Times

Friends who saw it said it was good, but that they didn’t like it and couldn’t recommend it. It is violent, but it is thought-provoking. Charles Bronson made five Death Wish films and Bruce Willis is coming out with a remake. Perhaps American viewers prefer their parental violent vigilant justice to be done by men with no messy moral compass to measure against. Personally, I’d rather watch Frances McDormand again.

Best Recent Film about Wyoming

Three Billboards reminded me very much of a film overlooked by the Academy, Wind River. This mystery, also about the death of a young girl in the snow, was another cinematographic masterpiece. Jeremy Renner is the wildlife officer who helps uncover the details while suffering from his own personal tragedy. Elizabeth Olsen is marvelous as the FBI agent, unfamiliar with the Montana landscape, but familiar with right and wrong and how to take charge even on a snowy plain full of men with guns pointed at each other.

Wind River, Jeremy Renner
Jeremy Renner in Wind River, courtesy The Wrap

With ten movies to choose for Best Picture, I don’t know why this garnered no nods at all, but it brought up many of the same questions around vengeance and resolution. Wind River is also violent, but not gratuitous about it.  It also stands up well to repeated viewings. If you missed it, it’s out On Demand and Redbox now.

Best Movie about Where I Was a Teenager

The other terrific film that won no Oscars, was “shut out” as it’s called, was Lady Bird. That’s the film I would likely rewatch the most. The acrimony between mother and daughter, Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan, bristles off the screen, but a friend who said it was just about a mean mother missed the point. This is no August: Osage County, no epic dysfunctional family drama. This is about a young woman groping her way into adulthood while her parents try to help but remain mostly helpless.

The parent/teenager contrast, like the reality/fantasy contrast, was a theme of many films. It’s the core of the tragic back story in Three Billboards and Wind River. It won Allison Janney the Oscar for I, Tonya. The interaction in Lady Bird, though, is the best realized.  Metcalf’s mother is controlling, but we do get to see her side of the story. She’s frantic with worry that her daughter will make poor choices, and the daughter does make poor choices, sometimes to spite her mother. Tonya and LaVona Harding were portrayed in their film as darkly comic, unreal people, curious but true given that was a biopic. Metcalf’s Marion and Ronan’s Lady Bird seemed like people I might know. I’m not alone, as one reviewer had a similar reaction.

It’s a movie that made us call our moms! And it’s the movie that spawned millions of lengthy, awkward silences between mothers and daughters, followed by a mom saying, “I wasn’t really like that, was I?”
–Hunter Harris on Lady Bird

In full disclosure, the truth of it is that Lady Bird was a bit of a shock. My wife and I went to see it because the reviews were good; I didn’t know what it was about except a coming-of-age story. In the opening scene, as Metcalf and Ronan are driving into Sacramento from one of those back country roads, we started looking at each other. We met in high school in Sacramento. We went through this place, this town–we knew what it was like to grow up There, in particular. Not in that part of Sacramento, but all of Sacramento is like that. There are Have and Have Not pockets.

We went to the rich kid’s public school on the American River, even though we didn’t live in the big houses near the school, but in the older tract houses away from the toney river district. One film critic referred to Sacramento as a small town. It is. It’s the capital of a state with the eight largest economy in the world and a population of a half million people, and it’s a cow town.  Greta Gerwig, the director, is an active member of my late mother’s church. The movie was especially, particularly real to me.

Lady Bird by Greta Gerwig
Lady Bird, courtesy of the Washington Post

I can’t say that my relationship with my mother was exactly like that, but it was complicated, and the movie addresses that kind of complication. Being a teenager was a misery, but as a parent now of former teenagers, I appreciate everyone’s perspective better. Forgiveness is as complicated as vengeance, and compassion sometimes more satisfying than escape.

So, perhaps people who really enjoyed The Shape of Water found something real for themselves in it, whereas I related much better to those which spoke to me. Blade Runner is in my future California. Lady Bird was in my California past. Three Billboards and Wind River speak to the grief of parents in a way that all parents can understand.

And, if you still can, maybe you should call your mother.







2 Replies to “Fantasy and Reality: Oscars 2018”

    1. Oh! Ten demerits for me! They do look slightly alike, but one can drink Tibetans under the table and the other can barely blink dreamily at Superman. Yes, Karen Allen, indeed.

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