Home / Charli Carpenter / “I Want My Scalps”

“I Want My Scalps”


Having never read this book, I don’t pretend to understand how the nominations process for Academy Awards really works. But this year’s rankings mystify the heck out of me. (Arianna Huffington’s make sense, though.)

Here’s what I don’t get. How in heaven does a film like District 9 disturbing, disgusting and cliche – get the same number of nominations as the highly exciting, enjoyable and original Star Trek? – And how do two films as different from one another as Avatar and the Hurt Locker jockey for first place when both have, at any rate, been so ardently criticized as racist and unbelievable?

Unless it’s mostly the fact that directors Bigelow and Cameron were married once that is behind all the hoopla, as Lesley Stahl would have us believe. Or just that fact that certain movies stir up a buzz in a particular political context – which surely has more to do with marketing and chance than the nature of the film itself. In other words, Hurt Locker and Avatar may both have going for them the same idiosyncratic geopolitical factors – Hurt Locker has been popular because it’s been interpreted as an anti-war narrative at a time when Americans want out of Iraq; Avatar has been popular because of the escapism and critique of capitalism that it offers during an economic recession.

This kind of “resonance” factor though doesn’t mean these are the best films, and the industry politics behind them certain doesn’t. (Let them create a separate award for “Most Interesting Power-Ex-Couple in Industry.”)

If I had any opportunity to vote on “Best Picture” (that I’ve seen, mind you) my vote would go to Quentin Tarantino‘s film Inglorious Basterds. (Christoph Waltz should also get best actor for playing Colonel Landa, a role Tarantino had feared might be unplayable – though why his role is considered “supporting” instead of “lead” escapes me; anyone understand how this distinction is determined? By my estimate Waltz had at least as much screen-time as Pitt…)

Anyway. Basterds has received a lot of nominations not because it necessarily resonated with a war-weary, economically stressed public but despite the fact that it surely didn’t. In an era where some desperately want to be reminded that there was such a thing as a “good war,” Basterds invites us to confront the barbarity of our own side without pulling punches. This move disturbs comfortable myths about good and evil, them and us in World War II, but also feeds nervously into the idea that the ends justify the means through its brazen and even comical depiction of war crimes against war criminals. No wonder few commentators knew what to make of it.

Why is the film in the running for best picture despite these tensions and criticisms? (And despite the fact that, like Hurt Locker and Avatar it’s also historically inaccurate and racist – though, at least it doesn’t claim to be otherwise; plus, by Tarantino standards, slow, sanitary and as one critic correctly put it, “silly, sadistic and unsatisfying.”)

For one thing, Basterds might win simply because as Grady Hendrix at Slate explains, a film of this type fits the profile of “best picture” winners at least as well as Avatar or Hurt Locker.

But why does it deserve to win, in my view? Partly because Tarantino has done what he always does best, though not always in the same way – something unexpected that makes us uncomfortable. Partly because so many of the uncomfortable conversations the film would have sparked are about one of the most important moral issues of our day: the limits of just war theory. And partly because Basterds does something most films don’t do: make us think about film itself as it ties into power politics.

As David Cox put it:

Critics frequently berate Hollywood for falsifying history to meet the requirements of story-telling. Rarely, however, can history have been so extravagantly revised as in Tarantino’s version of the second world war’s conclusion. So extreme is this revision that it feels like a plaintive protest against the inadequacy of what actually happened.

How can history have allowed Hitler to dispatch himself so miserably and furtively in a dreary bunker? Only a spectacular Armageddon of Jewish revenge of the kind Inglourious Basterds delivers could possibly have provided a fitting end for the F├╝hrer. Reality got this one wrong.

It gets most things wrong. It doesn’t do narrative arcs. Most of the time, it doesn’t even do conclusions. Instead, it presents us with a soggy meaningless mess that just isn’t good enough to meet the needs of humankind. Stories have provided us with its corrective. In turning fiction’s alternative universe into spectacle on a scale sufficient to rival reality, it’s the movies that have managed to provide us with the outcomes that we crave.

Thank God for that, Inglourious Basterds seems to be saying. This may not be a particularly insightful message, but it’s one that’s never been more resoundingly communicated.

Of course, when I originally reacted to Basterds, I thought this subtext of Cox’s might actually work against the just war critique. But then, that kind of complexity just makes me like the film more. It’s fabulous on so many levels.

However, I don’t get to vote, and those who do don’t use any kind of standard criteria for weighing the actual cultural value of different films – it’s politics as usual, albeit with occasional slaps on the wrist for more brazen efforts to court influence. So I predict that Hurt Locker will win out simply because it would be the first time a female director would win “Best Picture,” and even if Grady is right about everything else I suspect this factor works against Tarantino, not for him.

But I hope I’ll be wrong..

P.S. My original thoughts on the other two front runners here and here.

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