The best joke I heard about the Super Bowl blackout was that it might have been an extended and rather spectacular “For Your Consideration” ad for Beasts of the Southern Wild, the elegant, eloquent, and elevating film set in the Louisiana environs near the New Orleans Superdome.
That movie, to my mind the best of the nine 2013 Best Picture Oscar nominees, a group of films selected to climb the strange competitive ladder in which artists are expected to act like racehorses and producers like the colorfully-jacketed employees of the New York Stock Exchange, is a magnificent work of art. It’s magnificent because it makes something hugely universal out of a tiny story, and art because it does this with supreme craft and political meaning.
It’s the anti-Argo, an unconsciously self-congratulatory thriller that starts well, with at least a semblance of acknowledgement that the problems faced by modern Iran are partly America’s doing, yet descends into a “white savior vs brown savage” cliche that would make Dances with Wolves look like it was written by bell hooks (who, for other reasons, doesn’t like Beasts either). It should be obvious that there is so much more to Iran than angry mobs and ruthless cops, but portraying one nervous housekeeper isn’t enough to reflect the pressing need for today’s Westerners to face our complicity in a system of media and artistic representation and political belligerence that sustains the myth that Tehran’s streets are innately more primitive than those found inside the Beltway.
So my recommendation in this Oscar month is that we take note of the nine films nominated by watching the best one, and doing eight other things instead of obsessing about gold statuettes. My modest proposals follow.