Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Sorry READER: Following the Oscarbait Rules (RAUBER-ACHTUNG! )

Finally got to viddy Winslet hunching her shoulders like an iron hausfrau in that bourgeois omnibus THE READER, so without further ado: The Oscarbait Dozen, a handy checklist of things Oscar-hungry actors look for in their star vehicles:

1. Nudity/Sex: The most important thing to capture bourgeois attention
2. Guilt: The second most important thing, inevitably following sex and lasting much, much longer
3. Nazis: A hot topic only a uniform and chunk of archive footage away 
4. Reticence: Let all characters have trouble expressing their feelings, and make whole scenes drag on where you want to just jump out of your seat and scream "Just tell her already!"
5. Missed appointments: The former lovers must never see each other again; there can however be several near misses to drag the film's running time past the two hour mark, such as THE READER's torturous scenes of our gloomy little law student "almost" speaking up on behalf of his ex-lover, and "almost" coming to visit her in jail.
6. Old age make-up - story should span at least 20 years, allowing for the wearing of old age make-up and adaptation of different mannerisms on behalf of the would-be nominee.
7. Warm, natural Light - Every scene should reek of craftsmanship, at no time should we not see our characters bathed in unusual light, the way the prison window filters the sunlight onto Winslet's rheumy blue-silver eyes when she's an old woman, etc.
8. Sublimation - Ultimately the love must be sublimated -- into music, art, writing, or in the case of the READER, books on tape.
9. Absolution - The protagonist must seek absolution, usually by confronting some demonic stand-in.
10. Death - The best way to atone for your sins is to kill yourself, usually with a long note read in voiceover by the protagonist.
11. Period Detail - Even as scenes flounder with tongue-tied monosyllabic lawyers (was there ever really such a thing?!!) every aspect of set design, costuming, hair etc. should perfectly embody the time period.
12. Helicopter Score - Let no scene go by un-heightened by grandiose orchestral flourishes.

What is the moral of THE READER? If the SS had books on tape would they have been nicer? Did Auschwitz happen just because a few Nazis didn't know how to read? Any clear-thinking audience member will grasp within the first half hour the clues that Winslet's good German is illiterate and just like Isabelle Huppert in LA CEREMONIE, willing to kill to keep it a secret (or in Winslet's case confess to SS war crimes)- yet we're supposed to anguish over her illiteracy with our dumb young Aryan protagonist lawyer who just smokes and acts sullen rather than speaking up and then blames everyone else when things occur without him.

One can see where the book (which I haven't read) would undoubtedly delve deeper into issues that become mere lip service in the film: the way we have no way of knowing which of the events in our present will seem important in the future; the notion of responsibility to the past, etc. etc. But if anyone's to blame for fogging our window into the past its craftsmanship tripe like THE READER, wherein through solipsistic alchemy a memory of sexual awakening with an older woman can turn into a lifetime of personal/social-historic guilt, the icing on the bourgeois sex cake.

Just as Winslet accepts responsibility for the holocaust because she's too shy to admit she can't write, so too is Ralph Fiennes, (supposedly a lawyer) so sanctimonious he can't admit that sometimes sex can be just sex. So he had a good time once with this older woman, maybe loved her, but so what? Why is that more important than any other first heartache? Why can't she decide for herself if she'd rather keep her illiteracy a secret to the grave? Does not being able to read preclude you from being able to make your own life decisions, however seemingly immature?

When we begin to realize we don't have to waste our lives pining, we start to become adults. We learn to let go of obsession like a balloon letting go of its anchored string. The smart poets all know that just because a lost love appears rose-tinted through the glass of intervening years, and the pain is urgent and profound, doesn't mean it's worth wallowing in, worth wasting the 'now' for. Pine into your notebook on lonesome summer nights if you want, but don't delude yourself that it makes you a noble person. If anything it just shows you're still a teenager.

The ego, like the bourgeoisie itself, seems only capable of devotion when its object is safely contained in the past, in prison, on an opposite coast, or a gilded frame on the wall. It's fine if you prefer long distance relationships but when you expect our empathy over your situation you should bring something to the table other than your dime store martyr hand-wringing for "the one that got away." We've all been there, and in the end all you prove by your devotion is your lack of self control and that you've never gone to a therapist for longer than a few months... and should.

The most offensive part in the whole film, to me, is when Fiennes brings Winslet's little can of money over to the surviving Jewish writer victim (Lena Olin, the only logically behaved character in the film), her attitude is why the fuck should I care? Indeed, a sane person shouldn't care about these juvenile little gestures... and the horrors of the camp have obviously burned away her own girlish longing, or any trace of the naive self-righteousness still blazing through the saline murk of Fiennes's vacant eyes. He looks at Olin--his eyes welled full with puppy dog tears--and the camera, which has whizzed past everything else in rapid edits, finally decides to pull up a chair and let the scene drag and drag. Look! Fiennes' eyes are cloudy like Winslet's were a few scenes back! He stares at Olin as if she will buckle and give him the Holy Grail to stop him from throwing a tantrum. His silence in the scene presumes he thinks his teary blue eyes are speaking volumes... it's like he's daring you not to care. I for one am proud to join Lena Olin in accepting that dare.

The question is of course how are we supposed to feel about this scene? I haven't read the book like I say but I can't imagine there's not some opening towards feeling ambivalent about his behavior here, but after sixteen layers of craftsman play up the 'feels' of it all, there's no doubt the director is dragging the stare out to give the whole theater time to sob. If they had any minds of their own, they'd use it to wretch, and loudly march to the exit.

P.S. This is not an indictment of Winslet's excellent work--which raises mere Oscarbation into something more like real sex, I'm just once again attacking the subtextual implications of bourgeois-back patting / craftsmanship pictures and how they work to reduce, label and signify, burying what might have worked as tiny details--where we're allowed complex impressions--under so much perfect art direction, costume design, sound design, cinematography, acting, music composition, framing, and set decoration--that the tiniest little inhale/exhlale screams resounds triumphant as a grandiose celebration of--not just lungs, and oxygen--but of people, love, and everything that makes us human. I.e. the movies.... about reading.


  1. When we begin to realize we don't have to waste our lives pining, we start to become adults.This is one of my chronic complaints about Hollywood films: the endless repetition of the myth of the one great lost love that you have never really gotten over.

    I know a lot of people--a lot of sensitive and romantic and neurotic people, including myself--but I don't know anyone outside a H-wood movie who carries a torch for one person for years and years, despite his or her life moving on in every other way.

    I guess it's not meant to be accurate, merely mythical, but every once in a while I would like the film world to say something important about real love.

  2. Case closed.

    'The Reader' is banal to the point of offensive. And the really depressing thing is: the book is just as tedious, just as lacking in rigorous intellectual examination of its subject matter. The film at least has Kate Winslet ... but then again, you could say that of 'Titanic'.

    'Nuff said.


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