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

Friday, February 24, 2012

Oscar Picks of the Bourgeoisie, in Salieri Shades

Beige in Paris
If you've ever (discreetly) wondered just who the "bourgeoisie" are, you're not alone. They are, indeed, mysterious. The old definition of middle or merchant class no longer applies, and it's become a more cultural 'choice' - a highbrow posture. Obviously 'bourgeois' is a French word and the French are very aware of who they are and if you've ever seen a French film where a pair of resentful maids murder their employer's family, that family is the bourgeoisie! In America we've forgotten we're supposed to expose and attack them at every opportunity. That's because we're unconscious of class barriers but that never stopped us in the 1930s, when the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields regularly savaged them. The thing is, the bourgeoisie loved them for it! That is, fundamentally, the good part about the bourgeoisie; they're sophisticated enough to prefer laughing at themselves than laughing at someone else. They are compassionate. They don't want to see others suffer.

Maybe you know some or are one, too? Here are some giveaways: golf bags, modernist white gallery walls, all surfaces adorned with cumbersome sculptures that make using, say, the top of your guest room dresser impossible; no TV visible in their living room (it's usually small and inside a cabinet -or moved to a back playroom), presidential biographies in hardcover on the bookcase, Basquiat books stacked on the coffee table; wine rack with dusty bottles; copper pots; catered brunches; chamber music recitals; paintings of horses; oak paneling.

When I think of the bourgeois taste in film and the way it snags the gears of true, dangerous art, only a few critics come to mind who have over the years tried to pinpoint it and get it to relent its stuffy, 'discriminating' choke hold. One is Pauline Kael:
Discriminating moviegoers want the placidity of nice art — of movies tamed so that they are no more arousing than what used to be called polite theater. So we've been getting a new cultural Puritanism — people go to the innocuous hoping for the charming, or they settle for imported sobriety (Age of Movies, 570 - my book review here)
You can find these 'discriminators' all over pop culture, on TV and the movies:

TV: Frasier (but not his father)
COMMERCIALS: "Hello? I'd like to order the New York Times."
BOOKS: Jonathan Franzen
FILM: Anything by Woody Allen

While the bourgeoisie are very educated, generous, and cultured, they're also very cautious. They like to view the more turbulent stretches of the genius river from safer, higher ground. They wear Salieri shades to withstand the blazing Mozart. They use a bystander as a shield to block the tossed dishes of true art's angry muse. They love movies that make them cry and laugh and think not that make them scared, or unnerved. They love simple, decent folk who believe in their dreams and their bootstraps, not people who believe in stealing from the rich and slitting their throats in the dead of night (the way, say, the French nouvelle vague filmmakers do). And as is most obvious from this year's Oscars, name dropping is an art for the bourgeoisie; theirs is a "name-drop" cinema. Here's an example: say your girlfriend's rich physician dad went golfing while he was at a very important medical conference in L.A. and wound up in a double foursome with.. Jack Nicholson! And they had a beer afterwards and talked about life. And in some ways they really touched each other's lives that afternoon. And there should be a movie about that, but dad can't decide on a title: Golfing with Nicholson, Par with Jack, or Jack and Me: a Golfing Memoir. What do you think? He gets misty just talking about it. You and I both know Jack won't remember him in a week let alone the years it takes to write and get published, but this will be made after he's safely dead, don't worry.

Sounds crazy but a suspicious number of this year's Oscar nominations: Midnight in Paris, Hugo, My Week with Marilyn, The Artist, are name-drop pictures. They all sterilize icon-hood through the lens of memory, and adulation from little folks; they worship the artist as icon, and then can weep with joy that they were able to help said icon along on their artsy journey via a small donation. Hell even the title My Week With Marilyn sounds like James Lipton name dropping at an uptown brunch. "In that poor lonely girl's life I, though I was just a simple golf caddy, may have been the only one who truly..." 

The 2012 Oscars. 

I'm risking the unofficial bourgeois blacklist for writing this, but someone has to, because the crop of best picture candidates are so uniformly safe and self-congratulatory ("We make-a your dreams look true!" - "It's a movie about the love we all share for the movies!" - "It's a valentine to the dreamworkers!") that the trend is suddenly glaringly obvious.  I want to clarify up front that this rant has nothing to do with the quality of the films nominated. Some are amazing and I think you know which ones. And it's not a comment on their emotional effectiveness, the quality of the acting or writing or their clever choreography. In their way they may all deserve mention, but look at the way so many of them kowtow to the parameters of the name-drop film:

The Artist: I had to look hard to find critics who disliked this film...Here's a name I trust to call it like it he sees it, Glen Kenny:
…the fact that this movie is being proclaimed the Best Film of 2011 by various critics’ groups is literally—there’s no other word for it—insane. One could make a snide remark or two about the various members of said groups perhaps strongly identifying with the film’s title character’s entitled indignance at his imposed obsolescence, but that would just be mean. However, I will say that any expectation that these proclamations will effect some kind of populist wellspringing on the film’s behalf is even more insane.
 And this from Jeffrey Overstreet:
Nevertheless, Oscar forecasters see a Best Picture statue in The Artist’s future. Of course they do. The Academy Awards are the biggest annual party that Hollywood throws for itself, and The Artist is a movie that worships Hollywood — its vanity, its values, its people-pleasing, its superficiality. Looks like a done deal.

Hugo - A favorite trope of the bourgeois is the down-and-out old genius artist rescued from oblivion and redeemed by some Tiny Tim-type who believes in and dusts off his musty vision. A whimsical roundabout version of the Salieri shades (3-D glasses) with Georges Méliès as the Mozart. All you need to tell you it's bourgeois is that line from the commercial: "Ziss is where your dreams are born."
Hugo is revealed to be a movie about the birth and history of movies themselves, and particularly the work of Georges Méliès, the silent film pioneer. Unfortunately Scorsese – so caught up in his adoration of Méliès – wades far too deep into romanticism. Time and time again characters speak about the magic and wonder of going to the movies, to the point that the effect becomes diminishing – self sabotaging even.  (Tom Clift- Cult Movies)
Midnight in Paris - Instead of a hot sound era actress (Garbo?) or lost boy rehabilitating an old artistic genius, here we have unhappily honeymooning Owen Wilson going back in  time to post-WW1 Paris, when true artistic geniuses were still able to smoke in bars and wear tuxedoes. If director Woody Allen actually could visit the Paris of the 1920s I bet you he'd be terrified by Ezra Pound, nauseated by the unchecked smells of rancid cheese and spilled wine, and Hemingway and Fitzgerald would hate him for his nitpicking/lecturing on their excessive drinking, and his refusal to either join them in getting hammered or leave. 
...from a director who is aged 75 now, wouldn’t it be nice to feel some age and regret, to say nothing of this being the last time he’ll see Paris with the euro stronger than a two-day old croissant? The film makes pleasant, easy-going fun out of the idea of revisiting a starry past—the 1920s!—but, in truth, the movie’s Americans in Paris (at the Bristol) are so loaded, so smug, and so Woodyish that they’re locked in the emotional clichés of the 1920s already.  (David Thomson, The New Republic)

The Descendents - Here's a different bourgeoisie trick, the 'poor little rich boy' saga. Clooney's voice, even on the TV commercial, comes roaring at you in dry indignation: how dare you think that just because he's rich, and lives on the beach in Hawaii, he doesn't have the same problems as you! Dude! Mr. George Clooney, sir, we weren't even talking about you before your commercial came on. But because you had the guts to stick up for yourself, I'll give you a tip: we in the audience care about the rich ditzes in classic screwball because they don't expect our sympathy and that makes us, in the audience, no longer 'guilty' over their continued welfare. If you demand compassion, however, you will earn only our cautious indifference!
The Descendants features as its lead a man with a horribly challenging decision to make: how is he going to dispose of his family's 35,000 acres of virgin Hawai'ian real estate. I am not going to go all class warfare on the movie or anything, but it takes quite a lot to put over the personal tragedy of a man of unimaginable luck and privilege, and it doesn't help that the movie seems wholly unaware that this might even be a difficulty.(Agony and the Ecstasy)

The Help - Here the revered icon is the abused African American maid in a roundabout redemption through white guilt. It's like Scrooged in February. Every Xmas eve he needs his three ghosts to shoot him full of anew compassion, so bravely Scrooge Mc-Munschausen runs to cure Tiny Tim of the tuberculosis he himself has indirectly caused via not paying Cratchet enough to afford central heating. That said, the picture is beautifully played and Viola Davis should win.
It’s enough to make you wish that stories about the hidden lives of household help didn’t have to be so painstakingly told through the eyes of someone who’s not living them. (Margot Harrison, Seven Days)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Once again here's a little boy being led on a magical mystery tour by a dead father ala Hugo: Tom Hanks plays 'a jeweler' (a watchmaker like Hugo's dead dad!) a type of person the bourgeoisie certainly know about, as they need to be presents for the wife every Xmas and birthday. Anyway, he dies in 9/11, and his son follows mystical clues left around the city. Sure, no one else but a dead old white man or wizened black housekeeper could teach him that you should follow your dreamzzzz and live every day like it's white boy day.
There's a scene in which Oskar's mother tearfully shouts, "Not everything makes sense, Oskar. I don't know why a man flew a plane into a building!" And that's it. Any further context is cut off. Daldry's interest is all in generating maximum pathos and cuteness from the situation... That's pretty atrocious in itself. Nearly all the reviewers have said so, artfully adapting the format of the title to make their point. Yet the Academy has put this film up for Best Picture next weekend. That tells us something about them, not about this movie. (David Sexton - London Evening Standard)
War Horse -  Like Tom Hanks, the horse is a noble, simple creature and the illusion of simplicity is key to the white elephant emotional sweep the bourgeoisie consider the height of 'importance.'
"Spielberg, ever the talented technician, manages another commercial film guaranteed to be a box office hit by making this superbly crafted but creatively jejune Disney-like young-adult film seem artistic, even if its calculating and shallow storytelling transpire into the artifice of a harmless horse opera. The unsubtle John Williams score tells you the exact moments it expects you to be aroused, in case one needs further prodding of when to get with the program and feel the horse's pain. " - (Dennis Schwartz)
Moneyball - N/A (insufficiently bourgeois)

Tree of Life -  Terence Malick is the most shameless of Speil/brick wannabes, but he's got guts, in a way.  If the Academy voters still took mushrooms before going to the movies it would win, but they don't and it won't. Read my deep analysis from that more enlightened perspective here. 
The bourgeois prestige picture wins Oscar about 3/5 of the time. Generally, for calculating betting odds, the order is: 2 on, 2 off / 1 on / 1 off / 2 on, 1 off. Here's a list of bourgeois Oscar winners starting with the most recent, along with my personal ratings:

2012 - The Artist - **1/2
2011 - The King's Speech - ****
2008 - Slumdog Millionaire -**
2004 - Million Dollar Baby - **
2002 - Chicago - *
2001 - A Beautiful Mind - *1/2
1998 - Shakespeare in Love - **1/2
1996 - The English Patient - *1/2
1994 - Forrest Gump - **
1990 - Dances with Wolves - ***1/2
1989 - Driving Mrs. Daisy - **

Here's a look at the non-bourgeois years of Oscars:

2009 - The Hurt Locker- ****
2007 - No Country for Old Men - ****
2006 - The Departed - ***
2003 - Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - ***
2000 - Gladiator - ***
1999 - American Beauty - ***
1997 - Titanic - ***1/2
1992 - Unforgiven - ***1/2
1991 - Silence of the Lambs - ****

See the difference? Whatever your opinion on this second list, these are films that took chances, that subverted bourgeois expectations, that muddied genre divides, that saw deep enough into the madness at the core of our collective soul to take a potshot at breaking a new wall rather than just polishing the old's patina. In one way or another they took risks with popular art, dared to spin the moral compass, to deliver some kind of truth or vision that made you a little insane while watching, found you rooting against your own side. It's what Manny Farber called White Elephant art vs. Termite art. Think of this sentence defining the white elephant while pondering the first list of Oscar winners:
Most of the feckless, listless quality of today's art can be blamed on its drive to break out of a tradition while, irrationally, hewing to the square, boxed-in shape and gemlike inertia of an old, densely wrought European masterpiece.
Well, I've ranted enough. Don't be mad if you're reading this and you too are a bourgeoisie or love some of the nominated films. I really love a lot of bourgeois films too!  But when we bourgeois reach a certain age, or are insane enough, we come to resent the Oscar ceremony-style swank which consumes so many films (and UES AA meetings). Once a punk rock poseur, I recoil from the disillusioning respectability kiss of death that finally planted itself on my teenage idol, Lou Reed, as evinced by his BAM work (The Raven, especially) and appearance on the cover of Syracuse Alumni Magazine.

Did you know Lou Reed and I have the same birthday, March 2nd, and we both went to Syracuse!? And I sang the "Sweet Jane" and the "Rock and Roll" with my old Syracuse band and sounded just like him? And we both were English majors? I didn't know any of that until I came to Syracuse and declared my major, either. Coincidence? I should make a movie, Lou Reed and Me: Parallel Wild Sides. And of course I can hobnob with the bourgeoisie like the best of them, they're a good 70% of my friends. But the height of bourgeois culture is to decry it, to become anti-bourgeois, an inescapable fact that nearly destroyed Lars Von Trier, as he tried to claw his way through their thick skin prison he found only more detourned layers. But, better to have your captors enjoy your violent escape attempts than subject you to their deafening indifference. In the words of Lady Macbeth, "'tis safer to be that which we destroy, than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy."

That I can quote Macbeth like that lets you know I'm bourgeois. So believe me when I declare that if Oscar had any real vision and chutzpah we'd see Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Melancholia in the list of best picture nominees, and since they are not on there I say humanity deserves the fate it receives in both those films! Hail, Ape Caesar!

(PS for more, read my open letter to Billy Joel the Piano Man at Letters to the Preditor)


  1. Do you suppose that in any age the "bourgeois" are those who are the most easily offended? Because nowadays that seems to determine who gets subjected, if anyone does, to Marxist-Fieldsist satire; the "politically correct" are too easy a target, even though such people may still see themselves as the natural adversaries of the "real" bourgeoisie. But bourgeois is a state of mind as well as one of class; many Marxist-Leninists proved themselves quite bourgeois in the other respect. All that said, while I was probably more entertained by The Artist than any other film from last year, I concede your point about it and the overall field -- I'd add Drive to the list of what actually should be competing. Meanwhile, I'll have to think about your "non-bourgeois" list. Titanic?...

  2. Dear Max Von Sydow,

    Hi. Please stop appearing in crap. Thank you.

    lots of love,


  3. Samuel, thanks for your input. No argument the Artist is deeply effervescent. But I'll stand by Titanic, which is totally anti-bourgeois. After all, the expensive jewel is thrown overboard, a very anti-bourgeois move. And you're right about Marxists. I think most Marxists today are totally bourgeois, it's a form of resentment against their parents, the bourgeois equivalent of a mohawk and nose ring.

    And Max, if you're listening, listen to ido and stop appearing in crap!

  4. Another excellent piece. The only Oscars one I've read in a while that isn't as boring as watching the Oscars. Danke.


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