I keep falling asleep at the movies in Germany.
I buy popcorn, reserve an appropriately centered Sitzplatz at a vintage Kino, and yet there I am, asleep within thirty minutes, popcorn and gummy Bärchen littered all over myself. At first I was convinced this phenomenon was the fault of the energy efficient Germans, who refuse to air condition you to frigid alertness as the Regal Multiplexes have so successfully accomplished. The Germans don’t need climate control to guarantee interest; the inherent philosophical value of Kunstitself is all one needs to create a climate of aesthetic appreciation.
But last night, as I drifted in and out of consciousness yet again, this time to the lilting score of The Artist and its flickering monochromatic images, I realized there was something more obvious that may explain my sleepiness…. the films.
This year’s Oscars have already been described as one of the least inspiring in years. There is the inevitability of a French (!) B&W, silent film as Best Picture, nominations for a superficial attempt to Help us heal the wounds of race, a mid-life crisis saga set in Hawaii, Descendent from a long line of vanity projects in which Hollywood stars dress down to ‘get real.’
It’s all frankly a snore, and I am not surprised that that is literally what I have done at the cinema this year, ably assisted by the German thermostat.
By the early 2000s, Hollywood had stopped financing the mid-budget character-driven dramas that defined my cinematic adolescence. I seriously doubt that even something like the Bodyguard, a mainstream, interracial thriller with musical sequences thrown in for added effect, would be green lit in today’s market. Risky detours from the bankable norm belong in downtown cinemas for urban snobs or in niche racial markets. Studios would rather focus their attention on widening the common denominator for global consumption: enter glossy New York romantic comedies starring pop stars, Transformers, fifth and sixth sequels, 3-D extravaganzas.
At Berlin’s glittering English-language multiplex in Potsdamer Platz, what passes for American cinema is indeed often loud, abrasive, and dumb – the global American stereotype writ large. It’s hardly a reflection of the complex, diverse and rich nation I know. But before I start mourning the state of culture like a coastal snob, I acknowledge that the counterweight to the summer blockbusters are the Awards Season films, the colder time when Hollywood bundles up, gets serious and tries to look past it self to the world beyond.
But for some reason this year those were the very films that seemed most off.
My Life with Marilyn, Hugo, The Help, Midnight in Paris, and The Artist are films steeped in a strange, hazy nostalgia. Set in “the good ol’ days” when men were men, women were delicate, writers lived in Paris among painters, enlightened southerners dressed in tailored ensembles, blacks forgave racial injustice… a purer past, and one that is perhaps captured at its purest by The Artist.
There is no doubt that this highly original film has won over critics and members of the Academy alike for its beauty and for its creativity. But above all, it has won over the predominantly older, homogenous Academy for its unadulterated tribute to their world. What’s better than a finely crafted love song to one’s youth?
And yet as I watched The Artist, I didn’t feel nostalgia for its world: not aesthetically, not culturally and certainly not historically. I for one can’t tap dance around the fact that while some among us would have been allowed to wear tuxedos or sequined dresses in that era, others among us would be completely out of frame, in segregated isolation, under violent colonial rule, invisible from economic and political life… and most certainly invisible in the audiences and the movies the film celebrates.
One of the true gifts of cinema is the ability to imagine oneself in someone else’s shoes and to consequently feel your sense of the world expand before you. That experience is why I love the movies. And I could hardly blink, much less sleep, during my favorite film of the year, the Iranian masterpiece A Separation. Like most films, it has very little in common with my life, but in telling the story of one Tehran family, it pulsates with universally relatable emotions and ethical questions. Director Asghar Farhadi brilliantly unfurls layers of conflict between men and women, rich and poor, children and parents, the past and the future. It is a viscerally Iranian and global story, a film for our interlocked times, not a love song to an idealized and monochromatic vision of the past.
Yet A Separation is tucked away in the shadows of this year’s Oscars as one of five cryptic nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. Given the time difference between Munich and Los Angeles, this year I too will be tucked away during the ceremony. And perhaps it is for the best, since I obviously I need all the sleep I can get if I am to stay awake for another go at the Kino.