Let’s take a trip 30 years in the past. It’s 1988 and Dustin Hoffman (long before #MeToo) starred as an autistic savant in a film with Tom Cruise called Rain Man. It went on to win Best Picture and seemed to set a precedent where films that featured people with some sort of disability being Oscar-bait, followed by Forrest Gump in 1995 and A Beautiful Mind in 2001.
Surprisingly, in 2004, a fantasy movie, Return of the King, was awarded Best Picture. This was seen as a long-shot as the genre never got any respect from the Academy, but considering the cumulative achievement of the trilogy, the Academy budged. But pretty soon the films awarded again followed this predictable pattern, for instance, 2010’s The King’s Speech, dealing with the challenge of stuttering.
There is, however, a difference between uplifting stories of people trying to overcome physical or mental challenges (where there’s no real “enemy”) and movies dealing with social justice which is about one group in a power-struggle with another group. What is seen as mattering in Hollywood mirrors what seems to matter in the public at large, at least a certain segment of the public.
What bothers me is a certain self-congratulatory attitude in conjunction with an us-vs.-them that has swept filmmaking and the subsequent awards ceremonies of late. This seems to have hit its apex in the midst of #MeToo and the overreaction of lavishing awards on The Shape of Water and the soapboxing that surrounds it.
I applaud the idea of films dealing with difficult issues. However, there’s a simplistic way and a mature way of dealing with them. I felt Shape of the Water is sort of junk-food in the way it portrayed oppressor and oppressed in caricature, and then ennobled by an age-inappropriate fairy-tale frame. You can see this same attempt to oversimplify intractible problems with simple good and evil in Black Panther as well. As society seems to be coming apart at the seems, films offer escapism The irony is that this simplification becomes in itself a form of reverse-sexism or reverse-racism in the way bad guys are portrayed without nuance, without humanity. We’re not allowed to come to our own conclusions because the film has already decided for us who we should cheer and hiss.
What I’m noticing is that adult films are getting more juvenile while kid films are getting more mature. I felt that the How to Train your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda films handle the problem of good and evil with more nuance than something like Shape of Water. For instance, the end of Kung Fu Panda 2 starts exactly the same as the climax of Shape of Water. The bad guy is in a helpless situation. But Po offers the bad guy a way out. The creature in Shape of Water does not. The creature, unlike Po, has the capacity to heal, sort of like E.T.. He could have shown compassion by healing Shannon’s finger, and that act of compassion, even if it didn’t cause Shannon to turn ala Darth Vader, would have gone a long way to proving to the audience that the creature was something more than an animal operating on instinct.
Instead, the creature slashes Shannon’s throat in an act of revenge, presumably also rendering Shannon mute if he were to survive. Shape of Water advocates simple REVENGE. It’s called empowerment, but it’s just revenge and it’s not so noble.
I feel that this attitude of winner take all, might makes right, is now the dominant form of political discourse. Polarization. There is no value in the idea of forgiveness. There is only identifying, shaming, and neutralizing enemies, then high-fiving afterwards. The end result of this is further entrenchment of identity politics.
This has become so embedded in culture through the daily ritual of drive-by internet commentary that just to question the above probably opens me up to a whole host of epithets. But one thing you can’t deny is that society is broken and it’s only getting worse. The self-congratulating of the Oscars or the Golden Globes before it will not help matters, and may actually make things even worse.