Oscar’s crying game: the use & abuse of melancholy

Well, once again it’s the bleakest time of the year — mid-November, and Oscar season. Cold, dreary capitalism settles in as marketers and distributors ride a seemingly endless wave of red carpets and critics’ awards ceremonies that will carry them to the desolate beaches of February, at which point some will be rewarded and most ignored — and given the past years’ viewership, essentially nobody in America will give a shit.

But those industry folks keep on trying. It begins at the very end of summer, in Colorado: the Telluride film festival takes place each year in early September. This is where the Oscar-oozing “King’s Speech” premiered last year, “Slumdog Millionaire” two years before that, and hopefuls like Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” and Steve McQueen’s controversial “Shame” a mere month ago.

And so it begins. The movers and shakers of every production studio big or brassy enough to move and/or shake have already begun the process: shamelessly schmoozing academy members, sending complementary copies of their films, launching impressively earnest “for-your-consideration” ad campaigns and generally descending into “pick-me, pick-me!” anarchy.

There’s a dubious pay-off, of course: the “quality films” that pop up, like cynical little begonias, around this time of year. Excepting “Crash” and “The Hurt Locker,” every Best Picture winner in the last 10 years was released after Telluride — most of them in November and December. The rather calcified theory is that you’ll ride the festival circuit, the critical acclaim, the Director’s, Producer’s and Screen Actor’s Guild ceremonies (who the hell belongs to a guild anymore? Let’s not pretend there’s anything quaint, artisanal or collective about any of this) all the way to Oscar nominations and box office returns.

As if the whole system weren’t sad enough, the Oscars have coalesced into a melancholy machine that compulsively rewards, um, melancholy. I won’t pretend that I always prefer lighter fare — the fact that the whimsical and heartfelt (read: uneven and saccharine) “Forrest Gump” beat “Pulp Fiction” in 1994 is an anomaly that confuses me to no end. But the otherwise persistent privileging of “seriousness” has contributed to a host of tailor-made, heartless, Oscar-baiting dramas that no one actually wants to watch (Kate Winslet’s double-turn in “The Reader” and “Revolutionary Road” way back in 2008 encapsulates this savvy pandering better than anything else I can think of).

So I turn, finally (circumlocution seems to be the one thing you can count on in these columns), to two movies that typify the depressive angstiness of Oscar-saturated autumn, one a little more cleverly than the other: Drake Doremus’ utterly insufferable “Like Crazy” and Lars von Trier’s aptly-named “Melancholia.”

Neither film is super-likely to make waves in the Academy. Neither is particularly smart about branding — von Trier is especially stupid, having expressed neo-Nazi sympathies that kept him justifiably peripheral at Cannes. Neither is entirely enjoyable. But both seem to take the miserliness at Oscar’s core and run with it, making unhappiness the central motor of narrative. Putting them side-by-side is an especially useful way of highlighting, and maybe having just the tiniest modicum of fun with, an otherwise dismal process.

I will begin with the easy target. “Like Crazy” is about an American boy, Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and a British girl, Anna (relative newcomer Felicity Jones) who fall in love and who decide, abruptly and disastrously, that Anna should overstay her student visa for the summer after college. Unsurprisingly, she is thereafter unable to enter the States.

Hence, a teary transatlantic plot premised entirely on the fundamental idiocy of its central characters. We watch them pine and pine and get married and pine some more, torn apart by the arbitrariness and paranoid policing of national borders — an arbitrariness that is never troubled, but is rather taken as the monolithically stable “bad guy” necessary to keep this movie superficial: invested in extenuating circumstances, rather than the people within them.

For all the buzz (what a horrid word — it unwittingly unearths the dumb droning mindlessness of Awards season) that Yelchin and especially Jones have received for their performances, they don’t present a very convincing pair. Jones is good at looking treacherous, uncertain and distant while hugging someone, and Yelchin has mastered this continuous neglected-puppy stare, which is a talent of sorts, I guess. But they are so busy feeling glum about the future, nostalgic about the past, or devastated by the present that we never really glimpse them as a happy couple. One doesn’t totally understand the three (or four? It’s unclear …) years they spend trying and failing to get back together, because they’re so miserable even when they aren’t apart.

Another way of putting this: so insistent is “Like Crazy” on privileging melancholy throughout, it never provides something worth missing. Tragedy that works, that affects and inspires, is predicated on profound loss. This means the lost object (a friend, a lover, a dog, a volleyball — actually I really hate “Castaway” but you get the idea) must be wholly articulated before its absence can truly resonate.

The best tragedies should disorient, should feel like a severance of something once tangibly possessed. “Like Crazy” is a paper cut: irritating, slight, and forgettable. But it wears its moodiness like a badge of honor, and you can bet its backers will continue to do so well into February.

This is where von Trier’s “Melancholia” provides, paradoxically, a certain degree of levity — at least, it can be made to. The movie centers on the radically depressed Justine (played by a doomy, agonized Kirsten Dunst), her sister Claire (a less agonized, still fairly doomy Charlotte Gainsbourg), and the collision of a giant, newly discovered planet with our own (the planet is named, ahem, Melancholia). That is to say, it is clearly not a happy movie — but it handles sadness with a deft hand and an ironic eye. It makes melancholia stumble over its own overuse, makes it explosive and ridiculous. The depression that defines and delimits European art cinema (von Trier is Danish) and Hollywood Oscar-bait becomes a weird, operatic, self-indulgent and excessive form of childishness. It’s fun.

Von Trier is not a critic, nor a satirist, and I doubt he thinks his movies very pleasant — nor do I imagine him to be a particularly affable guy with whom to shoot the breeze. But amidst the winter doldrums, I’ve got to find my kicks where I can. And if this means reusing the pervasive melancholy of the season for my own purposes, so be it.

Nolan is a senior. You can reach him at ngear1@swarthmore.edu.

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