On this Oscar Night, my mind is otherwise occupied. I have work to do and some serious politicking to practice. Besides, I have little interest in the show biz aspects of show biz. I will watch it a bit later just to see what Jon Stewart comes up with.
I stopped being excited by the Oscars back in 1989. That year, there were three significant films about race up for awards – “Do the Right Thing”, “Glory”, and “Driving Miss Daisy”. The Academy, for its part, chose to snub the gritty and real Spike Lee masterpiece completely. The universally accessible “Glory” won only a Best Supporting Actor for the incredible Denzel Washington. The picture with the whitest world view of all, “Daisy”, was the one lauded with Best Picture. That was enough for me.
What was important about these movies is that each one served a key role normally reserved for literature in our world. They provided mythologies and frames for understanding what was happening in the world around us. “Do the Right Thing” was the heaviest on that score, undoubtedly qualifying as a kind of literature that reflects both the times and universal themes. “Glory” made the struggle for Freedom and Equality visceral in more ways than one, literally creating a myth that can sustain us as a culture. “Daisy”? Well, it had its moments.
This cultural role that I have assigned literature apparently makes me a “Structuralist”, a term I neither reject nor accept. I do believe that a complex world is best understood from the guts, the place where good writing must come from. As our world changes in ways that we have trouble understanding intellectually, the bets we can hope for are images that steer us to embrace that which can be embraced and let sleep those things that are best left for dreams.
Just two weeks ago, my partner Cristy and I stayed inside on a bone-chilling day to watch “Dr. Zhivago”. This great epic can only be described as literature, and not only because it was a novel first. David Lean crafted images that freeze the story under the skin in a way that can’t be shivered off. Life, lived well no matter what kind of freeze surrounds you, is the only real warmth.
I have a soft spot for this movie for many reasons. It premiered the day I was born, and when I was in my thirties I looked surprisingly like Omar Sharif as Zhivago. The warmth I felt when seeing it for what must be the tenth time told me that this view of life has become such a part of me that it’s almost like seeing my baby pictures again. Ah, Zhivago. Life and love is what you make of it, no matter what they do to you.
There aren’t many movies that I’ve felt I need to see lately. “No Country for Old Men” sounds like another Coen Brothers reflection on the American Dream that I should give a couple of hours to. But other than that, well, I’m not so sure.
Perhaps I expect too much from movies, just as I expect too much from literature. Zhivago found the precious beauty of each moment, and I still can’t shake that. It’s what life is all about. Culture? Well, that’s something else altogether. Since we are a gregarious kind of standing-upright chimp, culture is a big part of our life and how the moments that enliven it are created. But it’s not everything.
What does matter to me is that some movies are indeed a kind of literature, even if fewer books are all the time. That’s good enough for me. I can take each couple of hours as they come to me, and make the most of them. Still, I can’t help but expect a little bit more once in a while, even if it’s just a cold DVD on a cold day with a warm movie cast in ice. You have to take it as it comes, like a Minnesota cold front. It sure beats dealing with the Red Army, if nothing else; that kind of cold I can do without.