Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Sermon from the MVP

     Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once co-piloted a passenger jet with the head of the original Mission: Impossible squad in Airplane! (1980) as well as fought the legendary Bruce Lee in Game of Death (1978). He is also a retired professional basketball player and living legend, having set the NBA record six times for most valuable player (MVP). Let's just say this: he's got a lot of street cred. He also recently wrote a very insightful and near soul-searching piece online about The Oscars' Addiction to Lame Historical Dramas, as he titled it.

The gist of what I think he was trying to say, is that our historical films today have devolved into Best Picture fodder come awards season, and are largely just reenactments of historical events without putting them in any kind of context, the way that superior films of the same ilk have always striven to do.

He argues that films like 12 Years a Slave (this year's Oscar winner for Best Picture) are meticulously crafted but grueling exercises meant to drop us into a particular time period, but not help us navigate the emotional complexities and human dynamics they conjure up. To quote Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, the six historical drama nominees for Best Picture this year: "don't explore history as much as recreate it." That's a powerful and completely valid observation.

above left: human wreckage in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
above right: blood on the sand in Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

He contrasts them with previous Best Picture winners like A Man for All Seasons (1966) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962); a film that gets its point across with a single shot compared to over two hours of sadism. I was surprised he didn't mention Schindler's List (1993), a film I think completely warranted the Best Picture win simply because it actually attempted to put a human face on tragic events, not just expose us to a raw nerve.

If anything, Mr. Abdul-Jabbar's piece was a thinly veiled call to arms for artists to take back the reigns from the uncreative types who control the game (but couldn't write their own names in the snow) and start making films that explore human dynamics again as opposed to being dressed up nominee potential come awards season. He did applaud Alexander Payne's Nebraska for its attempts to actually enlighten us with regards to human relationships.

above left: A Man for All Seasons (1966); above right: Harold and Maude (1971)

Eloquently enough, he cites Hal Ashby's early masterpiece Harold and Maude (1971) as the type of unconventional love story that filmmakers today should be striving to make, as opposed to Spike Jonze's seemingly prescient but ultimately innocuous Her (that walked away with the Oscar for Original Screenplay). He took Her to task for being a "novelty" and for not having anything more illuminating to say about "love and humanity" than the underrated Lars and the Real Girl (2007).

above left: Her (2013); above right: Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

I'm really starting to like Mr. Abdul-Jabbar. He invoked two of my all-time favorite films, A Man for All Seasons and Harold and Maude in the same piece in addition to essentially calling out the Oscars as the self-congratulatory King & Queen homecoming dance that it is. He also reminded me that I need to watch Lars and the Real Girl again, a compelling film that deeply touched me. I mean, I liked him before. But now I'm really starting to like him.

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