They come out of Europe during Oscar season, wreathed in more than a dozen awards. The Lives of Others, from Germany, tells of suffering in the East during the 1980s, as supervised by the GDR’s secret police. Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams, from Bosnia-Herzegovina, tells of suffering in the 1990s during the civil war and the continuation of that suffering today. Both films are the debut features of academically trained directors in their early 30s, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and Jasmila Zbanic. Both, I think, are pretty good. But as much as each film tells us about its subject matter, the pair tell us even more about the tastes of juries and prize committees in Europe, and their eagerness to create the next star director.
Before I go on, though, you might ask: Is it valid to generate big conclusions from so small a sample? I say the answer is yes, if you think imagination has anything to do with film. Test the method yourself, closer to home: Simply close your eyes and think like an Oscar voter.
Let’s suppose you’re a member of the Academy–that is, someone who makes a living in the mainstream American industry–and you’ve just filled in your nominating ballot for Best Picture. If you listed The Departed as your top choice, you voted for the year’s only big-studio movie that was both artistically respectable and a box-office hit. Seriously, there was just one. Had you wanted to find that combination in any other 2006 release, you would have had to pick Happy Feet.
If you nominated Letters From Iwo Jima for Best Picture, you voted for an artistically respectable big-studio picture that you wished would become a hit. Since you know Warner Bros. rushed Iwo Jima into release after the embarrassing commercial failure of Flags of Our Fathers, you’re essentially rooting for a turnaround.
If you put The Queen at the head of your ballot, you’ve decided that artistically respectable movies will have to be made by the thrifty Brits if they’re going to be viable. The best bet for American studios (or their specialty divisions) is to buy into these pictures afterward, sharing in the glory and doing a middling business (a mere $45 million gross for The Queen, as of this writing).
If you chose Babel ($27 million gross), you’ve even given up on the Brits. You just want “Hollywood” (a front in this case for a couple of canny Mexicans) to get its once-a-year spritz of Eau de Prestige.
And if you chose Little Miss Sunshine? In that case, you want to encourage people younger than Martin Scorsese to make respectable pictures and yet please the crowd; $60 million and counting for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, on an $8 million budget! Give those kids Oscars and first-look deals! Then, in ten years, you can wonder what became of them, or else complain that they’ve directed Pirates of the Caribbean 7.
QED: A small sample can show something large. In the case of this year’s Oscar nominations, five pictures reveal the rattle-brained condition of the American movie industry, which for the most part can no longer either make art or sell it. At the top level, though, people might want to buy a little of the stuff, if someone will please tell them what it is.
Now, to return to my two-picture sample of European prizewinners: The industry that rewarded The Lives of Others and Grbavica has thereby shown itself to be entirely comfortable with art, or at least aspirations to it. Both of these pictures express an almost pious faith in music and literature–and, by extension, film–to awaken the conscience and heal wounds. This isn’t a theme you encounter in the average American Oscar nominee.