The posture of serene indifference with which The Nation’s film column historically faced the Oscars has shifted during my tenure into more of a defensive crouch. I suppose that’s only to be expected, now that a single night of industrial self-promotion has expanded into an awards season that tramples one-third of each movie-going year. Out stomp the prize seekers during November and December in a parade of white elephants, followed in January and February by the time-killing, leftover releases that look more like sick mongrels fleeing an unscrupulous pound.
To be fair, the movies coming out now are not all misshapen rejects. In fact, I have something to say about two of them. But before I do, I ought to rise from the duck-and-cover position long enough to acknowledge that the most mainstream of the 2019 Best Picture nominees, A Star Is Born, doesn’t deserve the neglect to which I’ve so far consigned it.
Not that I want to give it too much credit. Considering that this latest Star Is Born is the fourth version of the show-biz yarn—or the fifth, if you count 1932’s What Price Hollywood? as the original—you might say its makers owned up to the obvious when they gave the story’s cowboy rocker, played by Bradley Cooper, a theme song that posits that “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” I should point out, though, that Cooper is not merely the hirsute baritone lead of this production but also its co-screenwriter, co-songwriter, and Oscar-snubbed director, who put that self-critical musical proposition into his own mouth. His decision to do so is neither out of step with his acting career nor out of tune with the movie.
Except for occasional star turns in movies like American Sniper, Cooper has made his way in the business by playing deftly against his he-man type. He’s been the preening butt of the Hangover series, the half-cracked ne’er-do-well of Silver Linings Playbook, the comically horny and inept FBI agent of American Hustle, and—in perhaps his most resonant performance—the conscience-stricken false hero of The Place Beyond the Pines. In A Star Is Born, Cooper continues the trend by casting himself as Jackson Maine, a man who seems at first glance like a throwback to the tough, old-school westerner—he treats whiskey as a major food group, avoids shampoo as if it’s an STD, and has Sam Elliott for his older brother—but on closer inspection proves to be so much of a wayward aesthete that he might have haunted Downtown Manhattan in the 1970s, hurting for his next art fix. He meets Ally (Lady Gaga), his future love interest and protégée, when he wanders into a drag bar, where he settles in as comfortably as if he’d choose Paris Is Burning as his desert-island movie. And what is Gaga doing that he finds so attractive, other than belting out a cover of “La Vie en Rose”? By performing in diva get-up as the one physiological female in the drag show, she is (I might imagine) acting as a woman imitating a man imitating a woman.
This is something new in the tradition of A Star Is Born. Many gay men have identified with the fabulous, suffering, enduring images of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand—but with Gaga, everyone who feels the call of the polymorphous can see themselves in the endlessly malleable contours of her face and hear their emotions throb in her omni-generic singing. And if Cooper in his role has stayed closer to the original—the man who has driven himself to succeed but now prefers to wallow masochistically in failure—he has nevertheless added an extra kink to the character. This embodiment of the old ways allows himself to die so that Gaga may preserve the authenticity—the realness—of her play of appearances.
Do I think A Star Is Born deserves an Oscar as the best film of 2018? The question doesn’t interest me. But if it should happen to win, at least the prize will have gone to a picture that thinks some of the old ways have outlived their usefulness, and has done its bit to escort them to the grave. I’ll also feel the winner was directed with skill and self-effacing integrity. It turns out Cooper can do that, too.
Among the other awards that will be settled on February 24 is the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, which might or might not go to the recently released Never Look Away. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who already owns an Oscar for his 2006 feel-good Stasi melodrama The Lives of Others, Never Look Away faces extremely stiff competition in its category (from the incomparable Roma and the shamelessly swoony Cold War, among others) but benefits from the air of prestige that Academy members like. It’s about art, which the voters think is good. It’s also about something else they value highly: making money.
The money-making part is something of a secret, though, reserved for those in the know. Never Look Away unfolds at a leisurely pace as the tale of a German boy named Kurt, born in the 1930s in Dresden, who has a precocious talent for drawing and a cool, keen eye for his family’s troubles. Before the war, they suffer because of an insufficient enthusiasm for Nazism. After the war, they struggle in a city that has been reduced to rubble and converted to communism overnight. As he comes of age, Kurt takes a job in a sign-making shop, then gains admission to the city’s art academy, where he receives the traditional academic training required for the production of socialist realism. He wins prestigious mural commissions but hates their dishonesty and makes up his mind to defect, crossing into West Berlin only weeks before the wall goes up. Now he can make any kind of art he likes; he just doesn’t know what that would be. So he goes to Dusseldorf and enrolls in another academy, this one run by a gnomic fellow who never removes his fedora. After much trial and error, Kurt finally discovers a way of his own to create art—he makes slightly blurry grisaille paintings based on snapshots—and launches his career with a lavishly praised show at a gallery in Wuppertal. As the movie ends, everyone in the audience understands that Kurt stands on the threshold of a great career, while some know more: In broad outline, his story matches the biography of Gerhard Richter.
Now, Richter is no Bradley Cooper, but he’s famous enough and very rich, which means that anyone who ventures even occasionally into an art museum will recognize Never Look Away as the story of a winner. Satisfaction and self-satisfaction are built into the viewer’s experience: the pleasure of watching the hero invent a style that will carry him to glory; the pride of picking up on von Donnersmarck’s knowing winks and nudges (for example, by recognizing the man beneath the fedora as a pseudonymous Joseph Beuys). As if to improve the glow of flattery with the tingle of expectation, von Donnersmarck makes you wait three hours to see Kurt lift himself at last to a status matching Richter’s.
But by drawing out the film, von Donnersmarck does more than defer a foreordained triumph. He also gives himself time to stuff the biographical frame full of fictitious crimes, cover-ups, doppelgängers, sexual shenanigans, and abrupt unmaskings. In this way, the director moves Never Look Away out of the category of fancy biopic and into the realm of languorous, art-house suspense movies—like Blow-Up, you might say, if Antonioni had been a German postmodernist eager to offer reassurance.
The trick is to arouse anxieties about the nightmare of history and then gently wake the audience from them. For this, von Donnersmarck needs a villain—someone who can concentrate all the evils of 20th-century Germany into a despicable and ultimately disposable body—and so he invents one in the person of Professor Carl Seeband, an SS medical officer tied to Kurt by the mysterious bands of fate. When Kurt is a small boy, infatuated with his beautiful, artistic, sometimes delusional aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), Seeband is the dark figure in the background who separates the two. (It takes him almost the whole first act to do it.) When Kurt grows into a young man (the lithe and brooding Tom Schilling, his ice-blue eyes glowing beneath a floppy widow’s peak), he falls in love with another student at the Dresden academy, Ellie (Paula Beer), and Seeband emerges from the shadows as her father. A strange coincidence: Ellie looks almost exactly like the aunt, and is as old as Elisabeth was when Kurt saw her for the last time.
With the incomprehensible powers of a great artist, Kurt intuits the tragic connection, casting his eyes about Seeband’s medical office as if spotting a ghost’s aura. And with all the brutal, arrogant rectitude of a former SS man—albeit one who now proclaims his allegiance to communist ideals—Seeband moves against Kurt. (As played by the square-jawed and beefy Sebastian Koch, there’s a lot of Seeband to move.) Von Donnersmarck tries fitfully to draw comparisons between the two antagonists—both say, when challenged, that they use their skills “because I can,” and both are driven (in Seeband’s words) to be recognized as the best at what they do—but these are no more than formulas inserted into the dialogue, as magical in their way as the spiritual affinities that bring Elisabeth back as Ellie: Von Donnersmarck pretends to dialectics and delivers Theosophy. And when he makes a show of sounding the depths of modern Germany’s great political divide, he surfaces with a shrug. All you really need to know is that both sides were terrible; the proof is that Seeband was on both.
Kurt stumbles onto this great truth (or cliché) in the course of discovering his artistic method, and in the culminating Blow-Up sequence exposes his father-in-law’s depravity without quite knowing that he’s done it. When Seeband sees what Kurt has been painting and escapes to the wings, like Snidely Whiplash making his exit in Act III of Little Nell on the Tracks, Kurt just gives a puzzled look and returns to the easel. It’s as if the great irony of Never Look Away lay in the artist’s inability to understand the meaning of his own work.
That too, of course, is a cliché. If there’s any real irony at the end of Never Look Away, it’s that von Donnersmarck has spent three hours laboring to overturn conventional critical opinion by infusing Richter’s art with autobiographical sentiment and world-historic angst—yet all he’s done is stuff it with kitsch.
For better and worse, artists are rarely seers like Kurt, or grandly self-immolating lovers like Gaga and Bradley. When young, they’re more often like Sinan (Doğu Demirkol), the recent college graduate and would-be writer stuck in the Turkish provinces in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree: prickly, sarcastic, self-involved, a little physically awkward, and for all that somehow endearing—when you don’t want to punch him in the face.
Sinan pulls the right corner of his mouth upward when he talks, giving him that sincere wise-guy look, and tends to roll side to side while walking stiff-legged through his hometown’s hilly streets. Like so many of Ceylan’s characters, Sinan is a tireless walker—both in Çan and in the nearby farming village where his father goes to work the land (or hide)—providing many opportunities for the camera to follow him and unfold panoramic landscapes. And like the other hapless Chekhovian types with whom he shares the movie, Sinan talks endlessly.
There’s the high-school sweetheart who gave up on education, put on a headscarf, and is bitterly resigned to being married off, and the fellow graduate who can’t get a teaching job but is cheerful about joining the riot police. There’s the mayor, who isn’t too busy to receive Sinan and express warm support for his manuscript, so long as it will encourage tourism, and the prominent regional author encountered in a book shop, who finally puts a stop to Sinan’s provocations by shouting that he’s going home to soak his feet. There are the two young imams who have been helping themselves to apples from somebody’s tree, and who disagree about whether it’s best for people not to think too much; as well as Sinan’s mother, who shakes him to the core by saying that if she had it to do all over again, she’d still marry his father.
For the most part, The Wild Pear Tree comprises a series of these rambling dialogues, the most tense of which are with Sinan’s father (Murat Cemcir), a silver-tongued grammar-school teacher whose gambling habit has left him cadging loose change from his son. He’s maddening, broken, and the only person in the movie who has any idea of what Sinan’s doing with his impossible-to-describe “meta-novel” of “personal observations of the local culture.”
No star will be born in The Wild Pear Tree—or die, either. There are no winners to be found, not even that regional author whose feet hurt from listening to Sinan. There is still something to be won, though: if not forgiveness, then the capacity to forgive. To Ceylan, that would be the most difficult art of all—and if you look around with him and see how beautiful everything is, it just might seem possible.