I know what it is to subscribe to The Nation—that sinking of the heart every week as you open the mailbox and think, "Now what’s wrong?" That’s why this little corner of frivolity at the back of the magazine devotes itself to entertainment as much as art, and tries to bear in mind that movies, though deeply involved in the world’s strife, don’t actually do the work of politics.
There has to be some relief. And yet, when I push myself to perform every reviewer’s duty and look back on The Year in Movies, the sheer leadenness of the frolic makes Oscar Wilde weep among the angels.
Here’s how The Year in Movies ended: On December 18 a court in Tehran sentenced Jafar Panahi to six years in prison and banned him from writing scripts and directing films for the next twenty years. That means until he’s 70, if he lives that long.
You may recall that Panahi—director of The White Balloon, The Circle, Crimson Gold and Offside—had been jailed earlier in 2010 with his colleague Mohammad Rasoulof (director of Iron Island) but was released on bail after three months. There was as yet no trial. That formality was finally taken up in November, and now Panahi and Rasoulof are doing hard time in Evin prison. Their crime: having conspired to commit a film, which if completed (according to the government) would have turned out to be "propaganda."
I asked one of the principal scholars of Iranian cinema, Hamid Dabashi, what might be done. He recommended that Nation readers encourage the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to issue a statement to the Iranian House of Cinema in support of Panahi and Rasoulof. "The pressure," he wrote, "must be public, institutional, non-governmental and above all relentless." So I refer you to Bruce Davis, executive director of AMPAS, at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90211. Who knows? Maybe the statement can be so public as to be incorporated into the Oscars broadcast.
We can try. And it will give us something better to do about the Oscars than follow the competition.
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That frenzy on the red carpet is of course the main business of America’s film industry at the end of each Year in Movies. We are expected to think about, browbeaten to recognize, stampeded like a colony of naked mole rats to view only those few films that are confirmed (God knows by whom) as Oscar contenders. I try to be a sport about it; I really do. But there are Panahi and Rasoulof in their cells; and here, demanding attention with the wave of a conspicuously authentic-looking firearm, is True Grit.
You cannot find a more impeccably made film, nor one with less apparent reason to exist. After you’ve marveled at the precision of each setup, camera movement and edit; the faultless modulations of tone among suspense, pathos, humor and excitement; the utter self-assurance of all the performers (starting with Jeff Bridges, that Old Faithful of America’s male stars, but crucially including young Hailee Steinfeld in the central role), the experience dissipates like mist. There’s nothing left to brood over after you’ve watched the film—nothing to appreciate more deeply on second or third reflection. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the experience cancels itself even as you watch, given the indifferent curiosity with which Joel and Ethan Coen call up and then skim over the themes that have long haunted the western, as if they were mere outmoded superstitions to be ticked off a list. Finally the Coens have achieved the goal toward which their cinema has always tended: a perfect void.