Those makers of magic

Posted on February 6, 2016


In the third Oscar-season piece, a look at the directors.

Just how mad is Oscar madness? I’m not talking about the ceremony that’s a few weeks away. That’s so… 2016. I’m talking about the fact that, on January 27,, the pop-culture web site of New York magazine, published a feature titled “Which Sundance Films Could Score With Oscar Next Year?” Yup. Based on the just-concluded Sundance Film Festival, they’re trying to predict next year’s Oscars. One of their top contenders is director-star Nate Parker’s historical drama The Birth of a Nation, whose release date hasn’t even been decided on: “After two years dominated by #oscarssowhite headlines, expect Parker’s Nation to factor heavily into the next awards race; there’s no shortage of categories in which he could contend, though the film is so dominated by Parker’s powerful performance that I think he’s likely the only actor from it who’ll court Oscar attention.” That’s not a crystal ball. That’s a crystal planet. But that’s Oscar for you. We are all in its orbit.

Which is why I keep talking about it – first actors, then actresses, and now, directors. I wonder why Lenny Abrahamson is on the list of nominees, for Room. I agree it isn’t entirely illogical. If Emma Donoghue, who wrote the book on which the film is based, ended up on the list of finalists for the Man Booker prize, then why discount Lenny Abrahamson, who’s made a pretty fine movie? The difference is that the book finds a way to make its captive-woman-and-child story unique. The narrator is a five-year-old named Jack. “My two fingers zoom all around Room and nearly have a midair collision.” That’s how he thinks, and that’s how he speaks. Room isn’t just about the plot. It’s about Jack going, “In a minute the police are going to come weee-ahhh weee-ahhh weee-ahhh and lock those bad guys up in jail.” It’s about Jack’s viewpoint, which is as constricted, as contained as the room he’s imprisoned in.

Abrahamson doesn’t do away with this voice altogether, but it’s just not the same. Consider the bit about mother and son taking their vitamins. Here’s how Donaghue does it: “Ma takes her pill from the silver pack that has twenty-eight little spaceships and I take a vitamin from the bottle with the boy doing a handstand and she takes one from the big bottle with a picture of a woman doing Tennis. Vitamins are medicine for not getting sick and going back to Heaven yet.” Here’s how Abrahamson does it: Mother tells son, “Take your vitamin. It’s the last one.” This isn’t a plea for replication of the book’s USPs onto the screen, and movies do have their own language, one that’s more visual than verbal. But as the American playwright Thornton Wilder said, “Many plays – certainly mine – are like blank checks. The actors and directors put their own signatures on them.” Abrahamson doesn’t quite emboss his name on the dotted line, and when that doesn’t happen, the movie becomes things like “well-made” and “solid” as opposed to the things we called the book: “visionary” and “unique.”

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Vision and voice, then, are something a Best Director candidate must bring to the table. These are the qualities that separate the people who merely made good movies from those whose movies are unimaginable without them. Take Alejandro G Iñárritu. He totally deserved his win last year for the astonishing Birdman. I’d have been equally happy if Wes Anderson had won for The Grand Budapest Hotel or Richard Linklater for Boyhood – but Birdman, undoubtedly, was the more thrilling feat, proof of the director as magician. Among this year’s nominees, George Miller, with Mad Max: Fury Road, did some conjuring of his own – the film, with one did-that-really-happen? set piece after another, was the equivalent of making an elephant vanish. Miller took a truckload of action-movie clichés and made you feel they were being birthed in front of your eyes. He did, as a filmmaker, what Emma Donoghue did as a writer – he told an old story in an entirely new way. He made an action movie that felt… artisanal.

I didn’t think anything would top this. Probably the only film that brought me as much joy was The Man from U.N.C.L.E., where Guy Ritchie reinvented the spy thriller with style and sass, his directorial signature practically watermarked on every delightful frame. I thought Ritchie had an outsider chance of making the Oscar list, but the movie flopped and… And then I saw The Big Short, and now I find myself rooting for Adam McKay, who is a nominee. To tell you why, I’d first have to tell you about the film, which is… I guess it’s easier paraphrasing the Wiki plot summary: “An eccentric hedge fund manager discovers that the U.S. housing market is extremely unstable, being based on subprime loans that are high risk and providing fewer returns. Predicting that the market will collapse sometime in 2007, he realizes that he can profit from this situation by creating a credit default swap market…” As someone who thinks a hedge fund is the household’s monthly gardening budget, I wouldn’t normally have watched this movie if you paid me.

But what mind-blowing things McKay does with it. I still can’t say I understood every reference to overdraft analysis or tranches, but I enjoyed the film thoroughly. Yes, I said “enjoy.” When was the last time you thought to use that word while leafing through the Business section of your newspaper? The usual trick while making such movies is to allow the audience to empathise with a few characters, so that our feelings for them tide us over the incomprehensibility of what they are doing. But there are just scraps of emotion here – one character mourns a dead brother, another has to be reminded that many people are going to lose their homes. Most other times, The Big Short plays like the financial crisis black comedy that Scorsese never directed. The scenes (even the email-checking scenes) practically dance on screen, pulsing with the kind of energy you’d associate with a rock-star biopic. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

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