Not too long ago some friends and I sat down for a nice little dose of The Coen Brother’s immaculate ode to all things leisurely. It’s been ten years since the The Big Lebowski hit the theaters and even a decade later the film remains one of the finest cult classics ever. Repeated viewings never cease to shed Lebowski’s one of a kind sense of humor. The script and long list of memorable quotes still feel as fresh today as they did back in the 90s and above all the film is one of those rare cinematic treats that can truly be savored properly amongst a group of equally adoring fans. As I sat back and soaked in the film’s one-of-a-kind narrative and bizarre group of characters I began realizing that we really haven’t been treated to a really classic cult film in quite some time.
I suppose in order to ponder over recent films destined for cult status it’s important to define what it is that makes a movie a cult classic?
For some it’s defined by niche genres. Everything from horror, exploitation, dubbed martial arts flicks, anything from teen film maestro John Hughes to films that embody that “so awful it’s good” mentality. For others cult status is determined by simple economics. How a film is received in theaters (generally sub-par) versus home consumption (record breaking sales)? What kind of budget was used? Finally cult films are the ones that garner a loyal following, for example hordes attending midnight screenings or entire festivals dedicated to a classic’s onscreen world. And most importantly these are the classics that can be revisited time after time and always seem to improve with age.
The Big Lebowski was the Coen’s follow up to the duo’s acclaimed baby Fargo, the Minnesota set dark comedy that helped launch the indie darlings to their Oscar winning status they have today. Upon its release Lebowski was a flop, both critically and financially. I distinctly remember seeing the film in a fairly empty theater and beforehand being disappointed by the film’s fair share of mediocre reviews. Still in typical cult film fashion when Lebowski hit the video racks it slowly became an underground phenomenon.
Today the film is still screened around the country on college campuses and late night art house theater showings. DVD sales continue to be strong (the film is one of Amazon.com’s best sellers) and the film even has its own national festival,Lebowski Fest, which holds its seventh annual gala this July in Louisville, KY and also tours other major cities. When was the last time you saw a film that had this much potential for cult grandeur?
In all my pondering of this question the only recent cult classic I could come up with was 2001s Donnie Darko, a film which, personally I think is overrated but nevertheless has established an impressive underground following. LikeLebowski the film was a dud in the box office and baffled most critics but is now a staple at most midnight screenings. In fact this may be the only true cult film this side of the new millennium.
Sure 2004s Napoleon Dynamite was quickly labeled cult upon its release, mainly because the film seemed like one giant homage to all things that have made films cult classics in the past, particularly 80s pop culture. Ultimately though the film more comfortably joined the ranks of low-budget indie success stories like The Blair Witch Project or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I mean honestly when was the last time anyone mentioned these films.
The biggest problem today is too many films make attempts at establishing themselves as cult classics before the film is even released. Case in point 2006s overly hyped serpents riding the friendly skies action flick, Snakes on a Plane. Here’s a film that really did have potential to be one of those so-bad-it’s-good action films but once all the internet rumors started flying regarding Samuel L. Jackson’s involvement and admiration for the script’s title the film went from a potentially low-budget, straight to video action film to a “cult film” pet project for a major studio. More money was allotted to the budget, extra more “risqué” scenes were added, and Sam Jackson was even spoon fed a “soon to be memorable catch phrase.” Still two years later, does anyone really give a damn about those “motherfucking snakes on the motherfucking plane?”
The Snakes experiment ultimately showed that you couldn’t force the process of a film gaining cult status. It’s the same way these big Hollywood remakes of once cherished cult horror classics–a Paris Hilton take on the classic Vincent Price filmHouse of Wax or the upcoming Michael Bay and Co. helmed remake of Friday the 13th–will never truly capture the mass appeal that the originals still hold. There is even an upcoming remake of Death Race 2000, that 1970s era lethal muscle car cult favorite, by the guy who made Mortal Kombat into a movie.
Even certain directors deemed cult film Gods–Tarantino, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Richard Linklater, and John Waters–couldn’t seem to reclaim their early cult status with newest endeavors. Some have moved into the mainstream eye (The Coens, David Cronenberg), some have been completely forgotten about (Mike Judge’s last film Idiocracy was actually pretty funny but failed to make any kind of splash). Even a television show like Lost, which often garners comparisons to Lynch’s 90s cult classic turned mass phenomenon, Twin Peaks, is just too soap operatic and mainstream to truly be considered cult, despite its loyal following and hundreds, if not thousands of internet message boards dissecting every moment.
There is something cool about a film or show or musician that can create such niche but loyal fan base and can stand the test of time. Perhaps Hollywood needs to let another Lebowski or Spinal Tap just come out on its own. Until then I’ll always have the dude, or his Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing.
An anxious nation can officially be put to rest. This past week Coldplay, planet Earth’s favorite big emotional sound troupe, officially announced some details regarding its “highly” anticipated fourth studio album. Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends is a mouthful of a record title especially when compared to 2005s oh so subtle, X&Y. The album is set for a mid June release with tracks ranging from the spooky sounding “Cemeteries of London,” the mysterious “Lost!” and the possibly philosophy riddled “Glass of Water.” Half full or half empty Mr. Martin?
I admittedly found Coldplay’s first two endeavors–2000s “Parachutes" and 2004s titanic release “A Rush of Blood to the Head”–to be rather enjoyable. Sure tracks like “Yellow” and “Clocks” were almost too catchy and quickly became poison to the ears after radio stations continued to spin the record raw but both albums as a whole were pretty solid. If you were to put all the mega stardom and celebrity buzz over babies named after pieces or produce aside Coldplay have always done pure unadulterated pop music well.
I suppose what eventually turned me off was the band’s popularity explosion immediately following Rush. When the eagerly awaited X&Y was finally unveiled in 2005 not only did the mediocre third act sound like merely more of the same or an entire album set out to emulate a blockbuster like “Clocks” but its unnecessary media buzz was more of a buzz kill.
So why even write about Coldplay? Why devote an entire column to some recent tidbits about the band’s upcoming fourth album? The answer is simple: Eno.
Comparisons have always been made between Coldplay and groups like Radiohead or U2. While a more appropriate Coldplay link would be to Brit pop acts like The Stone Roses or Oasis, Chris Martin’s bleak but fairly uninspired lyrics always seem to bunch the band into the former group. On Viva la Vida… (seriously what’s with the title? What about Frida Kahlo interests Mr. Martin?) ambient sound pioneer Brian Eno stepped in as producer a move that not only raises the album’s intrigue from blah to BLAH? but also brings the band closer to U2s career path.
Eno was at one point (and, quite frankly, still is) the producer to work with. During the 1970s and 80s he overlooked some of the greatest albums ever made by some music’s finest acts. Bowie’s avant-garde Berlin Trilogy, a handful of Talking Heads’ masterpieces, Devo’s premiere record, and of course U2s unadulterated run of album greats starting with 1984s The Unforgettable Fire and ending with 1993s overlooked Zooropa, all received that Eno touch.
One would hope that Coldplay’s decision to take on Eno as a producer shows that the band is ready for a change. Eno has always been a master of taking an artist or band and helping them find a new direction. Case in point, U2s Achtung Baby(1991). Undoubtedly Bono and company’s most sophisticated and musically interesting record to date, the album helped the band enter their second decade with a new slate to work on. He even helped the band accomplish this same feat entering the new millennium with the fresh and highly popular, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
People often say that Eno is the go-to man for acquiring that worldly sound. African drums, bizarre instrumentation, and layered rhythms seem to be his forte. While this is partially true (he did help David Byrne channel his inner Afro-pop demons during Talking Heads magnificent album progression in the early 1980s) Eno is more attuned to helping musicians take that next big step from mass appreciation to critical appreciation. In the case of U2 he helped the band find both.
In many ways Viva la Vida will be a test to see if Coldplay can propel itself from merely soft pop rock stardom to a band willing to take risks no matter what the costs are. They could make and remake the some album rooted in “Clocks”esque anthems for another ten years and they would no doubt still sell millions of records and continue to fill arenas. The ultimate question though is how will they ultimately be viewed by future music fans and critics writing their columns for the best acts of the early millennium? Where will Coldplay fit in rock and roll history?
According to a press release of the new album on Coldplay’s website:
“The sights, sounds and flavours of Latin America and Spain have definitely been infused into this album...No maracas or castanets, but a vibrancy and colourfulness that owes much to the atmospheres of Buenos Aires and Barcelona. The effect is subtle but important."
There you have it. Subtle but important. The question now is can singer/songwriter Chris Martin shed his unnecessary knack for depressing lyrics (you’re married to Gwyneth Paltrow, you probably have more money than the Queen and you get to tour the world playing recycled keyboard licks, why such a glum disposition sir?)? Will this spicy new direction work for the band? I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.
I was talking to a very good friend of mine about the band. Unlike myself he has always stood by all things Coldplay. WhenX&Y’s single “Fix You” was leaked on the internet its play count on his iTunes library stretched into the 1000s (to be fair he used to leave the emotional ballad on a repeat loop at night. Nothing like a little cushy Brit pop to lull you to sleep). His argument has always been Coldplay’s music sounds good and it’s consistent. Shouldn’t interesting music steer clear of consistency? Aren’t the ones who take risks the true greats?
For this column I went and revisited X&Y on his recommendation just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Sure enough I didn’t miss anything. That said, I’m still interested to see what this new album has in store for the band if anything because they are a hard super-force to ignore. Plus as a fan of Eno there is a spark of hope that maybe Coldplay was just testing the waters with their first couple albums. Who knows, with Viva la Vida maybe the band followed the oh-so-wise Monty Python motto, ‘and now for something completely different.’
For every movie that makes it to the big screen there are hundreds of other projects or ideas that never reach production, let alone an actually release. Budget issues, lack of major star power, legal conundrums, constant script rewrites, political strife with major studios, whatever the reasons may be, there are countless cases of potentially major films that never see the light of day.
Recently I read an article about Michel Gondry’s (one of the more interesting directors working today) proposed next project falling through. Set to direct an adaptation of Rudy Rucker’s novel, Master of Space and Time, a story that chronicles two mad scientists quest to control time, Gondry has supposedly moved on thus leaving the film’s future questionable.
The story is supposedly prime material for Gondry’s knack for surrealism and interests in bending the line between dreams and reality. Still the film, at least Gondry’s version, seems destined to join the long list of films you’ll never get to see. Below is a short-list of what I feel are some of the best examples. Some are projects that were simply too big or problematic to be completed. Some are alternate versions of pre-existing classics. All have gone down in history as some of the best films never made. Kubrick’s Epics Steven Spielberg once said in an interview that he was shocked that Stanley Kubrick passed away at 70 because he had expected the director to make his magnum opus well into his 80s, similar to Japanese great Akira Kurosawa’s late masterpiece Ran. The truth is Kubrick had been toying with a number of potentially epic films throughout his career, most notably a grandiose and highly detailed biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte with Jack Nicholson set to star. The film was originally to follow 2001: A Space Odyssey, then later during the time between The Shining and Full Metal Jacket but somehow never developed. Many speculate that the film’s scope and more importantly its budget was just too big. Some believe the coinciding release of the epic film adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and the film Waterloo played into the projects delay. Others believe the major studio system shot the idea down.
What little is known about the project comes from Kubrick’s estate, which featured countless articles, books and roughly 25,000 note cards chronicling day-to-day happenings of France’s notorious tyrant. Rumor has it Kubrick even had ties with the Romanian army, which was going to lend the ambitious filmmaker roughly ten thousands soldiers for extensive battle sequences.
It’s possible that Kubrick spent much of his life dwelling on this one project. Add this to Kubrick’s original vision of A.I. Artificial Intelligence (another project he supposedly worked on for much of his life) and a proposed Holocaust film calledThe Aryan Papers that was scrapped around the same time as Schindler’s List and you have a director who still had some tricks up his sleeve before his untimely departure. Tackling Cervantes One of the most fascinating film projects that failed to launch on a number of occasions was the adaptation of the Spanish literary giant Don Quixote. Following Citizen Kane Orson Welles was attached to the project and actually shot a great deal of footage but the project eventually fell through due to Welles’ reliance on independent filmmaking and the death of the film’s star. Welles continued editing the film throughout his lifetime and was supposedly set to complete the film before his death in 1985. Unfortunately much of the footage was eventually lost and what little was left was released in the early 90s as an incomplete version of the film directed by smut filmmaker Jesus Franco. (It should be noted that Welles was notorious for having countless other projects under way during his career. Another notable example was a proposed adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which was later loosely adapted by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now)
In 2000 director Terry Gilliam took on the Quixote tale and added his own modern twist. The project entitled, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, eventually crashed and burned due to countless obstacles during the production, including, yet again, a serious injury inflicted on the film’s star. At the time the film boasted to have one of the largest budgets of any film shot in entirely in Europe (roughly $40 million) and Gilliam had admitted that it would be his most ambitious project to date. In 2002 a fascinating documentary, Lost in La Mancha, was released chronicling the film’s rise and fall.
More Terry Gilliam The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is just one of many films that Gilliam failed to complete. His most recent effort, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was put on hiatus after the unexpected death of its star, Heath Ledger but is not back on board. Gilliam once tackled another literary opus, The Tale of Two Cities, originally with Mel Gibson (he dropped out to direct Braveheart) and then Liam Nesson (not a big enough star according to the studio) on board to star. Ultimately the film fell apart due to conflicts with the studio financing the project (money has never seemed to agree with Gilliam’s creativity). During the early 90s he twice attempted to get Alan Moore’s monumental graphic novel Watchmen made into a film and was J.K. Rowling’s first pick to helm the first Harry Potter film, The Philosopher’s Stone. Fans of Gilliam might also be interested to know that he’s long had a script for a Time Bandits sequel floating around, another possible classic destined to go to his grave From Star Wars to Dune to Blade Runner Often times films shuffle around the creative players with projects often going through multiple scripts and different visionaries. George Lucas had always expressed his admiration for surrealist David Lynch, particularly his film Eraserhead, and at one point tried to woo him towards the director’s chair of Return of the Jedi (originally titled Revenge of the Jedi). Lynch instead ended up taking the helm of another sci-fi epic, the adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Dune itself went through many different incarnations. In the 1970s epic filmmakers David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) and Alejandro Jodorowsky were both set to take on the novel. Jodorowsky was very close to making a version starring Mr. Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and, get this, Salvador Dalí as the emperor. If Jodorowsky’s version would have gone through it is said Pink Floyd would have provided music for the soundtrack. Later in the 80s before Lynch finally took the reins Ridley Scott was attached to direct (he would go on to later direct Blade Runner and Alien shortly after).
The Best of the Rest Dalí Disney Project: Around the same time painter Salvador Dalí was collaborating with fellow surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchock he began storyboarding an animated short film for Walt Disney entitled Destino. The film remained as just that–a vision and a collection of drawings and test animation footage–until 2003 when it was finally completed by a group of animators with the blessings of Roy Disney for use in the never finalized Fantasia 2006. NOTE: The film was eventually released for film festivals and briefly played before the filmCalendar Girls during its theatrical release. The original Dalí incarnation will never truly be imagined on screen though.
Stalingrad: Italian Spaghetti Western auteur Sergio Leone was hard at work at the end of the 1980s on a film chronicling the siege at Stalingrad during World War II. With a supposed large budget of over $100 million, half funded by Americans, half by Russians with Robert De Niro in line to star, this project might have been Leone’s final epic masterpiece.
Kaleidoscope: Hitchcock’s Darkest Film: After Alfred Hitchcock hit a low point in the mid 60s after his film Marnie failed to capture the same suspense as previous endeavors he began work on a radically different script about a violent killer who dabbled in necrophilia. Much to the dismay of studio execs Hitchcock wanted the film to be shot from the POV of the killer, he was keen on utilizing more experimental or “European” filmmaking techniques, and also planned for an elaborate death sequence involving an acid bath. The 60s title was originally Kaleidoscope, however, after the film failed to get a go-ahead from any studio, despite Hitchcock’s plan to film with a miniscule budget, aspects of the story were eventually fleshed out a decade later on screen in 1976s Frenzy.
This past week Trent Reznor followed in the footsteps of Radiohead and many other bands currently trying to change the way we purchase music when he announced on the Nine Inch Nails’ website the independent release of a new record,Ghosts I-IV. The 36-track album, or four EP set was available immediately for digital download or pre-order in either CD or LP formats, and was offered to listeners in several different audio quality and price formats from a free nine track MP3 download to a $300 signed and numbered Deluxe Edition set that included both physical and digital versions of the record.
Ghosts is the first album NIN released since it broke away from its contract with Interscope Records, a move that mirrors Radiohead’s decision to release last year’s In Rainbows autonomous from its former label EMI. Now while Reznor didn’t entirely follow the “pay what you feel is appropriate” model that Radiohead promoted with Rainbows, Ghosts furthers the mounting notion that music listeners are looking for options in how they acquire and digest music.
To be fair a move like this wasn’t entirely unexpected for a musician like Trent Reznor. Long before In Rainbows stirred things up in the media, Reznor had been exploring the digital realm of promoting and distributing NIN music and even butted heads with his former label shortly after the release of last year’s Year Zero. Upon Zero’s official release Reznor was apparently appalled by the record’s high retail cost and even promoted illegal download acquisition of the album to fans to protest the higher powers. So unlike Radiohead’s surprise announcement last fall, it’s safe to say it was only a matter of time before Reznor took things into his own hands.
Still if you forget all the hype surrounding this new wave of sticking it to the record companies, a possible beginning of the end for the current industry, the most striking part of this story is Reznor’s newest opus itself.
It’s fitting that Ghosts I-IV was released in this manner because five to ten years ago, even when NIN was in its peak, a record of this nature probably would never have seen the light of day. Reznor no doubt realized this fact going into the recording of this album. Originally conceived to be a simple five track instrumental EP, Reznor decided to fulfill a dream he had been toying with for quite some time and instead concocted nearly two hours of varied instrumental tracks, each matching up with a separate visual entity.
Gone are Reznor’s agonizing vocals and harsh, politically charged lyrics. Absent too are song titles, which often serve as snippets into Reznor’s agenda or current mindset. Instead Ghosts is a fascinating collection of mini electronic symphonies that are at times haunting, at times beautiful, and surprisingly never boring, despite the record’s daunting scope. Each is paired up with a photograph provided in a downloadable PDF or an eventual 40-page liner note set. The images range from bleak exterior shots of desert landscapes to studio shots of Reznor and team working their magic with a slew of bizarre instruments and endless cords, knobs and control boards.
Ghosts I-IV was the result of an intense 10-week recording session that Reznor describes on his website as having, “a wildly varied body of music that we're able to present to the world in ways the confines of a major record label would never have allowed.” The album was recorded either solo or in collaboration with a group of NIN regulars and friends including Brian Viglione of The Dresden Dolls and legendary experimental guitarist Adrian Belew, whose impressive resume includes his former band King Crimson, work with Frank Zappa, Paul Simon, Talking Heads, and David Bowie, during his heavy instrumental Berlin sessions. Longtime collaborator and former shoe gazer producer Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins) also overlooked the sessions.
Reznor added on his website: This music arrived unexpectedly as the result of an experiment. The rules were as follows: 10 weeks, no clear agenda, no overthinking, everything driven by impulse. Whatever happens during that time gets released as... something.
Nine Inch Nails have long experimented with instrumental tracks on its records. Fragile, Reznor’s magnum double disc follow-up to The Downward Spiral, felt at times like a twisted, dark score to a dismal film that only Reznor could conjure up. Reznor has often spoken of his admiration for the instrumental work of Bowie, particularly on 1977s Low, a radical departure for the musical chameleon that featured numerous electronic soundscape tracks that were overlooked by Brian Eno. Ghosts in many ways mimics the second half of Low and the works of Eno, who spent much of his solo career creating ambient instrumental symphonies to be played in the background. Here Reznor seems to go with that concept on Ghosts and takes it up a notch.
Still unlike previous NIN records Ghosts feels very clean. While many of the instruments are eventually buried under waves of filtering and distortion, it is clear that a level of in-studio improvisation and real instrumentation played an important role in the recording sessions. Take “13” from Ghosts II, a sleepy little melodic piano piece carried by an almost soothing drum pulse. Or “6” from Ghosts I, a curious little composition propelled by what sounds like a marimba and subtle string orchestration that would feel right at home on a science fiction film soundtrack. Not the usual fare from the guy who once wrote, “Head like a hole. Black as your soul.”
Perhaps this is what’s most fascinating about Ghosts and why the record’s title is so fitting. NIN’s past efforts have always involved a level of social commentary and haunting reflections from one of the darker minds of our generation. Yet withGhosts Reznor has gone a completely different direction following merely what he thought sounded good and riding with it. It’s almost as if the soothing tracks and the more extreme, darker tracks included here are all afterthoughts or spirits of previous NIN compositions.
It will be interesting to see what other artists and bands follow suit and decide to take the distribution side of the industry into their own hands. Bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails succeeded in these little experiments (NIN.com’s servers actually crashed from a higher download demand than was anticipated after Ghosts was first posted) undoubtedly because of strong backing from a large fan base. In past years smaller groups like Arcade Fire and Wilco have used the net to stream its albums before the official release, another tactic that gives listeners a taste and hopefully entices them to purchase the album.
While an album like Ghosts I-IV is clearly aimed at a certain loyal audience, and not the average listening consumer, this may turn out to be an important step for Reznor because this seems to be a viable manner of putting his music out there for the world to hear. With a proposed follow-up album toYear Zero already in the back of his mind we may very well see another move like this down the road.
Record companies seem to be clinching to the ways of yesteryears when they need to realize that consumers of music are looking for choices when it comes to acquiring music. The age of dishing out $16 for a CD is slowly coming to an end. The PBS/PRI, pledge drive format that Radiohead essentially backed with In Rainbows forced listeners decide how much this music was worth to them. Financially and artistically it was a success.
Some have suggested that music should be something people pay subscription prices for and that the four major labels should each provide listeners with unlimited downloads of their respective catalogues for monthly or annual fees, rather than individual record sales. Reznor decided to simply give his listeners a series of options. Get a taste of Ghosts I for free, download the record as a whole for $5, add on the double disc CD format for $10 or go all out and splurge on the collector’s version. Smart marketing, sure. Important move for the state of the industry? Only time will tell.
Last Sunday the 80th annual Academy Awards was broadcast to some of the lowest viewer ratings in recent years. The winners seemed predictable, save a handful of smaller technical categories. The gala’s emcee (the usually witty Jon Stewart) had his moments but overall brought more yawns than laughs and above all the festivities just seemed to be more of the same with very few memorable moments.
A lot of factors may have played into the Oscar’s fairly mediocre outcome. Two months ago people were unsure if there would even be a ceremony after this year’s writers strike debacle halted previous award shows such as the Golden Globes. The high caliber of performances and films released in 2007 should have made the race all the more interesting but unfortunately so much had been written and hyped about the nominees that most major categories had been unanimously called by those covering the industry (exception might be made for the Best Supporting Actress win by Tilda Swinton, who herself seemed to be a bit jarred when her name was called).
Still the one thing that was most striking about the fairly uneventful evening was how much of a presence and force there was from International talents. If there was one particular sign of the times to take from the Oscars it was that now more than global cinema is beginning to best Hollywood, and rightfully so.
In the acting arena two Brits, a Spaniard and a Parisian took the four major prizes. Many of the technical awards went to those whose foreign tongues kept their acceptance speeches short and endearingly awkward. Even both music categories were swept by those from overseas–Dario Marianelli’s moving score for “Atonement” and the Irish/Czech duo from the little movie that could, “Once.”
Now to be fair the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always had somewhat of a global eye when it comes to gathering the nominees but more often than not there is a limit to its scope. Take for example the Best Foreign Language Film category, which this year had baffling results thanks to shameless disregard for a number of masterpieces. Now while I have yet to see this year’s victor, the Austrian Holocaust piece, The Counterfeiters, it’s hard to imagine it being a more powerful piece of cinema than Romania’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.
Here was a film coming out of what is now being called Romania’s own New Wave of filmmaking, that not only tackled the controversial issue of abortion but more impressively portrayed the way of life during a dark time for one of Europe’s most overlooked and forgotten countries. Set in the final years of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s reign, the film is not only a scathing look at the Romania’s former ban on birth control and abortion (a decree that caused a wave of underground, dangerous illegal abortions and subsequently a rise in overpopulated orphanages that plagued the country many years after the fall of communism) but also a portrait of how everyday life was under this regime.
Still despite picking up the top prize at Cannes earlier this year, along with countless other important film festival awards it was ignored by the Academy.
In past years I can think of a number of examples of foreign language films that were not only better than most films being released in Hollywood but were for the most part overlooked all together. Take last year’s Oscar gala. While the Academy finally bestowed some love for Martin Scorsese, they picked one of his more mediocre films. In fact of last year’s Best Picture nominees–The Departed, Little Miss Sunshine, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Queen, and Babel–none of the films were truly as masterful, in my humble opinion, as some of the international fodder that came out.
Take The Lives of Others for example, which took the Best Foreign Language Film statue last year. This film (truly one of the best of last year) combined themes of the sly conspiracy political thrillers from the 1970s with a historical portrait of the paranoid and restricted life in East Berlin under the GDRs regime. The film was so well received that it is even garnering an American remake to be helmed by either Sidney Pollack or Anthony Minghella (it should be noted that The Departed was itself a pseudo-remake of a far superior thriller, Infernal Affairs, from Hong Kong).
Then there was Water, Deepa Mehta sobering end to her element trilogy that focused on India’s British colonial period in the 1930s and the commonplace of women being married off young and the questionable treatment of widows. The film was not so much a scathing look at India’s cultural roots but rather a portrait of what life was like in this part of the world, again a common theme among foreign films that truly sets them apart from the mainstream.
In past years there have been rare moments where international pictures blew the competition away or was able to leak into the bigger prizes usually reserved for Hollywood films. Take Bernardo Bertolucci’s biopic of the last monarch of China, The Last Emperor sweeping the awards in 1988 (technically not a foreign language film, but most definitely not something mainstream Hollywood would put out). Everyone remembers Roberto Benigni taking Best Actor and Foreign Film for Life Is Beautiful. Or how about Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar snatching up the well-deserved Best Screenplay prize and a Directing nom for his film Talk To Her, which was not only snubbed from contention in the Best Foreign Language film category but was one of the year’s best and remains to this day one of the finest films to be released in the new millennium.
This year was a great one for film, no question about it but what is most interesting and promising about the Oscar outcome is that perhaps Hollywood is beginning to open its eyes to an entire world of filmmaking. Every year hundreds of great films slip by the publics eye or are completely ignored because they are subtitled. What’s fascinating about many of these films is that they are often capsules of times not familiar to us, and worlds that are radically different to what we know. While Hollywood still has a ways to go until they truly honor the finest films from a global standpoint, 2007 was proof that perhaps they’re making strides in the right direction.