Saving Face (But Not Oscar's)

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Saving Face (But Not Oscar's)

by Ari Armstrong, March 7, 2006

I saw in the papers (I still call them "papers" even though I read them online) that the Oscars were awarded. Yawn. Not only did I not watch the Oscars, but I haven't watched most of the nominated films. Some films I just haven't gotten around to watching yet -- such as Walk the Line and Memoirs of a Geisha. With the high costs of theaters and the trivial costs and ease of renting, usually I can wait.

Other films, such as Brokeback Mountain, I'll eventually watch, but without much anticipation. It's clear that the film got Oscar traction for political reasons. I just don't have much interest in following the personal struggles of cowboy lovers, gay or otherwise. Still other films, particularly Syriana, I refuse to watch. Hollywood can dress up America-loathing, left-wing propaganda as art if it wishes, but it's about as interesting to me as a cross in urine or Mel Gibson's bloodbath.

I watched about the first ten minutes of Crash before ejecting it in disgust. While most of us live in peace and friendship with people of all races, the left continues to obsess about race. Such leftists are the spiritual heirs of the self-flaggelators of old Christianity. Now all we need is a movie about drug-addicted interracial gay cowboys who go to war for oil but come home, quit smoking, star in propaganda and/or porn films, and devote their lives to replacing Wal-Marts with wetlands.

Meanwhile, Oscar largely ignores the good films. March of the Penguins definitely deserved some attention. But where's Harry Potter and Batman Begins? Perhaps the quirkiest film of the year (if I'm correct that the movie counts as a 2005 release) is Kung Fu Hustle, which is peculiar but fun, visually interesting, and even touching. Of course the movies that people actually, you know, like can't get any major awards.

It says something about Hollywood that the absolute best movie of the year -- Serenity -- got exactly zero Oscar nominations. Yet, if I had to, I would trade every single nominated film for Serenity. So you can keep your Oscars -- you can't take the sky from me.

* * *

One 2005 movie that got practically no attention, but that I loved, is Saving Face. It's a story of finding the self-confidence and assertiveness to pursue love in the face of antagonistic social pressures. It's also a delightfully funny movie, beautifully acted.

Both a daughter and her mother face romantic difficulties. The daughter, a successful surgeon, falls for a (female) ballet dancer, but she fears that an openly gay relationship will be rejected by her tradition-bound Asian-American family and community. The mother is both single and pregnant, to the horror of her father. Worse, the father of the child is a mystery. Yet the movie maintains a respectful sense of humor as the characters overcome their self-repression.

Saving Face is a wonderfully American movie in two respects. It shows America as the "melting pot," even as the lead character succeeds in the highly technical field of "Western" medicine. The movie also shows how the quest for personal values, while so characteristically American, is also universal, properly applicable to everyone.

Yes, the film deals both with racial issues and with gay sex. But first and foremost it is a love story, not a political statement. It is also benevolent and engaging, with decent characters. Therefore it is of minimal interest to the Hollywood chattering class.

* * *

Of course political advocacy as a primary is fine in a documentary, so long as political themes are handled fairly and with a basic respect for the facts (which is not how they are handled by Michael Moore, for example). The best political documentary I've seen in a long time is With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right.

The documentary is subtly critical, but it gives the floor to the evangelicals. Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other religious leaders offer extensive commentary. The documentary convincingly makes the case that Bush is seriously religious in his worldview and that the evangelical movement seriously supported him. The film is about more than Bush's beliefs: it is about the resurgence of evangelical Christianity in America.

The documentary makes two mistakes, though. First, it suggests that Bush went to war in Iraq for religious reasons. That's not the case, at least not in the sense that the movie implies. (Nor is it the case that he went to war in Iraq "for oil" or for financial interests.) Instead, Bush went to war in Iraq primarily because of the influence of neoconservative intellectuals, who believe the U.S. has a responsibility to spread democracy throughout the world. In general, viewers of the film might be tempted to reduce too many of Bush's decisions to his Christianity, when in reality a number of influences are at work.

Second, the film implicitly criticizes Bush for drawing bright distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil, black and white. One commentator in the film says that, after 9/11, "we wanted some certitudes where there were none." Yet the answer to religious dogmatism is not skepticism and moral subjectivism (as I've argued).

Still, in its presentation of the basic history and ideas of the modern evangelical movement, the film is excellent.

* * *

I am sorry to report that Kurt Wimmer wrote and directed Ultraviolet. It is a film widely mocked, and justly so. Watching the film was especially painful for me, because I love Wimmer's Equilibrium.

Wimmer's new film is marred by clunky effects and implausible action sequences. For example, at one point there's a cartoonish motorcycle chase where gravity doesn't apply. The new film looks and feels a lot like the previous one, but without any serious plot, theme, or drama. It's like a shadow of Equilibrium reflected in a cloudy mirror. The grittier, lower-budget Equilibrium is emotionally riveting. Milla Jovavich is fun to watch, and I really like William Fichtner, but Wimmer gives them nothing meaningful to do or say in Ultraviolet. In the end, when we don't know whether Violet will survive, I was almost hoping that she wouldn't, if only to save us from a sequel.

After Equilibrium, Wimmer will get a lot of slack from me. But when Violet says something like, "killing is what I do," unfortunately Wimmer's career may be her next victim.

Nevertheless, this may be a pretty good year for movies, with the new X-Men, Superman, and Potter. I'll go to see Da Vinci Code, and I'm really looking forward to V for Vendetta. Then in December Hollywood will gear up again to push the propaganda pieces. But I don't care. I'm still free. You can't take Netflix from me.

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