Ben Walters (BW) and J. M. Tyree (JMT) write about movies. Together, they wrote a critical appreciation of The Big Lebowski for The British Film Institute’s Film Classics series, and they also have co-written reviews of No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading for Sight & Sound. They discussed this year’s crop of Oscar-nominated films on a transatlantic chat between Rotterdam and Lake Erie, and they agreed on a film to recommend: Exit Through the Gift Shop. Also discussed: Inception, Winter’s Bone, The Fighter, Somewhere, The King’s Speech, Shutter Island, True Grit, Catfish, and The Social Network.
JMT: Have you noticed how many of this year’s Oscar-nominated films are about family businesses of one kind or another?
10:08 AM It’s odd…
10:09 AM From Inception and Winter’s Bone to Black Swan, The Fighter, and The King’s Speech. “We’re not a family, we’re a firm,” Colin Firth says in The King’s Speech. And several of these films feature rotten families trying to push the kids into their firms…
10:10 AM BW: interesting. true grit and the kids are all right are about a determination toward family loyalty too
but the business side is something else, i guess
10:11 AM JMT: Yeah, on the other end of the spectrum, True Grit, like The Social Network, deliberately presents a total absence of family life. In another sense maybe True Grit presents a business venture that winds up becoming a sort of ad hoc American family. In The Social Network the business relationship is really more of a romance.
10:13 AM But for me it’s still the year of The Bad Family.
10:14 AM BW: yes, none of them is a family you’d opt into, really. yet there’s not much sense of really wanting out, is there? except the abdicaton of guy pearce in the king’s speech, i suppose! mattie in true grit is motivated by family obligation and the winklevii in the social network are close as close can be. even 127 hours, ostensibly as atomised an experience as you’ll find, gets its happy ending because of feelings of fealty to parents and a child-to-be
10:22 AM JMT: The King’s Speech and The Fighter are a match in another way. Both films are about overcoming your horrible family, but then entering the family firm anyway, only, this time on your own terms. There’s a distant echo of this in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, also, if one takes it as a reflection of what it’s like to grow up in a movie celebrity family and having a bottle of wine named after you and stuff like that. It’s like, with these films this year, whether your family runs a meth lab in rural Missouri or a would-be ballet dynasty, this line of work is pretty much the only option for your future. Films for terrible economic times in which no other work is available? Now I’m stretching this idea way too far…
BW: i don’t know, the economic necessity angle might be a stretch but certainly there’s plenty of overlap
10:26 AM there wasn’t much about either family or business last year – up in the air is business-based, i guess, and precious and an education are family-rejection stories
10:28 AM JMT: I think of last year’s Oscar films being more social and political – The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, The Cove.
BW: right. it’s mostly war – avatar, hurt locker, basterds
so maybe you are onto something – money and blood?
10:29 AM JMT: So on Inception, I must say that repeated viewing has softened me up a little. I think I wanted the film to be something it wasn’t trying to be. Also, Shutter Island (which few are talking about) is basically a case of inception that doesn’t “take,” right?
10:30 AM BW: yeah, totally – except he’s both parts, inceptor and inceptee
trying to invade his own mind
10:32 AM The film directing feat of Inception got snubbed, whether you’re fond of it or not.
10:33 AM Are any of these films dear to you?
10:35 AM BW: interesting way to put it… not many, i have to say. true grit. this might be a sentimental response on my part to a sentimental(ish) film by filmmakers i love… don’t think there are any others that i’m rooting for, exactly
10:36 AM i was a bit sorry not to see tron nominated for visual effects. i dug those, even if the script was duff
JMT: Tron! – Or, It Had to Be Done. Should have been a musical. Is True Grit the most warmhearted of the Coen films to date? Certainly it puts paid to the idea – which we always thought was a canard – that they are supposedly these terribly chilly filmmakers who hold their characters at arm’s length.
10:38 AM BW: i think it’s probably the warmest throughout. it has a kind of gentlemanly quality that means even the scummiest characters afford and are afforded a measure of civility
10:41 AM JMT: It’s a lark, really, hokum from start to finish, and I don’t mean that in a bad sense at all – in the same way the Charles Portis novel is hokum. Plenty of bad stuff happens. But this is a world ultimately free from true harm for Mattie somehow. It’s a teen adventure story. These are deliberately “minor” works, “late” in the sense that they come after the end of a tradition and joke around with it…I think of True Grit as something like an anti-Twilight…?
10:44 AM BW: hmm… there might be something to that. i’m not sure about a world free from harm – all those hangings? – and the sense of invulnerability is arguably challenged at the climax… i wonder if it’s more the sense that they’re all engaged in a cooperative endeavour – the taming of the west – the american experiment – so there need to be some limits. whereas in most every other coen film it’s every doofus for himself…
10:49 AM JMT: You’re right – not harm-free but yet Tom Sawyerish somehow in the sense that things will come out all right? Do we really fear that Mattie will die of snake-bite? I don’t think so. I really like Matt Damon’s comic performance and enjoy the idea of this ensemble as a co-operative of oddballs floating around in a national cultural of individualistic entrepreneurship expanding ever Westward.
10:51 AM When you interviewed the Coens for Time Out London, they talked about that whole aspect of wanting the American landscape to shape their stories and their characters. It’s something they’ve explored a lot…
10:53 AM BW: yes – i suppose in a sense you could see it as the overarching tragedy of the coenverse – what do people do with this spirit of gainful entrepreneurship once there are only individualistic goals left in this land?
10:54 AM you could imagine them making a nice movie about the run-up to the declaration of independence… all downhill from there…!
JMT: A biopic of Ben Franklin, maybe! They’d probably love claiming they were working on that…
11:02 AM American entrepreneurship is something that the Coens and also Fincher get really skeptical about. I suppose that one of the things I resist in many of these other Oscary-type films is the “uplifting” sense that you have to find your own way through your family issues to successful entrepreneurship and celebrity, especially in The King’s Speech and The Fighter. By contrast, The Social Network is very negative on the consequences of that. And, as an anti-celebrity movie, Somewhere fits in with Black Swan, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Catfish.
11:07 AM BW: interesting… a collective riposte to the idea of individual fame and credit? in general, i wonder if aronofsky is fincher’s evil double. they both seem interested in the crisis of individual identity in late-capitalist society but fincher is willing to grant the unfathomable despair that comes with that whereas aronofsky tries to finesse it away with glib expressionism and cornball salvation
11:10 AM JMT: Well, about Black Swan, the entertainment quotient of the basic idea – of a ballet slasher film – has charm, no? It’s odd how that film is marketed as a “psycho-sexual thriller.” And then these articles appear saying, “Black Swan, that’s really how it really is in the ballet world!” What, when little tufts of down feathers start popping out of your skin? I enjoyed the film as camp – Drag Me to Hell is the only analogue I can summon off the top of the deck. Halloween candy, kinda scary, mostly goofy, with wicked performances. I picture a lot of late night screenings of both films a decade from now, if people are still going out of their homes to see the pictures by then. Or, no, Black Swan is actually a lot more like Fight Club with female characters, isn’t it?
11:11 AM BW: i caught a bit of requiem for a dream on tv last night, which was pretty hilarious. he’s pretty good at camp so i’m all for him embracing it
11:13 AM JMT: All right, I have to ask. What about The King’s Speech? Historically it’s notable because of its connection to the UK Film Council, which was abolished last year by the new Tory – sorry, “coalition” – government. I didn’t think you’d like the film, for some of the same reasons you thought unkindly of A Single Man.
11:14 AM BW: actually i did enjoy it
11:16 AM i though it was good, honest storytelling – a sympathetic character overcoming an obstacle for an aim you could get behind. it’s social and political hogwash, but i didn’t find it aesthetically dishonest or kitschy in the way a single man was. for what it’s worth, i thought firth himself was very good in that too. it’s an actor’s film and i thought it was well cast and well performed…
11:22 AM JMT: Showing the pull of actors at the Oscars, for sure. For me, The King’s Speech is one of those films that I start to doubt from the moment I leave my seat – the mold sets in pretty quickly. And once you start to doubt it there’s no way back in. It’s one of those Tolstoy’s “What is Art?” productions where all the ducks are in a row and immense creative efforts have been poured in, but…you know…
11:23 AM BW: yeah, i certainly don’t make any great claims for it. enjoyable rather than good, perhaps…
11:26 AM JMT: I won’t pretend I didn’t laugh heartily at the swearing scene! Do you have a darling or favorite in this batch of Oscar-nominated films, any stuff that really gets to you?
11:28 AM For me it was The Social Network and Banksy’s film.
BW: i was just about to mention Banksy
11:29 AM it was about the only title that genuinely veered off in peculiar directions and kept you guessing
11:33 AM JMT: Exit Through the Gift Shop treads on this idea of being a celebrity, a theme that also pops up in Black Swan, The Fighter, The King’s Speech, Somewhere, Catfish, and The Social Network. Banksy advocates a certain kind of facelessness and amateurism, in the best sense of the term, as opposed to entrepreneurial life. Or am I being taken in by Banksy too much? He’s both a celebrity and an entrepreneur of sorts. Yet he’s attuned to this paradox and he’s advocating something specific in the film…
11:37 AM BW: well, there’s an intractable problem, which isn’t his fault, in that to enjoy any artistic success today you need to have a personal brand – you simply can’t be anonymous, so if your work reaches a level of recognition there’s no way not to be either a celebrity or a conspicuously anti-celebrity public figure of some kind. that said, he’s an entrepreneur as well, which i guess does complicate it
11:40 AM JMT: Everyone says, “We don’t know who this Banksy person is!” And this is supposed to be such a big deal, right? But in another sense this isn’t really true. His film does a nice job of showing us who he is and what he’s about. It’s simply that we don’t know what his face looks like. In The Social Network, Sean Parker suggests cutting the word “The” from “The Facebook.” Banksy raises the stakes and cuts out the “Face.”
Read more BW/JMT filmchats archived at The Owls site here >>