Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Creativity in art, science and life: thoughts on some 2024 Oscar nominees

(Wrote this general Oscars-themed piece for Economic Times. Not a “who won/should have won” analysis)

Here is one way of staying interested in the unending Oscar hoopla and the tedious (pre-and-post award) conversations: watch all the major nominated films and cross-pollinate scenes from them just for amusement. I’ll go first – in Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, composer Leonard Bernstein and his girlfriend Felicia are sitting with their backs pressed against each other, trading romantic banter. “You could be building a bomb back there for all I know,” he says. This scene, depicting real-life people, is set in the mid-1940s – and the line reminded me that around this same time J Robert Oppenheimer (the subject of the biopic that won the best picture Oscar) really was busy building a big bomb elsewhere.

And as if that weren’t enough, guess the name of the close friend/sometime lover whom Bernstein leaves for Felicia? The musician David Oppenheim, another real-life figure of the period.
(Cue Twilight Zone music.)

Of course, this is merely a smart-aleck observation: it doesn’t tell you anything important about either Oppenheimer or Maestro. But it’s as good a way of conducting Oscar discourse as any other – and preferable to the teeth-gnashing about who “should” and “should not” have won/been nominated. Even in my teens, when I was excitable enough about the awards to make detailed lists, I had little interest in comparing the nominees by merit (or pretending that my tastes represented an objective ranking system, which the awards would either validate or do injustice to). It is more stimulating when the films – watched closely together – become an occasion to examine tiny connections between works; to get a sense of the motifs that may have struck a chord with critics and jury members.

And there are many stylistic or thematic echoes in these films, even though the directors certainly weren’t consulting with each other while making them. Christopher Nolan’s alternating use of black-and-white and colour in Oppenheimer (each visual choice representing a specific perspective, a subjective vs objective view of Oppenheimer’s life) has been much discussed, but two of the other best picture nominees – Maestro and Yorgos Lanthimos’s magnificent Poor Things – also make notable shifts between monochrome and colour. They do it similarly too: in each case, the first 40-45 minutes of the film is (mainly) in black and white. In Poor Things, this effect felt very similar to that in the 1939 classic The Wizard of
Oz. When Bella, a young woman who has been reanimated like Frankenstein’s monster, moves out into the world beyond the one she was confined in (and also discovers the joys of sex), the art design explodes into bright saturated colours, with hallucinatory non-realistic depictions of 19th century Lisbon and Paris. In Maestro, the shift to colour (more muted) occurs as a once-sparkling relationship is starting to wear down into domestic drudgery.

Many of the major nominated films also grapple with the creative process, the forms it may take, and the struggle to keep it going – whether in the realm of art, or science, or even in terms of building a life for oneself. In both American Fiction (winner for best adapted screenplay) and The Holdovers (best supporting actress) there is a sense of life as an empty page that needs to be filled. In the former, a novelist struggles to write what he wants to write (his books don’t sell; when he meets a woman who mentions having read a particular novel of his, he deadpans “So you’re the one!”) – the story touches on creating in a vacuum versus also maintaining a family life and close relationships, doing the right thing by an ailing mother and a flighty brother. Meanwhile the middle-aged protagonist of The Holdovers, a classics teacher who has lived an uneventful, parochial life, isn’t sure he has an entire book in him; maybe a monograph? (“You can’t even dream a whole dream, can you?” someone says.) When a friend gifts him a notebook, he says “I don’t know. There’s a lot of empty pages in here” – and she replies, “All you got to do is write one word after another – can’t be that hard, can it?”

But of course it can be that hard, as the distraught, writing-blocked husband in Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall knows. Even Maestro’s Bernstein, a clear achiever in his field, ruefully says: “I haven’t done very much at all when you add it up. Not a long list.” (Both films have key scenes where spouses argue about creativity and responsibility.)

Bernstein also worries that artistic invention has come to a grinding halt while science continues to progress madly. It’s a reminder that what Oppenheimer and the other physicists are doing – coming up with an inventive new method to kill millions of people – is also a form of “creativity”. As is the ghastly work of the Auschwitz camp commandant in Jonathan Glazer’s haunting The Zone of Interest – a film in which a beautiful villa-garden and a concentration camp exist in adjacent spaces. While a Nazi commandant’s wife tends to her plants – and is reduced to tears at the thought that they might have to leave this “paradise” – the husband sits in meetings that discuss how gas chambers may be made more efficient; he has detached conversations about the daily “load” per oven. (Cue a funny line from American Fiction: “Hard work doesn’t demand respect. People worked hard on the Third Reich too.”)

And what of the intersection of life and art, to a point where they blur into one? In Todd Haynes’s lovely melodrama May December – which wasn’t nominated for best picture but easily could have been – an actress seems to cannibalise the life of the woman she is playing in her upcoming film –
even to the extent of seducing her subject’s husband. And Poor Things – my favourite of the ten best-picture nominees – has a scene where Bella, working in a Parisian brothel, responds to a pejorative shout of “Whore!” with the line “We are our own means of production.” She and her friend are on their way to a Socialist meeting, but there is also a nod here to her delight in her newfound freedom – the use of sex not just as a source of income but a voyage of self-discovery, and maybe even a creative pursuit.

(Related piece: husbands and wives in Anatomy of a Fall)

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