Monday, 13 February 2012

“My dad said the way I saw the world was a gift…”

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: directed by Stephen Daldry; written by Eric Roth

I consistently try to avoid any explicit discussion of the role that hype plays in the way films affect us. Andrew Buckle made a post about the role of expectations and whatnot in cinema. And, my strategic decision to avoid movie trailers as much as possible is less about a fear of finding out spoilers, and more about avoiding any judgement of films before they’re delivered. It’s also why I write little about films before they’re released. Anyhow, here we go. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it’s difficult to mire through the criticism, opinions, emotions and information available on the film – and all of that before it was released. What makes good art? What deserves to be represented artistically? Who should be allowed to render that representation? It becomes difficult to extrapolate the Stephen Daldry film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close from the worst day (what the child-protagonist refers to it as) which exists as an arc, but not precisely as the crux, in it. I am not American and my relation to the September 11 tragedy is a distant one. I’d like to not think that makes me quasi-expert at adjudging the film, but when I take a quick glance through a slew of reviews covering the film I wonder if the biggest crime of the film is having the temerity to use something so close to much of its audience as a canvas for this wide, bold, and dishevelled movie.
There’s a scene somewhere about halfway through Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close where Oskar Schell in a meeting with a renter living in his grandmother’s house tries to explain to him the quest he’s taking. It becomes, for me, the scene with its jarring shots, deliberately accelerated editing choices, garishness and intense personal nature, the scene which best encapsulates the film that this – and the beast which has become. This is a film which skirmishes through a wide palette of issues and one of them has risen to the forefront which is both ironic and unsurprising when one considers that the film finds it release in something irrespective of that issue. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a story about a young boy who reacts to the death of his father (and the “legacy” he left behind) which happened to have occurred in the September 11 fiasco. And, like an personal journey it has the fingerprints of its somewhat irrational hero all over it.
Allow me a short aside: I am a bit aggravated when Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is referred to as Oscar bait. The phrase itself annoys me, but the reductive way in which it’s attached to the film has exasperated me long before I saw it. Contemporary film are, by nature, hardly the stuff which typical “Oscar bait” is made of. Moreover, other than the two nominations for United 93, September 11 has never sufficed as a film warranting awards’ attention, so I’m more than a little nonplussed about the Oscar bait label attached to it. If anyone can offer a decisive explanation for how this functions as Oscar bait, I’d be chuffed.

Moving on, though, because I try to avoid making my reviews a talking point in rebuttal…. There is a paucity of scenes in the film which do not unfold from its protagonist’s perspective, and it’s because the film harbours an expressly subjective relationship with its main character. This is a story about a boy’s attempt at finding meaning amidst a mass of confusion – the world. There is an almost existentialist angle to the overreaching quest for meaning that Oskar and those around try to achieve. There was a line floating around twitter saying that our response to any film (and, I’d interject – any artistic work) is essentially personal, and every other explanation is somewhat specious; or something to that effect (I cannot recall the quotation verbatim). And, perhaps, because I can understand that existential turmoil precipitating Oskar’s bizarre quest, it makes sense to me.

Thomas Horn is faced with a gargantuan task in the film. Much of the film’s most significant themes rest on his shoulders. He does a fine job. But, where the film falters most decisively is in its inability to express that with the immediacy it necessitates. Think of the drawings which functioned as a framing device in Rabbit Hole, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and its own individuality could have done well with such a tactic. The film itself unfolds like an unrestrained outburst of emotion from Oskar, and the framing device of the film representing the book he creates is used a bit too sparingly for a film which rests so much on the personal. It’s why I’m loathe to refer to the film as “September 11” one.
So many 2011 films have been about perspective and the way in which cinematic characters respond to issues around them and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seems unable to be espied as an entity with simply a bullet-point focusing on the tragedy of that “worst day”. Perhaps, some fault lies in the producers for sticking with the awfully tetchy title of the novel which fails at capturing the crux of the film unfolding with its dissonant beats and a hope that is at one fantastical but realistic for someone like Oskar. Should Roth and Daldry have tried to imbue the film with a more strident wave of memory for those who lost their lives on September 11? Should the film have maintained a more focused thematic thrust? Should it have been made, in the first place? Searching is one of the most significant themes of the film. “Maybe everyone’s searching for something,” Oskar tells us. But, if only people would stop searching for things that are not there are judge Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for it is and not what it should have been. They might not like it, fair enough. But, at least they’d recognise this odd, fierce, thing for what it is….which is much more than its being giving credited for. An anomalous, self-conscious coming-of-age imbued with the sort of earnestness (however misguided) that could only spring from the mind of a child



Rich said...

I'll give it a shot. This movie is Oscar bait because:

- it's a straight-up drama; comedies and other genres generally don't fare well at the Oscars, hence no Potter, no Dragon Tattoo, no Drive, no Bridesmaids
- it has an Oscar-friendly director; all of Stephen Daldry's films have gotten Best Pic nods and he has been nominated for Best Director thrice
- it has an Oscar-friendly screenwriter; Eric Roth has been nominated four times and won for Forrest Gump
- it's based on a popular best-selling novel
- it deals with Serious Real-World Issues, and not just 9/11 either
- it's an actor's showcase, led by two Oscar-winners

Historically, these are the kinds of elements the Academy has been drawn to most, much more so in recent years, in which films like The Dark Knight, WALL-E, and The Hangover - critical and popular hits - have missed out and more high-minded yet less popular films like The Reader and Frost/Nixon made it in.

Expanding to ten nominees was supposed to correct this imbalance, and in a way, it did, but now ten nominees are no longer guaranteed and number one votes are absolutely crucial for inclusion, so once more the deck is stacked against genre material.

I don't know what chuffed means but I hope that helps.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

rich but i find that to be such an overwhelmingly counter-intuitive explanation. it's oscar bait because the people who make it are oscar friendly and it's a drama with serious issues? before the devil knows you're dead is helmed by sidney multiple oscar nominee, starring oscar winners philip seymour hoffman and marisa tomei and nominees finney and hawke (it was made before amy ryan and michael shannon became nominees). it's about series issues, family issues, death etc. it's an actors' showcase.

does that make it oscar bait? and, because a film is less popular in its ways (a la the reader) means it baity - which is, from where i stand, a reductive way of saying pandering for awards' love but ultimately frivolous?

sorry if i sound a bit sharp, it's just an issue that continuously befuddles me wherein a film that's more traditonal becomes the object of disaffection because it's "baity".

Dan O. said...

More irritating than touching, healing or any of the positive things one would guess such a story and cast would produce. This was just a totally manipulative film that tries so hard to be emotional that it almost strains itself and its leading “actor”, Thomas Horn who is probably one of the most annoying kids I have seen on-screen in awhile. Good review Andrew.

Rich said...

All other things being equal... yes, that makes it Oscar bait too. It's not so much the label that's the issue - there are plenty of films I love that could be considered baity as well - as it is the fact that the Academy seems less inclined to recognize films that are commercial as well as critical hits.

Did you see the Daniel Radcliffe interview where he said how he couldn't understand why Hugo made it in and Potter didn't? Hugo is a wonderful movie and it deserves to be in the race, but Potter had both the acclaim and the big bucks on its side and it still didn't make it in. Same with The Dark Knight, same with WALL-E. I predicted Potter wouldn't make the cut back in September, it was so obvious to me:

If Loud is such a worthy movie, then why does it only have two nominations? Do you know how rare that is for a Best Pic nominee? Doesn't that strike you as odd - particularly in a year when the rules changed yet again so that movies with passionate support, i.e., number one votes, stood a better chance to get in than more divisive movies like Dragon Tattoo and Drive and Bridesmaids? What does that say about the kinds of films the Academy responds to?

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

rich but, clearly ALL films which make money can't make it in. all films can't make it, regardless of money-makers or not. i feel as if you're ignoring all the films that made money and did make it into the best picture line-up.

and, ignoring the critical response to the film - how does the fact that it has one other nomination make its place in the in the bp lineup fishy? best picture is about best picture not about best sum-of-all-parts. take the help for example, it's nominated for its acting and best picture but would you say it's odd? there are 9 picture nominees so obviously some would have more nominations elsewhere than others. grand hotel won best picture and didn't earn a single other nod. every movie is divisive, no one movie is completely loved and if the AMPAS has to bend the rules to let a "popular" film get in, i don't think they should.

dan ummm, thanks for liking the review. especially since you apparently abhor the film.

Rich said...

Out of the nine Best Pic nominees, only 'The Help' made over $100 million at the time they were announced. 'The Artist,' the favorite to win Best Pic, has made only $24 million as of last weekend, so I'm not sure which other money-makers you're referring to.

'The Help' is an actors' movie that made a lot of money. I'm not surprised at all that it got what it got, given the heavy competition in both the Director and Adapted Screenplay categories. But no one expected 'Loud' to get in. Go back to the video of the Oscar announcements and listen to the audible gasp from the crowd when 'Loud' was called.

As for 'Grand Hotel,' it was part of a field of eight Best Pic nominees back in 1932. The Oscars as we know them today were quite different back then, as I'm sure you'll agree.

But I think this is getting us off topic. The point is that today, in 2012, some movies appeal to the Academy more strongly than others, and 'Loud' is one of them. Whether you wanna call it Oscar bait or not, that's your choice, but I think it's difficult to deny the evidence.

Paolo said...

Thanks for the few short words on Thomas Horn. The hate on him (and to a certain extent, Chloe Moretz) is too much. Every child actor should be absolved of their supposed sins until they're 18 and make new ones. Either way, he represents the ugly side of Oskar bravely and quiets down when the movie allows him to do so.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

rich your argument doesn't make sense to me, although it's possibly because the term "oscar bait" makes no sense to me, since a movie is only bait unless it's nominated on a realistic level - after all, you can't say such and such film appeals to them if they don't vote for them, and even if it didn't get a BP nod things like bridemaids and gwtdt appealed to them in categories, and i do wonder if el&ic HAD turned up everywhere (poor reviews or not) if it would have been such an issue.

(and i didn't mean this year in the context of money makers, generally, films which made lots of money have won oscars over the last few years too, and considering some of the fare that DOES top the box office, i don't get the argument that AMPAS must conform with the money box-office.)

paolo i'd agree with you, but hailee steinfeld annoys me (hee hee). i'm interested to see what, if anything, horn does next.