Let’s try, for a moment, not to talk about “The Artist.” This movie doesn’t invite backlash and never deserved it, but overexposure can have a negative impact on any work of art, especially a minor one. The best way to move into Oscar recovery mode is to push beyond the obvious big moments that every glossy media outlet will regurgitate over the next few days.
Instead, take a trip down memory lane to last September, when both “The Descendants” and “A Separation” made their first appearances in North America. At the Toronto International Film Festival, Alexander Payne was already talking up Asghar Farhadi’s brilliant Iranian legal drama during a Q&A following the premiere of his own work. For a moment, a prestige picture featuring one of the biggest movie stars in the world synched up with something positioned much further from the norms of the American marketplace. On Sunday night, when “The Descendants” won Best Adapted Screenplay and “A Separation” won Best Foreign Language Film, they crossed paths once more.
“The Descendants” was a bit of an outsider as well: Payne, a cinephile filmmaker whose movies hint at the darker pathways into the seemingly cheery facade of everyday life, always pushes beyond pat happy endings and unquestioned sentimentality. The gorgeous Hawaiian landscape always feels slightly off, imploring you to look beyond surface details and explore the generational themes beneath. The same basic viewing process applies to “A Separation,” a supremely talky picture seemingly focused only on a struggling family’s attempt to leave the country before it diverts to a much broader portrait of societal discontent.
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“The Descendants” and “A Separation” revolve around families pulled apart by death, but they’re both infused with life: Constant, anger-tinged dialogue drives them both forward. This underlying link relegates them to a much smaller, contemplative scale than a black-and-white silent movie blowing air kisses to the past. On a mainstream level, they are empowered by comparison. And if everything superficial about the Oscars makes a few good movies stand out, they still retain a fundamental legitimacy in our culture.
One can’t offer the same congratulatory remarks about last night’s program, which only came to life when Billy Crystal temporarily handed hosting duties to Cirque du Soleil. The ceremony was on autopilot, acknowledging a few veterans (Woody Allen, Meryl Streep) and handing out most of the awards the pundits predicted. A flat montage of celebrities talking about the magic of cinema only briefly came together with a cameo by Werner Herzog. The biggest surprise was not Streep taking home the gold for “The Iron Lady” but rather “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” winning best editing. Payne and Farhadi both gave supremely graceful acceptance speeches. Streep’s ability to shrug off “half of America” growing tired of seeing her onstage was nearly as defiant as Angelina Jolie’s right leg.
The more we talk about the Oscars, the further we get from talking about the movies. But the doorway that the Oscars open can lead to precious moments nearly as often as the vapid ones. I’m not talking about the dog from “The Artist.” (We’re not talking about “The Artist,” remember?)
At a post-Oscar party hosted by “The Descendants” distributor Fox Searchlight, I found myself in a corner with the wide-eyed, grinning mother of Kaui Hart Hemmings, the author of “The Descendants,” while her daughter showed off her moves on the dance floor. Payne and co-screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash hovered nearby, Oscars in hand. I asked Hemmings’ mother if she got to hold any of the Oscars. “Alexander let me touch his,” she said. She was going home to Hawaii a very happy woman.
Nobody will remember these small victories in a year, much less 10 or 20. And will anyone remember “The Artist”? Some of us have already started to forget it.