Mind & Body Films of The 2013 Awards Season

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The SAG Awards, which took place on Sunday, 1/27, are completely in the hands of union actors, and the people made some very interesting choices as to which performers and ensembles deserved their golden statue…

This awards season is a tough one to call. The pros are debating the success of the musical powerhouse “Les Miserables” and Ben Affleck’s noble hit “Argo” amidst the preoccupied controversy surrounding Kathryn Bigelow and Quentin Tarantino’s latest projects. There was lovable lightness and wisdom of the elder actors in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and the almighty biographical drama “Hitchcock”, both of which were full of deeply respected, seasoned (the term has relevance) British talent. Still, for all the color and dry wit, action, conspiracy, and suspense, there were a few subjects that predominated the nominated films this year. Mental illness, war, and psychology made their mark on the nominees list for 2013, and I consider this a progressive step in terms of our collective vision of the world we live in and out responsibility to it, even in the form of what we choose to watch in our spare time. Mangled bodies healed in one way or another in “The Impossible”, “The Sessions”, and “Rust & Bone”— these were stories where characters experiences extreme pain and devastation in order to survive their everyday circumstances. What happens to minds when bodies fail? What happens to minds when they cannot be controlled by outside forces- when the person herself is so strong that she can’t battle her own mind. Below are a few developing ideas about four films that really struck me as progressive and mind-opening:

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In “The Master”, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character, Master, is a leader of a shifty group of believers who defend his idea that souls move on for millions of years and have memories recorded for all of time. He violently dispells any questioning about his practices. Is Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) a brainwasher or was he as brainwashed as his followers, somehow? Is he insane, or is he wise? Is his obsession with the demented, lowly loner, Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) something viewers can sympathize with, or is it supposed to be laughable- a mockery of gurus, saints, guides, and saviors of all New Age movements?— I wonder, is “The Master” about repentance, insanity, control, or God? Not one character is lovable in an ideal way. Not one finds something sweet in their depths by the end. Master and Freddie presume a kind of dominant submissive relationship, with Freddie being the creature -the animal- that makes Master feel useful, more human, and above Freddie…more Godly. Freddie’s abrupt departure from the supposed care of Master and his family and followers, and then his return on another continent reminded me of the image of a sinner leaving their God to chase the pleasures of the world, only to return when called- and leave again when judged. It’s painful, but not necessarily the wrong decision. Since no character is likable, viewers can focus on what is generally considered the illness of dependency, manipulation, and abuse. We have plenty of time to explore, between lines, the animalistic ways of Freddie, and the similarity of Master’s ways: he commissions his alcohol blend (heavy on the paint thinner), smokes like a chimney, works illegal orders, changes his own rules then turns his back on students who question him…he is the human animal. What is that and why is it so different from Freddie’s animal? The questions are numerous. See “The Master” to question existence.

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“Silver Linings Playbook” is based on the fine lines that run between and through the entertainment factor of comic absurdity and the solemness inspired by tragic stories. See it, and your urge to laugh may be as strong as your pangs of emotion for the suffering of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence). From the first confessional moments where Pat describes what happened to his happy life when illness took over to the last line of the film, “OK”, a relationship builds amid the crumbling of old loves and familial doubt. The central characters question what it means to be crazy by exhibiting their interpretations of selfness: is Tiffany crazy because she slept with all of her co-workers as she grieved for her dead husband? Or is it because she speaks loudly and vehemently about things she knows that others deny? Or maybe it is because she chooses to be honest, in general. It is, in fact, all of those things -her self, in fact- that define her condition. Also, the fact that she cannot help but being honest. Insanity comes in many shades, but unabashed honesty is a major feature of madness, because it prevents conformation. Anyway, Pat and Tiffany bicker, make agreements, heal together, and find themselves post-diagnosis through their reflection in each other.

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Rust & Bone is the kind of film that is worth watching without subtitles. The script is a rare gem, but I would watch it over and over again to absorb the delicious colors and off-the-wall gorgeous lighting in my mind’s eye. Ali and Stephanie fall in love under the premise of understanding each other’s boundaries, which makes for a deep exploration of what it means to be friends, lovers, selfish, alone, and in pain as those boundaries fall. Stephanie, who explains towards the end of the film that she always loved to “get them worked up” watching her, loses her legs and the job she loves when a freak accident sends her flying into the killer whale tank during a sea world show. She is forced to strengthen her body, and with that exercise, and a lot of time on her hands, she faces herself as a woman who wants more than she ever had before: love. She never says this, but the beauty of this film is that love is clearly shown, just as it is brutally denied in the visual sense. Her lover, Ali, is a prize street fighter and crook- not exactly a great role model for his five year old son, Sam. Stephanie draws out his tenderness by not being afraid of his lack of sensibility: she accepts him, just as he accepts her, though this comes to light when viewers realize that he accepts her new physical form and the rest follows.

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“Zero Dark Thirty” was, by far, the darkest film of 2012. The no-barriers story of the search for Osama Bin Laden was bound to strike at the heartstrings of people around the world who have been affected, directly or indirectly by the widespread war raging through the Middle East. Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal were brave to write their story, because they were bound to come face-to-face with people who either disagreed with their retelling or did not want the story to be told. Controversy over the violence portrayed was more extreme than the actual plot: Jessica Chastain’s character, with her boundless, roaring mental energy gets what she wants and comes to need to soothe her suffering, which is to have Bin Laden killed by her borrowed top-level special force unit. The film is unflinchingly gritty, helplessly brutal, and it could be said, in fact it has been said, that it lacks morality simply because it was made- but keep in mind that this is a story that came from the mouths of witnesses. Blurring the intention of the telling, the subject matter, and the cinematics won’t lead anywhere. The circumstances Bigelow portrays on screen are all of those things- gritty, grimy, ruthless, hateful, damaging, abusive, beyond the scope of ethics (which may be the point of discussing ethics), which makes Bigelow a master and the film a message to reflect on in our own peace. We are not what we see on screen, at least not all of us, and so we can interpret brutality that has a cause without fearing ourselves immoral for it, or the creators immoral for using their talents to make a tragic story come alive for us.

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