Monday, May 28, 2012

Best Picture Nominees: An Eventual Sort of Group

In his short story, Everything's Eventual, Stephen King uses the adjective "eventual" as one would use "excellent" or "awesome." The story's main character uses the word to describe a rush of frenzied creativity (as he realizes his own sense of power and ability while making an elaborate blueprint to end his neighbor's dog): "I felt like I was going to be sick . . . but I still also felt totally eventual." Eventual = exciting; eventual = terrifying.
Many of this year's Best Picture-nominated films were, as a group, very eventual. Wonderfully creative, powerful, but (not unlike a Stephen King tale) armed with the ability to rattle and disturb us, some for days after the viewing. Don't believe that films can cause physical reactions? Take a look at these: 
1. 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle. James Franco stars in this true story of Aron Ralston's five days in a Utah canyon, thirsty and alone. Being trapped anywhere is horrible enough, but Ralston's predicament is localized only to his arm, everything else on his body is completely unencumbered. This becomes an extremely grim viewing experience, not just emotionally, but viscerally. Franco pulls, struggles, and we grimace along with him. He begins to ration his water, we feel our own lips drying out. Once it's clear that the arm, the only thing holding him back, is going to have to go, we feel our own blood pressures rise as he prepares himself for what must be done---bone, skin, nerves, and all. We aren't experiencing any of Aron Ralston's pain, physically, but in some ways, we are. It takes an extremely well written and well performed film to do this, not just to make us writhe in discomfort, but to reach us emotionally as well. It's a near certainty that many, many people, after seeing this film, either called their parents, hugged their brothers, or maybe saw Nature a bit differently. Heavy, right? 

2. Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky. Natalie Portman is young ballerina Nina Sayers, struggling for perfection in her starring role as The Swan Queen. This might be a fairy tale, it might be a coming-of-age piece, but the film so deftly sweeps away, disturbs, and enchants that definition and reality cease to matter. Emotionally, this film is a like a crankbait at sea; Nina's ups and downs become our own, and her quest for perfection among her stuffed animals, hovering mother, and sexual awakening together with her literal breakdown over her role in the ballet create an exhilarating, terrifying experience. This film is also filled with visceral, grimacing moments: we fear for Nina's feet and legs as she pushes herself too hard and injures them, we cringe, first at the sight of a reddened rash and compulsive back-scratching, but then tenfold once (as the obsession over her role plunges deeper) she plucks a black feather from her skin! So wait a minute, she becomes the swan? Paintings talk? All that really happened? Make your own decisions (but it's totally eventual). 
3. Toy Story 3, directed by Lee Unkrich. The Toys are back, this time to deal with empty-nest syndrome when Andy packs up for college and they get shipped off to Sunnyside Daycare. This is the harshest, most emotional (yet eventual) film, let alone kid's film, you'll ever see. Harsh, as in it unapologetically deals with something adults and kids both understand, abandonment. The toys are made to believe that this sort of thing is inevitable, something they must accept after they admit to themselves that Andy has outgrown them. Through the flashback of Bear-in-Charge Lotso's "abandonment", viewers are served a giant slice of devastation as they hear him scold Big Baby outside their owner's window, "She don't want you no more!" after he reached out his hands for Daisy ("mama!"). Could there be anything worse? Well, yes, as it turns out. Everything is nearly sorted out as the film heads to its conclusion and then, BAM, more excruciating heartbreak, this time in the form of a slow fall into a fiery incinerator. For anyone who has spent time with these toys, enjoyed the films, read the books, or actually purchased the toys outright, there is no moment more real than Buzz and Woody, dirty and helpless, clasping hands for what they believe will be the last time. These events are heavy, and this is not a film one soon forgets (some film writers have even been known to tear up while writing about it!).
But we need the heavy, we need the visceral, and we need the emotion, it's more than just a narrative, it's humanity! These films were great because they frightened, they saddened, but they ignited and inspired, too. Life is like that. And very eventual.