Among the many fascinating points made in Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club, was the tendency for readers to link together the books they read in a similar period. To identify parallel themes and questions in texts that often have nothing more than the reader to unite them. And in this post I’m making such a connection with films: Argo and Cold War.
Sure, I saw both in roughly the same timeframe, but there’s a few things beyond me - the sometimes humble film fan - that make them similar:
- Big, expensive, all-star productions
- Plots about hostage situations
- Normally-clean shaven “hunks” donning facial hair (a beard for Ben Affleck and some finely finessed fluffery for Tony Leung)
- Sweet but irrelevant (and tokenistically brief) scenes of the protagonist playing papa
- Game changers: the trailer for Argo made me hate Eminem less; Cold War challenged my 32-year-old contempt for fireworks
At the end of my Argo screening, a man behind me remarked, “Well there’s next year’s Best Picture Oscar in the bag.” My dad, next to me, loudly guffawed.
Regardless of how Dad or I might review the film, the bloke behind us was probably right: Argo will likely win some trophies next year. The stranger behind us wasn’t claiming he enjoyed it - although, perhaps it could be inferred - but was simply stating a fact: Argo has the elements that see films win stuff. Stuff like it being historical, like it being a story of an American institutional success, like it being in English. Argo will win stuff and Cold War won’t. And I’ve been quietly obsessing about this idea.
It’s ultimately meaningless for me to say that Cold War is a better film. While I thought it most definitely was, taste is fickle. The reasons why Oscar will nod at Argo - and more broadly why Argo is screening in ten million cinemas and, in Melbourne - a city, of only like a mere 90,000 people born in China - Cold War is only showing at two - have little to do with quality or audience enjoyment and so much to do with marketing and assumptions about demographics.
It is, of course, worth noting that it is rare for any “foreign film” (read: non-English language film) to break into the mainstream: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), the God awful Life is Beautiful (1997), Amélie (2001) and Pan’s Labrinyth (2006) are rare examples of foreign films that made money outside their own country.
Why? Why can the most hideous nightmare of an English language fart joke flick fare better at the box office here than virtually any foreign film?
Is it because audiences actually prefer sophomoric cinema, or is it because this is the crap that multiplexes keep showing and we - myself included - keep patronising?
If multiplexes are to blame, what the hell is going on? Are they just making screening decisions based on history - a history influenced by racist distribution decisions - or because they know audiences harbour internalised prejudices about non-Western faces and God-forbid having to read while watching?
Chicken, egg and false consciousness arguments perhaps.
Cold War needs more attention. Argo - a decent film, but ultimately just a film - needs to be compared to the world of cinema before it gets branded as fabulous and showered in gratuitous glory just because its fares well against the other crap showing.