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Pre-Oscar Hollywood musings by Maithili Rao

Oscar time makes me nostalgic for pre-pandemic Bombay. Though I left the city nearly four years ago, I remember how there were Oscar weeks with back to back screenings of nominated films – the main ones. Documentaries and foreign films that made the coveted list had to wait. This was before we all began to watch content on streaming platforms instead of the camaraderie of seeing films in theatres. A communally shared experience gradually receded into the penumbra of memory and films became a solitary pleasure, especially now that we can’t even host or attend watch parties. This mini binge watching - with major misses because many are unavailable even to rent – brought back the pleasure of watching films, instead of getting used to series, the prolonged, finely detailed narratives that have the luxury of time to flesh out subplots and back stories. We relearnt an old lesson: film demands more from the maker, to fulfil our narrative expectations within a limited time and yet, give a complete viewing experience…whether the classic three act structure with a catharsis that left us emotionally cleansed or the newer narrative forms that could be episodic and yet linear, or intriguingly cyclic.

Like Mank, my favourite film of the year. Mank comes with a huge back story and decades of expectations caused by the critical conundrums bequeathed by Citizen Kane. This classic to beat all classics, a landmark that rewrote narrative grammar, has divided film historians and critics even though all agree that it is a masterpiece forever. The question is, who deserves credit. Pauline Kael, the formidable doyenne who shaped writing on cinema for decades, took up cudgels on behalf of Herman Mankieweicz in her influential The Citizen Kane Book. Welles’s colleague John Houseman – you see much more of him in Mank than Welles who is almost a cameo – wrote his version in Run-Through. Both reclaimed literary authorship for the washed out Mankieweicz: he was despatched to a ranch with no access to alcohol (he found ways to get around this ban) in the custody of a stern caregiver, a German woman and a young British secretary to type up his handwritten script. The writer, with his signature coruscating cynicism delivered with a sneer, was commanded to deliver the script in 60 days by the boy genius who had carte blanche to make what he wanted from the studios floundering in the midst of the Depression. Mank is a film history aficionado’s delight as legends walk in and out of the MGM Studio. Louis Meyer, Irving Thalberg, another boy wizard, William Randolph Hearst, fellow writers at the studio shooting the breeze with not much going around, are filmed up close and personal, all their flaws and foibles not glossed over. Shot in B&W to keep to the ambiance of the 30s, David Fincher’s filming of his late father’s script is both a homage and critique of the system where the studio dictates to the creatives. Mank is a film to delight people in love with film history, the stories behind the stories, about writers who told them and the people on whom the stories are based. In the process, it also tries to demystify the aura around Citizen Kane but without a single shot from the film that imbued the real life character on whom it is based with the tragic grandeur worthy of a Shakespearean hero. In Fincher’s film, Hearst is a dessicated media tycoon who hardly says anything interesting, all the vivacity is reserved for his actress wife Marion Davies, as the couple preside over dinner parties with A- lister guests. Mankieweicz delivers wounding salvos with self-deprecatory gusto, as he is expected to: his job is to play court jester to the powerful and provide entertainment. Gary Oldman’s performance is superb: he plays a man who is not likeable, willing to hurt others and yet has a core of honesty that survives the ups and downs of Hollywood. His script with a killer deadline, the fact that the hero is based on Hearst becomes common knowledge, courtesy the usual grapevine. Regarding its intriguing episodic structure, Mank says: “the narrative is one big circle, like a cinnamon roll.” Fincher follows a similar structure in Mank, going back and forth in time – a homage to the inspiration behind his film? Speculation about the scattered narrative is rife. The enigmatic Rosebud at the end of Citizen Kane has had many interpretations. The more salacious is this: it refers to the genitalia of the old man’s young wife. This is told to Mank with a straight face by a fellow writer. The scriptwriter just shrugs. His deadpan demeanour stays in place. Mank sheds his cynical skin when he sees the manipulated “news stories’ where actors play ordinary people. It is a crucial election in California where Hearst goes all out, playing ugly to make the Republican win against author Upton (utopian) Sinclair who enters the electoral fray with his socialist agenda. Then and now, America makes socialism synonymous with Communism. Mank tries to persuade a fellow writer to stop making these false news stories but his friend knows what he is doing. His only argument is, this is his only chance of directing. Mank is full of echoing ironies, that ring true to this day. The best screen writing has continuing relevance.

The Trial of Chicago 7 has been on Netflix since 2020 and is forgotten in the rush of new films in the Oscar race. The name Aaron Sorkin spells political drama that punches holes in conservative reconstruction of events with sharp writing that captures the essence of characters who are connected only by a common purpose. The SAG (Screen Actors Guild) award for ensemble performance (what a cast!) went to The Trial of Chicago 7 and earlier, Sorkin won the screenplay award at The Golden Globes. The seven young men, all from different parts of the country want to organize a protest meeting in Chicago, to coincide with the Democratic convention in 1968. The sheer drama of seven men so different from each other gains racist edge when the Black Panther activist Bobby Seale becomes an unwilling part of the group. They are charged with causing a riot. The words, "If blood is going to flow, then let it flow all over the city!" are pounced upon as incitement. Spoken in anguish and rage by Hayden, an activist and one time president of Students for a Democratic Society, it is twisted out of context by the police. Hayden speaks out when one of the group is hit on the head and is bleeding. Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), with his hippie hair, laidback cool and Boston twang, plays the clown with a serious core. Cohen commands attention whenever he is on screen. The labyrinthine way of the justice system – a hostile judge, jury changes and prosecution playing the nationalist card – brings in famous names like the former Attorney General to underline the ideological divide. These young men want to protest against the Vietnam War and newly elected Nixon decides to put his weight (unseen but felt) behind the trial that has been dragging on. The defendants are freed but not before the final coda that is a proven goosebumper. Hayden recites the names of the 4752 dead in Vietnam as part of his closing argument. The crowd in the court stands up spontaneously to cheer.

Adaptation from a play, an iconic one by August Wilson who has chronicled Black artists in a theatre series, can have cinematic finesse and not look like filmed theatre. Not even when a lot of action takes place in a dingy rehearsal room of a Chicago recording studio. Not when you have actors like Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman perform a musical pas de deux that revolves round contrasts. Ma Raineys’ Black Bottom pits a young trumpet player Levee (Boseman) with the energy and vision to dream big against the diva around whom the band is expected to revolve for all time – Ma Rainey(Viola Davis) “the mother of Blues”, tantrum prone and shrewd businesswoman compacted in a flamboyant fleshy frame. (Davis put on 20 pounds for this film). She belts out old favourites in her soul-stirring voice, will not let Levee change a single note or a spontaneous flourish in his youthful bid for freedom to make it on his own. From a 1927 performance in Georgia to Chicago recording studio run by a White manager who dimes and nickels the troupe like a loan shark is a riveting journey. Ma Rainey is ready to record for a White audience but also disdains them: “they don’t understand how Blues is life’s way of talking.” Music forms one track as the band, all older than Levee, use the N word in affection, reprimand, camaraderie of a freewheeling conversation that is often deeper than what we hear. Levee argues with the older man who is religious and wants Black men to talk better but not be servile to Whites. The flippant, irreverent Levee has two break out moments of soul- baring confessions of childhood trauma. Boseman redefines intensity underlying his seeming levity in such an electrifying performance that an Oscar is assured –not just as an emotional farewell from the Academy because this gifted actor died soon after making the film. There is also an acknowledgement of how sex is more than subtext in a troupe that spends so much time together. We see Ma Rainey feel up and squeeze the young dancer’s bottom in a familiar way. Dussie May – bright red lipstick and clingy dress – is Ma’s lover but soon makes out with the persistent Levee in the basement, after some hard bargaining. Levee is talented, writes his own songs and dreams of forming his band with a new sound. The manager has been stringing him along with the promise of recording his music. The ending is a sucker punch. Expected but still hits hard. The White manager pays him five dollars for a song as if he is doing Levee a favour. The last shot is heart-breaking. An all- White ensemble is recording the same song in a bland boring way, without the surprising riffs Levee would have brought to his music. Authorship of Black art has been Hudson the playwright’s continuing preoccupation. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom makes a musical-dramatic statement of this preoccupation. Though there are two towering performances, it is also a perfect ensemble piece, like a film where music is both the theme that unites and disrupts a band circling the sun that is Viola Davis’s Ma Rainey. Another rather quietly impactful film has an ironic title, Sound of Metal. The film starts off with pounding heavy metal sound, as vocalist and bass guitarist screams into the mike and the drummer beats up crescendo after crescendo. Darius Marder’s script poses an existential question. What happens when a drummer loses hearing? Sound of Metal is supposedly based on real life heavy metal musicians and a docu-drama was planned some 10 years ago with afflicted musicians playing themselves. Here we have Ruben (the fiercely talented Riz Ahmed) and his partner Lou (Olivia Cooke) tour the US in an RV equipped with all technical gadgets, performing to dedicated heavy metal fan base. It is as sudden as it is gradual. Ruben wakes up and slowly realises sound is becoming a droning hum – indistinct and disturbing. The specialists recommend implantation in his brain that will transmit sound but not the actual act of hearing, It is an expensive surgery, risky and not covered by insurance. To add to his problems, Ruben is a heroin addict and has relationship issues of trust with his partner. Recommended by his sponsor, Ruben’s rehab process begins, at an isolated therapeutic centre run by Vietnam veteran Joe. He oversees a group of deaf people who communicate expertly through sign language. Ruben has to learn to be deaf but he can’t really accept it. He sells his van and has surgery – all without much drama but in a matter of fact way that is more disturbing. It is taken for granted that such a film needs an almost choreographed sound design, to make us experience Ruben’s existence in a fog of inchoate sounds that make no sense. Ahmed acts with his face that flickers with emotions that flow into one another –ironically like music. He goes to Lou in Paris and discovers another side to her – as woman and musician. It is on a Paris street that ambient sounds around him are so disturbing that he pulls out the small pads attached to his head. The growing silence reaches stillness and you see that mirrored in Ruben’s eyes. It is an almost meditative process. It is calm acceptance? Or stoicism in the face of defeat? An ambiguous question that haunts long after the film is over. Riz Ahmed made it to an Oscar nomination for an unusual role that asks for a non-dramatic acting.

Another film that won its actress a nomination starts off promisingly but can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a court room drama, or the despair of losing a baby minutes after birth or an exploration of a mother-daughter relationship fraught with resentments and unfulfilled expectations. The film is Pieces of a Woman, a Canadian –American production directed by Kornel Mundrusczo. The lead actor Vanessa Kirby plays Martha, a professional living with her partner Sean (Shia LeBeouf) a construction foreman. She opts for home birth and the midwife who was booked sends a substitute. The director seeks to dazzle with bravura camera work, a long shot that follows Martha around her apartment as she goes through contractions in her bedroom, bathroom , all the heavy-breathing, screams of pain amidst encouraging sounds to push culminates in the mewling cry of a new born. The euphoria is brief. The panicked midwife calls the ambulance but the baby has turned blue and died. The film meanders from Martha’s struggle to contain pain, her over-powering mother’s interference and estrangement from Sean that ends in his leaving Boston. Ellen Burstyn gradually steps in to dominate the film as the guilt ridden mother trying to overcompensate. She is a holocaust survivor who is now wealthy and brings a suit against the midwife. Dates flash across the screen to suggest passing of time but except for Martha’s struggle with herself, the dates mean hardly anything. A laboured film about the labour of childbirth becomes a weary watch. The film won Vanessa Kirby Best Actress award at Venice film festival. Did the actor wear a very realistic prosthetic belly or was she really pregnant for this role? An irrelevant question but such irrelevancies are the result of a film that disengages you half way. Pity really.

Maithili Rao is a well know film critic, journalist and author. She is also the author of the great Smita Patil's biography.

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