Oscar past-present

Contemporary hits vying for honors share some vivid similarities to the film classics

  • Both "The Social Network" and "Citizen Kane" (pictured) dramatize ruthless magnates (Mark Zuckerberg in “Network,” a Hearst-like tycoon in “Kane”) who exploit the new media of their times.
Both "The Social Network" and "Citizen Kane"…
February 24, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

This year's Oscar nominees carry the heritage of art houses and revival theaters into the mainstream and offer vivid similarities or contrasts to past great art and entertainment.

Danny Boyle did spectacularly dextrous work to open up the mind of a canyoneer trapped between a boulder and a rock wall — and determined to escape — in "127 Hours." Decades ago, Robert Bresson used more austere means to even more indelible effect, conveying the spellbinding concentraion and vaulting faith of a French Resistance fighter who springs himself from a Nazi prison fortress in "A Man Escaped" (1957). If you thought Christopher Nolan's "Inception" blazed trails into booby-trapped recesses of the human mind, your own mind might be blown by the eerie, savagely comic synthesis of dreamscapes and political reality in John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962).

The Charles remains the one theater in town where you can see new and old movies like these. So it's fitting that the Charles will host "Oscar Night Baltimore," the only official Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science fundraiser in Maryland, on Sunday night. Here's hoping these contemporary and vintage classics make it to this theater in the months to come.

"Social Network"/"Citizen Kane" Both dramatize ruthless magnates (Mark Zuckerberg in "Network," a Hearst-like tycoon in "Kane") who exploit the media of their times. Both use eyewitnesses' contradictory testimony — set into fragmented, rollercoaster narratives — to get inside ambitious antiheroes. In "Kane," director Orson Welles' blend of swirling cinema and theatrical sleight-of-hand traces the impact of Kane's centrifugal force, from his promising, unruly boyhood to his sad and lonely death. In "Network," director David Fincher's swift, intricate, sometime invisible camera movements follow boy-man Zuckerberg's digital conquests without losing sight of the human cost.

To anchor his witty, hyper-verbal script for "Kane," Herman Mankiewicz employed the search for the meaning of Kane's last word, "Rosebud." To anchor his witty, hyper-verbal script, Aaron Sorkin posed the question of whether Zuckerberg was in love with a human Rosebud named Erica. The films go beyond these gimmicks to suggest depths of pride and yearning. They're wise, not wised-up. They're energizers, not downers.

"True Grit"/'70s Westerns The Coen brothers marked the success of "True Grit" by listing five top Westerns for Entertainment Weekly. When they picked "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976) and breezily called it a "Clint Eastwood movie from the 1970s, when the major studios were, on the evidence here, less uptight," they were on to something. Philip Kaufman ("The Right Stuff"), who wrote the final script to "Wales," also wrote and directed "The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid" (1972), a rendering of the Jesse James-Cole Younger saga that boasted the seductive regional twangs and headlong wit and invention that attracted the Coens to Charles Portis' second novel, "True Grit." Movies like these honor the Western genre — and expand it.

"The Kids Are All Right"/"My Beautiful Laundrette" Lisa Cholodenko's "The Kids Are All Right" is a beautifully observed comedy-drama of a long marital relationship, not a propaganda piece about two lesbians raising a boy and girl. In the way it transcends sexual orientation and blends humor, sensuality and pathos, it looks back to Stephen Frears' "My Beautiful Laundrette" (1985), which, like "Kids," won a best original screenplay nomination.

You didn't have to be Pakistani, English or gay to love "My Beautiful Laundrette," about a young South Londoner who is all three. Gordon Warnecke played Omar, a cutthroat capitalist in training who intends to revive a faltering laundromat. Daniel Day-Lewis played a hoodlum named Johnny, who shuns his fascistic youth-gang buddies and becomes Omar's right-hand man and lover. A universal quest holds this back-alley tapestry together: The urge of every man or woman to achieve self-definition.

What made '70s filmmaking here and '80s filmmaking in Britain so exciting was directors bringing the vitality of the movie past into the present. The Coens, Fincher and Cholodenko carry forward that tradition.


If you go

The Charles Theatre and Tapas Teatro will host "Oscar Night Baltimore" from 6 p.m. to midnight Sunday. It benefits AIRS/City Steps' Restoration Gardens, a housing program for homeless youth. Go to airshome.org.

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