Oscar Season Diary #8: ‘American Hustle,’ ‘Her,’ and the War of the Heart

3022037-slide-her-filmWe’re a fatherless culture heading in an unclear direction.

Can we sense, at this point, anyone at the wheel?

We’re overrun with greed, with corruption, with politics and media; we have little time to ponder the individual, or to see the soul behind the person staring back at us in the mirror. Survival is merely moving on to the next superficial stimulus.

Spike Jonze’s Her and David O. Russell’s American Hustle reveal a battle our preoccupation with the media has distracted us from acknowledging: the one within us as individuals. Both films remind us of the power of the heart–listening to it, working to preserve it–and resonate within an Oscar year that champions that very attitude.

The news is cluttered with headlines of a new war every day. From Washington to Syria, we hear about wars of ideals, wars of politics, wars of culture, wars of preference and wars of intellect. Some see bloodshed, and others exist as a momentary annoyance when, for a brief moment, we flip the channel to yet another news story about the deepening split between two roaring factions of our nation’s right and left.

If we’re given a spare moment away from the news tickers, push notifications, blinking lights, emails, and texts, it’s only natural to fall back on our own thoughts, emotions, and affections,  though we seek validation, pleasure, and stimulus from technology, and have grown dependent on it to rile us from the state of simply being able to, well, be.

Simplicity is an increasing rarity: this is the struggle that Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) undergoes on a daily basis in Her.

In the not-so-distant future, he’s a ghostwriter for countless clients who hire him to write personal letters to their loved ones. He spends his days recalling emotions he once knew as a married man, but for other people. He’s now divorced and trudging through the remnants of his soul as the world around him vacuums itself deeper and deeper into an outbreak of isolationist technology separating human from human, soul from soul.

Theodore, swayed by a convincing television ad, purchases a highly advanced operating system to cope with the loneliness. Her name is Samantha, and she’s programmed to adapt to new environments as she experiences them. Theodore is forced to confront his feelings of loneliness as he falls in love with Samantha.

The most intelligent thing about Her‘s script is its consistent urgency propelling Samantha forward as a fully-formed character. She grows, adapts, and forms feelings for herself, but most of all is able to understand that she isn’t human, which perhaps is the most beautiful thing about the film. It’s actually quite tragic in that sense, as Samantha yearns for a human body, but never loses her grip on reality. She knows she will never be human, and never tries to be.

Whereas Samantha can’t attain a sense of humanity, it’s Theo’s that she helps restore. At its core, the interactions between Samantha and Theodore are nothing more than Theodore talking to a version of himself filtered through a complex sequence of data. Samantha can only learn through her interactions with people, and she soon begins to interact with Theodore in a way that subtly holds a mirror to his face. His divorce shattered him, and his feelings of isolation and loneliness forced him into a machine-like state. It’s only thorough his acceptance of his feelings for Samantha that he can be truly happy, and he learns to be a human once again.

The film’s form is highly dependent on its content, and vice versa. There’s a gorgeous visual motif running throughout the film involving Theodore gazing out of enormous windows. Whether he’s on a subway, at work, or at his apartment, his view of the outside world is obscured by a glass shield that he can see the other side of, but can’t quite reach just yet. Without giving anything away, it’s only after he spends time getting to know himself (and Samantha), that he’s able to view what’s on the other side free from obstruction. It’s a beautiful film about the best and worst of technology, how it expands our perspective yet limits it, and how–if you don’t lose touch with your humanity–it can open your eyes instead of distract them from seeing what’s around you.

American Hustle explores these issues in a far less subtle manner. It’s classic David O. Russell spectacle. The film is about everything and it’s about nothing in particular, it’s about sexy people in extravagant costumes and the risky business they get themselves into. But, at its heart, its a story about preserving the all-encompassing, overwhelming impression of love.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) tells us of his childhood, one where he helped his family’s window business thrive by throwing rocks through storefront glass. It becomes clear that passion drives his actions, and that he’s not above taking control of his fate, even if it means involving himself in his own hand-spun circle of success.

He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a beautiful woman struggling to find herself amidst the hustle and bustle of urban life, and the two become inseparable. Their love spans the duration of the film, and its the glue of their affections that holds the entire film together.

american-hustle-amy-adams-1The pair embark on a scam operation together as a means to profit from what they deem to be the “lesser” men of society. They start a loan scam, where they promise to get people with poor credit loans–for a fee of $5,000. They’re eventually caught by FBI agent Richie Di Masso (Bradley Cooper), who lets them off the hook if they agree to help him bag corrupt politicians by (similar to Irving smashing windows so his family’s business could thrive) constructing a series of set-ups where they will accept bribes in exchange for political favors.

Sydney and Irving’s actions might be deplorable, but they’re motivated by the love they have for each other. They want the successful American life everyone is promised from birth, it’s just that they take an alternate route on the way there. Happiness is at the root of their actions. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want, whether we achieve it morally or by climbing down rungs tinged with grime?

Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), is an essential part of the film’s recipe. Of course Irving is cheating on her with Sydney, and she knows it, though she consistently tries to one-up him instead of laying down and taking her final laps through marriage as a victim. The space she occupies (the home she shares with Irving and her son) becomes a surreal place of mockery, where she has lost her grasp on how to safely parent her child, causing fires, smoking, and regressing to a childlike state herself. The home isn’t a place where happiness lives simply because you paint a smiley face on it by marrying and staying together for the sake of normalcy. A home requires work and, most of all, love. It is not a puzzle that fits together just because you want square A to fit into circle B.

If the fantasy of American life doesn’t fit, you must change it.

American Hustle is a story of selfish people with selfish intentions. Russell’s outlook on the world is that it is simply too self-centered for its own good. Everybody is in the game of life for themselves, and survival becomes a tainted, layered byproduct of manipulation, jealousy, and greed

But, the film celebrates a rebel’s instinctual desire to buck the system of control, to never be confined to a single space, and to never relinquish control of his or her own destiny, and that’s far more “American” than staying inside the lines (or within the confines of your white picket fence dreams). American Hustle celebrates its right to be about so simple an idea in such an intriguing way, that the ambition and pacing of the the film as a whole become synonymous with its characters’ drive to attain freedom on their own terms.

Both Her and American Hustle show the lengths that humans will go to in order to feel something, whether it be success, monetary comfort, love, or otherwise–the desire of the human spirit to regain consciousness of itself so that it can exist in peace is at the root of both films.

Many of the year’s films revolve around these ideas of breaking free from confines. A self-imposed prison (Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis), unjust incarceration (12 Years a Slave, Prisoners), or an emotional cage in the wreckage of heartbreak (Her, Blue is the Warmest Color), screenplays about regaining a sense of self have overwhelmingly dominated the awards season discussion.

GRAVITYIt’s interesting that, in 2013, the Oscar race is so filled with these films that revolve around characters attempting to regain what was once lost. Gravity’s Ryan Stone has lost faith in humanity and in herself after losing her daughter, and the film systematically constructs a beautiful cinematic metaphor for her emotional and spiritual rebirth that carries the film to its conclusion. 

12 Years a Slave sees Solomon Northrupp kidnapped from his life as a free black man in 1800s America to become a slave in the Deep South. He confronts the evils of racism and travels to the brink of his emotional stamina.

2013 ultimately was a year of battles won. When the Academy itself makes huge changes in an attempt to diversify its image, leadership, and voting base, it’s clear the tides of culture are changing, and victory can be seen for those long seen as inferior.

The year saw three black filmmakers’ names soar through the season as legitimate awards contenders. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station was an early season favorite in key categories (Best Actor, namely), while Lee Daniels’ The Butler spat in the face of those who deemed “black cinema” (a  general descriptor, I know, but it’s for the sake of the argument, here) an unmarketable venture (it grossed nearly $150 million worldwide). I can’t remember the last time this happened, if it has ever happened in the 86-year history of the Academy Awards.

This year’s Oscars are once again, thanks to the preferential ballot, going to be driven by passionate support for smaller projects that normally wouldn’t catch Academy voters’ eyes in a year where only five Best Picture nominees were allowed.

It seems that the Academy has been attempting to restore the heart into the race, when massive campaigns and PR brainwashing has driven the awards race into an endless domino entity. Usually, we look to the precursors to definitively outline the trajectory of the Oscars. Critics circles positioned their awards earlier in the season, so they could do things like push films like American Hustle into the race with first-out-of-the-gate praise (NYFCC, here’s looking at you).

There’s a passion for the craft and a passion for a vast array of films, as we’ve seen major precursors deviate from what was expected to push what they think is the strongest film of the year. With only one week to go until Oscar nominations, there’s an entire herd heading into a pen that’s usually, this late in the game, largely less crowded. Passion is power, and people seem to be voting with their hearts.

Ultimately, as Theodore is in Her, we’re left alone to look in the mirror in the wake of these films. At the heart of top box-office draws of the year was escapism, which is equivalent to throwing a blanket over our eyes. If we’re consistently entertained by pure spectacle, how do we accept art as something multi-dimensional?

We must champion the great films from this monumental year in cinema, because they do what pure spectacle can’t—they take our hand and give a reflective clarity through the dark.

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