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Let the movie credits roll

Peter Wicks | Thursday, February 24, 2005

This Sunday the 77th annual Academy Awards will take place, and if I had a vote for Best Picture, it would go to the acclaimed “Million Dollar Baby.” Confidently directed and beautifully shot, the film manages to bring moral seriousness to the table without threatening to become a cinematic op-ed piece. It is, in short, a film for grown ups – a rare thing in Hollywood these days.

When a good movie comes along, the achievement should be acknowledged, lest the species become extinct.

Of the three key performers, Hilary Swank will doubtlessly garner the most attention. She gained 20 pounds, all of it muscle, to play a female boxer. Changing body type for a role has been fashionable ever since Robert DeNiro beefed up and won an Oscar playing Jake La Motta.

The psychological appeal for the audience is hardly mysterious; movie stars earn obscene amounts of money, and we like to know that they suffered for it.

Swank does a fine job, as does Eastwood, but in my opinion, Morgan Freeman’s performance is what makes the film work.

“Team America: World Police” has not been nominated for anything, which is hardly surprising given that many of the people who were the brunt of the film’s jokes will be sitting in the good seats at the Kodak Theatre on Sunday.

It is sometimes said that celebrities are America’s aristocracy, and many of them certainly seem to have developed a sense of noblesse oblige.

The problem is that when film stars get involved in politics, they often give the impression that they have cast themselves as members of the Rebel Alliance taking on the Galactic Empire.

The results are usually embarrassing, and sometimes detrimental. In 1972, Jane Fonda toured North Vietnam, denouncing tortured American Prisoners of War as “hypocrites and liars.” In an infamous radio broadcast, she suggested that Richard Nixon should read Ho Chi Minh’s poetry. Barbarella, it’s safe to say, was truly out of her league.

Similarly, when actor Sean Penn spent time in Baghdad and announced that the best solution to Iraq’s problems would be lifting the trade sanctions rather than deposing its tyrannous ruler, we can safely assume that neither Iraq’s mass gravesites nor its torture chambers had been featured on his guided tour.

Stars are easily duped not because they are stupid – although Alec Baldwin won’t be winning the Fields Medal for his work in advanced physics any time soon – but because they are vain. It is that vanity, that Messianic self-importance, that Team America mocks so effectively.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker are perhaps the only film-makers who could get away with this, because they are perhaps the only major American film-makers whose commercial success does not depend on the stars themselves.

One theory, auteur theory, treats a film’s director as the analogue of a novel’s author – in effect, as its sole creator. William Goldman pointed out some time ago that in order to hold this theory, it is necessary to have no knowledge about how films are actually made.

There was, Goldman wrote, only one American director who could justly be considered an auteur, since he served as his own producer, cinematographer, and editor, and produced work that displayed a unique vision of the world.

That director was Russ Meyer. Goldman had a point; anyone familiar with Meyer’s oeuvre – a body of work that includes Vixen, Supervixens and Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens – cannot help but be struck by its thematic unity.

In fact, one could randomly interchange scenes of any of Meyer’s movies without them making any more sense.

Meyer died last year, and Stone and Parker have inherited his mantle, if not his penchant for homicidal go-go dancers. They write, direct, produce and even voice their own work. They just might be Hollywood’s only auteurs.

Sadly, most of Team America’s reviews never got past the question of where the creators of South Park stood on Bush’s War on Terror.

(Note to critics: if you complain about the increasing polarization of the political climate in the United States, and then after watching a film in which puppet celebrities are eaten by real cats, your first question is “Which side are these guys on?,” then you are part of the problem.)

A film which should transcend partisan politics is “Hotel Rwanda,” which has deservedly received nominations for its screenplay and both of its key performances.

Based on the true story of a Hutu hotel manager who managed to protect over a thousand Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide, it’s a devastating film to watch, as well it should be.

In Rwanda, the few U.N. troops on the ground were instructed to keep the peace, but forbidden from firing a shot. The Tutsis sheltered in the hotel survived, but by the time the nationwide slaughter ended, the collective death toll approached a million corpses.

Watching the film, it is hard to believe that the world stood by and allowed the massacres.

Right now, in Darfur in the Sudan, the Sudanese government and militias are engaged in ethnic cleansing.

As in Rwanda, a relatively small international force could stop the bloodshed, although their capability to deter violence would require that they be permitted not merely to carry guns, but to use them.

Regarding Rwanda, people often say that genocide took place while the world looked on and did nothing. But that isn’t right, for we did do something. We looked away. And we have no right to be shocked when this Sunday, as the killings continue, most of us will be watching the stars.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the Philosophy Department. Peter can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu. More information about the situation in Darfur can be found at www.savedarfur.org.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.