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Wuthering Heights: Black Like Me

British filmmaker Andrea Arnold’s remarkable new adaptation of Wuthering Heights comes packing some redoubtable weapons, including the most atmospheric ultra-realism the story has ever seen, an awesome sense of the Yorkshire landscape, and no small payload of brooding poeticism. But undoubtedly, its coup de grâce has everything to do with race. Brontëans may well be shocked at Arnold’s reshaping the classic-lit tale, via the conception of Heathcliff as a black man, and casting Yorkshire non-pros Solomon Glave (young) and James Howson (adult) as the “dark-hearted” orphan-turned-heartbroken-titan.

It’s only a few steps to the left, and devotees of the book will see the relevance right away. For more than 150 years, and through countless versions remolded for movie, radio, TV, and theater (including three operas, one composed by Bernard Herrmann and never performed during his lifetime), the young Heathcliff of the story’s early passages has been defined as he was by Emily Brontë: a dirty, “dark,” and swarthy lad; a “gipsy,” culled from the slums of Liverpool (a port fraught with immigrants). But in all iterations, as the lad grew into manhood, he always became a mere Englishman distinguished only by his black hair and a cruel disposition. However much Brontë dripped suggestions into her narrator’s minds about Heathcliff’s possible mixed race, the role has always gone to white actors, from Laurence Olivier to Timothy Dalton to Tom Hardy, with nary a trace of swartness. (The one exception might be Luis Buñuel’s 1954 film, in which everyone is Mexican.)

To be fair, we could read the mid-1800s English use of “dark” and “gypsy” as code for virtually anybody without discernibly proper British breeding. But it has been a vague and mysterious quality that Arnold has now made concrete and undeniable, doubling down on Brontë’s ideas and steering the whole ship away from tragi-cosmic romance and toward whole-hog social tragedy, suffering the ghosts of slavery. This is intimated further by Arnold with a glimpse of the shirtless Heathcliff, his back scored with whip marks. In the 1770s, when the story is set, a black child was rare, even in Liverpool, the African chattel of the busy Brit-run slave trade going almost exclusively to British, Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonies in the Americas.

Which would make a black Heathcliff in Yorkshire an absolute stranger in a strange land, about whom specific bigoted norms would not even have been fully formed. Even so, his very presence in the manor houses of Brontë’s imagination represents a primal taboo, a violent invasion of the First World by the Third. (Arnold’s late-18th-century England feels quite Third as it is.) On top of that, talking about taboos, this is an interracial love story, in a time and place where, for most Brits, merely the chasm
between the classes, not races, was more than enough to ruin lives and destroy families and disenfranchise entire swaths of the population.

Unlike in the theater, the use of race this way has not been common in movies. Most often, the appearance of a black actor/character in a role ordinarily doled out to whites is a device used as a joke (as in 1974’s Blazing Saddles), or as a cudgel against racial bigotry, à la Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Of course, you could say virtually any movie about
endemic racism, from Sergeant Rutledge (1960) to The Man (1972) to Far From Heaven (2002), uses this dialectic, simply by dramatic virtue of having the white characters wonder how in hell the black characters came to be so deeply in their midst. In this Our Age of Denzel, this idea has pleasingly dissipated, so that Washington taking on Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing (1993) signifies absolutely nothing. One must search for historical contexts in which to raise the point at all. In the ’90s, critic David Thomson opined that Morgan Freeman might be the only living American actor with stature enough to play Lincoln, as irony might have it; not long thereafter, Dennis Haysbert was the unremarked-upon modern president in 24 (2001–2006), a tenure that, it seemed, suffered less barely repressed racist hatred across the country than the real-life movie Obama began to unspool two years later.

At least now a production of Othello, in any country, runs a slightly better risk of not casting a white man in blackface as the moor, a situation that is a dozen years old at best. In terms of renowned texts, if not Hollywood blockbusters, an actor’s race still matters, and potentially in powerful ways. How would Hugo’s Les Misérables or Kafka’s The Trial play out with persecuted black men at their centers? What if, in a film version of Faulkner’s Light in August that doesn’t exist, Joe Christmas is unambiguously black? Can and should classic works about social stress still pretend they happen in an all-white world?

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Vulgaria

According to the industry’s self-reflexive examinations, film is either the golden height of human imaginative endeavor or as profane and crazy as a meth-addicted stripper. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo casts filmmaking as a soft-focus bricolage of Art Deco robots, adventuresome orphans, vaulted ceilings, and soulful, tortured artists. By contrast, Pang Ho-cheung’s Vulgaria documents the industry with a catalog of insane, mule-fucking gangsters, sexagenarian soft-core actresses, inappropriate product placements, and Pop Rocks–augmented fellatio. Wai-cheung (Chapman To), a second-rate Hong Kong film producer, secures financing for a last-ditch, career-salvaging skin flick from a Cantonese gangster with quadrupedal sexual proclivities and fond memories of the previous century’s porn actresses. Meanwhile, Wai-cheung’s ex-wife is trying to restrict his access to their daughter; his improbably dumb assistant is suing him for sexual harassment, and his actress girlfriend might be making time with his film’s lead actor. The broadness of the film’s comedy might be largely attributable to the conventions of Hong Kong cinema, but to American audiences, the film has an exaggerated notion of its own raunchiness. Although bluntly transgressive, it never actually shows anything as gross as the bodily fluids splashed around in Farrelly Brothers movies—not a complaint—and many of the jokes, particularly with regard to the differences between citizens of Hong Kong and mainland China, are dependent upon familiarity with Asian culture. The framing device, in which Wai-cheung is a guest speaker in a college course for aspiring film producers (which, OK, whatever), becomes its own B storyline, concluding with a pretty good callback joke that emphasizes the film’s self-awareness.

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Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax

A computer-animated 3-D tracing of Dr. Seuss’s 1971 fable, The Lorax concerns a young resident of synthetic, plastic-coated suburb Thneed-Ville, Ted (voiced by Zac Efron), who goes searching for a legendary living tree outside the city walls. There he encounters a reclusive Once-ler (Ed Helms), who narrates his own life story: beginning as a fresh-faced young entrepreneur, the Once-ler’s ambition stripped the land of pom-pom topped Truffula trees and, in the process, turned the Once-ler into a caricature Capitalist, to the great disappointment of the title’s brash, mustachioed woodland spirit (Danny DeVito). The Lorax is a bizarro version of Hugo—like Martin Scorsese’s film, it encourages children to cleave to and preserve the world’s endangered treasures. But while Hugo teaches the value of fantasy and artifice in intimate, human terms, The Lorax piously preaches the gospel of the organic, holistic world, while relishing in high-fructose candy colors and saccharine woodland plushies found no-where in nature. As in the likes of Yogi Bear, the lesson will please or displease parents according to their prejudices, while the means of delivery are an offense that transcends party lines. Par for the course in blowout CGI adaptations, a great deal of detail and bustle is gained at the expense of charm—for all the miracles these armies of animators can achieve, they have yet to successfully reproduce a humble artist’s line.

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How to Succeed in Your Office Oscar Pool Without Really Trying

Every year, you enter your office’s Oscar pool and carefully select the major categories while haphazardly guessing the minor ones (Animated Short, Makeup). Every year, you lose. Why? Because you’ve got it backward: Oscar pools are always decided on the margins, where information is sketchier and outcomes are harder to predict. You need to think like a gambler, not a movie lover: If you can pin down the categories where everyone else is clueless, you’ll have a distinct advantage. That’s where we come in. We’ve seen all the Oscar-nominated shorts. We’ve done all the research. (Wikipedia counts as research, right?) And here are our picks for six awards that could finally make you a winner.

Best Sound Editing

The Nominees:

Drive, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, War Horse

On a purely technical level, Transformers was probably the most impressive achievement in sound editing and design last year. But could you live with yourself if you were partly responsible for legitimizing the phrase “Oscar-winner Transformers: Dark of the Moon“? No wonder the series is 0 for 4 at the Academy Awards so far. So who wins? If Hugo gets on a roll with Academy voters, it could sweep through this category as well, but here’s an interesting statistic: Since 1995, when a war film has been nominated for sound editing, it has won every time. Translation: Put it all on War Horse.

Best Sound Mixing

The Nominees:

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Moneyball, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, War Horse

If War Horse wins Best Sound Editing, does that mean it’s a lock for Sound Mixing, too? Not necessarily. The same film has won both sound categories just four out of the past 11 years. Plus, though Sound Editing—the creation of noises and effects—typically goes to spectacles, Sound Mixing—the blending of those tracks into a cohesive soundscape—is more unpredictable. Oscar front-runners, though, seem to fare well: The Hurt Locker won Sound Mixing on its way to six awards in 2010; same for Slumdog Millionaire‘s eight prizes in 2009. In other words, The Artist would have this one locked up if only it had any sound to mix. That—along with its supple balance of ticking clocks, roaring trains, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s terrible accent—bodes well for the consensus Best Picture runner-up, Hugo.

Best Makeup

The Nominees:

Albert Nobbs, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, The Iron Lady

If there’s a dark horse in this category, it’s Albert Nobbs, for Glenn Close’s always-tricky Reverse Doubtfire. Meryl Streep’s prosthetics in The Iron Lady, though, are exactly the kinds of cosmetics that traditionally win at the Oscars: They’re impressive in an overt, flashy way. But are they more overt and flashy than Close’s transformation from woman to man? Yes, I’m trying to find a delicate way to say that it’s harder to make Meryl Streep look really old than it is to make Glenn Close look like a dude. So far, no luck. The Iron Lady by a hair.

Best Documentary Short

The Nominees:

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement, God Is the Bigger Elvis, Incident in New Baghdad,
Saving Face, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

Ah, Oscar season. That special time of year when we trivialize legitimately important social issues by guessing which one will provoke the biggest reaction from an arbitrary group of people who live in Los Angeles. This should be a neck-and-neck race between Saving Face—about the plight of abused Pakistani women—and The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, about the plight of grieving Japanese-tsunami victims. Both films are powerful, both offset harrowing footage of tragedy with inspirational messages about the enduring power of the human spirit, but give a slight edge to Saving Face. Its story of wives destroyed by husbands who threw acid in their faces (and, in many cases, got away with it) should resonate particularly strongly in Hollywood, where visible facial scarring is a fate worse than death.

Best Animated Short

The Nominees:

Dimanche (Sunday), The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, La Luna, A Morning Stroll, Wild Life

Do you like quirky, animated films with no dialogue and weird characters doing nonsensical things? Then congratulations! This year’s Best Animated Short category is for you. Improbably, animation juggernaut Pixar hasn’t won this category in a decade, but 2012 looks to be the year to break the streak: Their work on the charming La Luna is on an entirely different aesthetic level than any of the competition. If the story is somewhat lacking, the character design is absolutely brilliant, right down to the way the protagonist, a boy being taught how to care for the moon, is drawn with pupils so big, they turn the whites of his eyes into la luna–evoking crescents.

Best Live-Action Short

The Nominees:

Pentecost, Raju, The Shore, Time Freak, Tuba Atlantic

In a category dominated by one-joke comedies, two films appear to have the combination of heft, heart, and humor that elevates contenders in the feature categories: Tuba Atlantic—about a dying Norwegian man’s contentious relationship with the teenage girl sent to care for him during his final days—and The Shore, about an Irish man reconnecting with the best friend he left behind when he headed to the United States during The Troubles. This should be a close race, but The Shore has a stronger pedigree (it was directed by Hotel Rwanda filmmaker Terry George) and a showier lead performance (from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘s Ciarán Hinds).

The Rest

Picture: The Artist

Actor: Jean Dujardin (The Artist)

Actress: Viola Davis (The Help)

Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer (Beginners)

Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer (The Help)

Director: Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)

Documentary: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Original Screenplay: Midnight in Paris

Adapted Screenplay: The Descendants

Animated Feature: Rango

Art Direction: Hugo

Cinematography: The Tree of Life

Costume Design:: Hugo

Editing: The Artist

Foreign-Language Film: A Separation

Original Score: The Artist

Original Song: The Muppets

Visual Effects: Rise of the Planet of the Apes