American movies today are in a worse state than ever ,to judge by the recent Academy Award nominations — the sorriest list of honorees I’ve ever seen in a 90-year-old process that has, for at least the past dozen years, steadily declined. Before the nominations were announced Tuesday, the Good Morning America employees of ABC-Disney, where the Oscar ceremony will be broadcast, cheered, “Can you feel the excitement!” No matter how giddily the media prop up Hollywood’s annual travesty of itself, let’s face the fact of the mediocre movies being acclaimed. Their poor quality proves that the Oscars are just a means for contemporary filmmakers (and fans) to pretend that this utterly corrupted medium — now hopelessly politicized — still has merit.
In the Oscar-nominated script for the Marvel Comics movie Logan, a robotic child advises a dejected adult, the superhero Wolverine/Logan played by Hugh Jackman, “Suit yourself.” That dismissive line says it all by capturing the cynicism of comic-book franchises in which moviegoers are exploited like children — flattered for their adolescent fixation on violence, “darkness,” and self-satisfaction. Logan ends with that child uprooting the makeshift crucifix on Wolvervine’s grave and then repositioning it, swastika-style, to evoke X-Men, the team of comic-book superheroes from which Wolverine/Logan originated.
Reasserting that Marvel logo — turning religion on its side — shows Hollywood at its most pernicious. It reflects the juvenile and morally indefensible stories, told in all this year’s Oscar nominees, that have become unavoidable in most contemporary American films. From a fairy tale mixing bestiality and social justice to a newspaper movie that idealizes power and class privilege to pseudo-folksy allegories about revenge and chaos, Hollywood has transformed once-entertaining genres into self-gratifying lectures. Academy members, like most reviewers, mistake their political prejudices for aesthetics. Taste is now confused with what’s been identified as “confirmation bias.” American movies have gotten uglier (the glum Mudbound received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, despite the film’s aesthetic offense, and the nomination won media praise because the cinematographer is female). And they have become literally unenlightening as they display weak or revolting nihilism.
The new western Hostiles was crowded out of the Oscar circle, yet it typifies the hostility that has befallen American genre films. Writer-director Scott Cooper is consumed with the fashionable self-loathing of the anti-patriotic Left, a self-loathing that was also evident in last year’s despicable, ludicrous, and self-congratulatory neo-western Wind River — an apology to disenfranchised Native Americans that nonetheless lionized repentant white Americans as the film’s modern-day protagonists. Cooper tells an 1892 story of an Indian-hating Army captain, Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), who is ordered to escort a Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), back to his tribal land. They must fight actual and inner hostilities en route.
The historical reappraisal that gave the western genre a moral grandeur to match its awesome settings is short-circuited by Cooper’s Millennial-style knowingness. He begins with that famous D. H. Lawrence quote taught in American-studies seminars: “The essential American is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted,” from the 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature. But Hostiles ignores the formative myths that Lawrence used to describe figures in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville. Instead, Cooper uses a foreign artist’s exotic insight to foreshorten western-movie mythology. Before exploring Captain Blocker’s dilemma, his wild-eyed anger is infected with the disease of Vietnam and the Iraq War (like a double-impacted tooth) — Hostiles begins with a hideously graphic massacre of Rosalie Quaid’s (Rosamund Pike) homesteading family. It jump-starts the outrage of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) but diminishes Ford’s legacy by explicitly, gratuitously quoting the Indian massacre — and bloody infant slaughter — at the climax of Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), the height of Hollywood’s Vietnam War–imperialist guilt.
Hostiles also follows S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, an indie anti-western that used troglodyte ghouls as PC replacements for hostile Native Americans — an example of a genre degraded by a modern Hollywood that either doesn’t know or misinterprets the complexities of the great western movies. (Bone Tomahawk’s fanboy cult regards it with the same silly, ahistorical hipness as they do Tarantino’s western debauch, The Hateful Eight.)
Cooper’s relentless violence and negativity in Hostiles takes an attitude toward the American past that defies humane intentions and denies our own innocence. (There’s no scene equal to the brief respite in Logan where the scissors-wielding child robots giggle as they clip Wolverine’s overgrown beard into virile, Clint Eastwood muttonchops.) Hostiles relays the new, post-Obama hostility toward American history that I first wrote about in my review of The Revenant. One can feel the animus throughout the unpleasant experience of watching the Oscar-baiting Mudbound, Logan, The Post, Get Out, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.
These degraded genre films manifest something worse than an ignorance of movie history. Through ineptitude and perverse political sophistication, they warp familiar genres with a self-righteous certainty encouraged by “That’s Not Who We Are” political progressives — another form of denial. The Academy acclaims the oppositional project of these new genre films; Logan articulates this in comic-book terms when a mad scientist (Richard E. Grant) restores Wolverine’s twisted, evil doppelgänger: “You’re a newborn by any measure. Your body has work to do. Hemostasis, angiogenesis, epithelialization, stromal-cell proliferation.” (Molly’s Game screenwriting nominee Aaron Sorkin must envy all those syllables.)
It is the purpose of the Oscars to normalize Hollywood’s remaking of its product into insidious anti-human, anti-American propaganda.
It is the purpose of the Oscars to normalize Hollywood’s remaking of its product into insidious anti-human, anti-American propaganda. Critic Cole Smithey pinpointed this crisis when he wrote of Logan: “If indoctrinating child audiences into accepting, and enjoying, brutal deadly violence was the intent of the filmmaker,s . . . then their mission is accomplished.” The violence in Hostiles and Logan’s horrifying images of marauding, murderous, victorious children (proto-Antifa thugs) signify how willfully unpleasant Hollywood movies have become.
This indoctrination can be traced back to the 2008 Pixar film Wall-E, the first nihilistic animated film for children. It offered a dystopian future in which film history was lost, a foreshadow of Hollywood self-destruction. The Wall-E robot uncovered the remains of the 1969 movie musical Hello, Dolly! and repetitively watched loops of a fragmented dance scene without comprehending what it meant or what was missing. Logan’s director, James Mangold, does the same with clips from the western Shane (1953), hijacking George Stevens’s powerful scenes of cruel violence but imparting no sense of the aesthetic daring and moral revulsion that made that film a moral and artistic landmark. Hostiles trashes the western genre and the history of territorial expansion with similar ignorant indifference.
Now we wait for the Oscar show, where showbiz hypocrites will blather about “bringing us together” while they continue to destroy the cultural foundations that used to make us see, think, and feel as one.