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March 01, 2005

The Aviator & The Hare

It's timely to be writing about The Aviator a few days after it was acknowledged but not significantly rewarded by the annual Academy Awards. Dodging the question of how much, and what kind of, merit the awards possess, it’s always interesting to see how Hollywood wants to present itself to America and the rest of the world. This year was no exception. Gathering a small collection of minor, technical awards, but losing out the more prestigious ones to Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, The Aviator was the victim of Hollywood’s attempt to distance itself from the blockbuster “event” films it has become synonymous with, and demonstrate that it can embrace introspective, smaller films on both scale and budget. Therefore, the forcibly emotional, extravagant and bloated The Aviator was shunned in favour of the forcibly emotional, and too obviously subtle Million Dollar Baby. Both are the products of the same system, but whereas The Aviator is a progressive film that also happens to be what is good about big Hollywood Studio productions, Million Dollar Baby masquerades as an exercise in intellectual “art” cinema while remaining firmly rooted in Hollywood restrictions. Million Dollar Baby is an extremely well made fraud that approaches neither the majesty of Hollywood or the intellectuality of good art cinema.

The white trash family in Eastwood’s film is as caricatured and overblown as the world in Scorsese’s The Aviator. However, The Aviator uses fantasy and artificiality for a purpose, to create a feeling of splendour and magic. Million Dollar Baby, convinced of its own importance, seriousness and grittiness, is rendered silly by unintentional artificiality. Scorsese understands Hollywood conventions and works within and around them. Eastwood pretends they don’t exist.

In terms of film style, not only are some of the scenes in The Aviator aesthetically astounding, but more meaningful than those in Million Dollar Baby. For example, the shot of a naked Howard Hughes clothed only by images from the film projector in his private theatre says more about celebrity and privacy than any shot in Million Dollar Baby about any of its major themes.

Million Dollar Baby isn’t a bad film, it tells a story well and knows how to generate an emotional response, but it’s more like what Hollywood typically makes than The Aviator, despite appearances. Employing continuity editing, based on a simple narrative and short on originality and ideas, Million Dollar Baby is closer to a common, mindless blockbuster than The Aviator, which has the definite imprint of its director, is infused with intelligence, and deviates from traditional film structure.

At the Academy Awards, Hollywood tried to shift the direction of its film industry. It decided to sever itself from its own past and stride in a new direction. Unfortunately, forever focused on only surfaces, it chose the same direction it has always been travelling in. There is no Howard Hughes, only his image.

In attempting to distance itself from itself, Hollywood has tossed away the extravagance of such memorable films as Ben Hur, The Sound of Music and even Titanic, but retained their shortcomings.

Hollywood has finally started believing in the myth of its own inferiority.

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