Before I go, I have something to say

Best Picture

Sometimes, words fail me. I’ve just seen a movie – one of the contenders for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards – and I don’t know how to describe it. Well, I can think of lots of words. It’s brilliant, searing, moving, suspenseful, captivating. It’s educational, too, as all good films are, because it taught me something about a subject I’d been woefully ignorant of. But I can’t think of one word to sum up how it left me feeling.

You’ve probably figured out I’m not talking about “Up,” or “Avatar.” I enjoyed both of them immensely, but, really, it’s hard to see those movies on the same playing field as this one.

The movie is “The Hurt Locker.” Between my first paragraph and this one, I saw it win Best Picture. I was thrilled, and delighted to see a deserving woman finally win Best Director.

This movie came to Dubuque awhile back (thanks, Mindframe!) but I passed on seeing it. I thought, Oh, geez, it’s going to be violent. It’s going to be sad. It’s going to be unbearably tense. After all, it’s about soldiers who defuse IEDs – improvised explosive devices – in Iraq. At any moment, the bomb could go off. In any crowd, the friendly looking civilian could be programming his cell phone to detonate it remotely. The wires could be buried in the sand, or fastened with case-hardened locks that resist the most massive bolt cutters.

Normally, I resist movies like that. Anything too violent, too nail-bitingly fraught, sends me from the room. I really wanted to see “Syriana,” and I’m glad I did. But I’d read in reviews about the torture scene involving George Clooney’s hands and a pair of pliers. I walked out when I sensed it was about to begin, and didn’t return for five minutes. (Clooney’s fingertips were all bandaged when I returned. Talk about nail-biting tension.) When we rented “Tsotsi,” I knew the basic story – young thug inadvertently kidnaps baby while stealing car in South Africa – but I could not watch it once the baby entered the scene.

This is one of my (many) pet peeves. Babies in movies are obviously there with their parents’ permission, and I’m sure all kinds of standards exist to ensure their safety. But when I see a baby screaming and crying in a movie, I always think, Everybody else may know this is fiction, but that baby doesn’t. He’s not acting. He’s genuinely upset, or he wouldn’t cry like that.

Only adults, and a few children old enough to understand the craft of acting, populate “The Hurt Locker.” I’m sure not all of the anguish depicted on screen is fabricated. It was shot in Jordan, in incredible heat, just like in Iraq. What surprised me is that not once did I feel like leaving the room. Rather than repulsing me, the horrific reality of this film instead drew me in. Where I had feared this might be something I would have to stop watching, I could not take my eyes off of it.

I know people who will not go to movies they fear will make them uncomfortable. Were I to adopt this rule, I would see mighty few movies each year. (There are some I wish I’d skipped because my discomfort stemmed from sophomoric humor or entirely uncalled for grossness. What is funny about watching people lose their lunch onscreen after tanking up on Budweiser?) I have trouble watching “The Office” sometimes when the humor comes too much at the expense of the characters’ dignity. I like a show with at least one sympathetic character, but they can be hard to find in a situation comedy. This is why I never really got “Seinfeld.”

I know people who don’t want to see movies that make them sad. You know – downers. How many good ones would pass that test? Of the ten nominees for Best Picture, are there any without moments of grief? The two animated (or CGI) films, “Up” and “Avatar,” feature both peril and death – the widower mourns his wife in “Up,” and we witness the deaths of good guys in “Avatar.” I’ll admit, I haven’t seen “Inglourious Basterds” yet because of Quentin Tarantino’s guaranteed gore. Everyone talks of his “Pulp Fiction” as a lark, a hoot. Am I the only one who remembers the rape of Ving Rhames’ character, Marsellus? That bothered me. A lot.

Yes, some films make me uncomfortable. Some films make me cry. Some films, I wish I could rewrite. But then what would we have? I like escapism as much as the next person who sometimes gets worn down by life, but even when I’m seeking happy entertainment, I require at least a bit of grit. “The Wizard of Oz” would be meaningless had Dorothy not risked everything in Oz. The great movie critic Roger Ebert pointed out that “The Wrestler” is about redemption, and a character can’t redeem himself unless he first falls, badly. (I loved that movie. Also “Terminator 2,” for what it said about being a single mother. Really.)

I’m still trying to think of one word to sum up how “The Hurt Locker” made me feel. Contrary to my fears, it did not make me feel flattened, or brutalized, or upset. No, the word that comes closest is “exhilarated.” I’m no expert on the Iraq war just because I’ve watched one movie set there. But thanks to Kathryn Bigelow and her talented cast and crew, I have been allowed into a subtle human drama that taught me things and left me electrified and impressed. Impressed with the men and women who do this work, and the people who created this astonishing film.