I am sure that Tomas Tranströmer is a lovely man, and the little of his work I was able to find online was striking, if perhaps formal and chilly. Despite these virtues, he falls into the tried-and-true Nobel category I call “Who’s That?” These are people whose names I’ve never heard and can’t pronounce, whose work I’ve never encountered, who generally can be characterized as European, somber, and shy. To wit: Tomas Tranströmer, Herta Müller, and countless others I’m not erudite enough to know about until they make headlines for winning.
I began to wonder, scanning the stories about Tranströmer, what the Nobel committee would do if they suddenly had the cinema on their hands. It’s one of those exercises, like a year-end top ten or the Sight & Sound poll, that has more to do with spurring debate and revealing the predilections of the critic than saying anything “objective” about what’s good or not, all complicated by the fact that Nobels are awarded for bodies of work, and so often leave you scratching your head. Caveats aside, let the debating begin:
The desire to choose Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese filmmaker who died in 2007, nearly had me breaking my own rule right off the bat — to hew as closely as possible to the Nobel’s style. La Noire de… (1966), a 60-minute slip of quiet, and then explosive, desperation, and Moolaadé (2004; pictured above), an immensely humane portrait of a woman brave enough to defy tradition and protest female genital mutilation, would alone qualify him in my book.
Resisting this temptation, it must be Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon, Caché, The Piano Teacher - pictured): certainly well known among the cinephile/art house crowd, I think it’s safe to say his name would elicit blank stares from a large enough number of people to fit the category. Provocative, even creepy, the Austrian filmmaker’s blend of unexpected violence and stark, still compositions is right up Nobel’s alley.
Sometimes, when the world is in a tizzy, the Nobel committee tries to set things straight by choosing a writer they know will speak his or her mind, even to the point of being controversial (Harold Pinter comes to mind). It would be too easy to choose Michael Moore here — plus, a Cannes Jury already did that, awarding the Palme d’Or to Fahrenheit 9/11 over vastly superior films like Clean and Oldboy. A filmmaker who clearly has something to say, and a dramatic, unsettling way of saying it, is French director Catherine Breillat. Fat Girl, her 2001 portrait of teenage sexuality, sexual violence, and sexual politics, tries too hard to be controversial and not hard enough to tell a good story. But sometimes that’s exactly what the Nobel committee wants.
American We Can All Feel Good About
Toni Morrison and William Faulkner are standard-bearers in this category, and though I’m not sure how good I feel about Saul Bellow (I’ve still never made it through Herzog), I’ll put patriotism above personal taste. This was surely the toughest, but the living American mainstream director who has treaded the line between class and grit most assuredly is Clint Eastwood. Unforgiven is the most convincing and harrowing period Western since the 1970s; Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby form a diptych of the workings of grief; Gran Torino suavely updates the vigilante film for a mellower Eastwood and an uneasy age. Scorsese gives him a run for his money, but it’s the recent work that sticks in the mind. Like the Nobel committee sometimes does, I’ll end by going out on a limb: when taken together, Eastwood’s films from the last two decades suggest that he’s taken from Marty the mantle of Best Living American Director. Debate that.
[Caché trailer via heroxmasox/YouTube, photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics; Fat Girl photo via Glenn Kenny/Some Came Running; Mystic River trailer via inso99/YouTube.]