The 2008 Academy Awards and Raymond Williams’ ‘Structure of Feeling’ of the Age

Curator's Note

All serious thinking about art must begin from the recognition of two apparently contradictory facts: that an important work is always, in an irreducible sense, individual; and yet that there are authentic communities of works of art…It is to explore this essential relationship that I use the term “structure of feeling.” (Raymond Williams, Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, 1969) I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. To go into something you don’t understand you would have to be crazy, or ‘become part of it.’ (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, No Country for Old Men) At the time of the announcement of the Academy Award nominations in January 2008 it was hard not to notice the dark themes in the pictures nominated for “Best Picture”: No Country for Old Men, Before The Devil Knows Your Dead, Into the Wild, There Will Be Blood, Charlie Wilson’s War, Atonement, and, of course, for a change of pace, Juno. Indeed, even key words in the titles of four of the five films nominated seemed to spell out a dark clue — “No/Country/Devil/Dead/Wild/Blood/War/Atonement.” What immediately came to mind was Raymond Williams’ observation that “the structure of feeling” of an age and is manifested in its works of art. What were these films manifesting? Each of the films raised serious questions about the nature of evil, how endemic it might be to “normal” institutions of business, law, war, and statecraft. All of these films, in one way or another, delivered the message that despite temporary or pyrrhic victories against it, this kind of evil may ultimately transcend, outlive, or overwhelm the individuals who take it on. But wasn’t this the same kind of moral ambivalence that had seeped into genre films during the Viet Nam war era, as Will Wright and others have noted? Are there others beside myself who sense in the irresolution, moral quandaries and perception of unstoppable evil in so many of the nominated films this year, the irresolution, moral quandaries, and perception of unstoppable evil that has characterized, for many of us, the years of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq?

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