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Just over a year ago, a handful of Swedish writers and academics gathered to begin the secretive process of selecting this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The group was tiny — there were only five full members — and its lack of diversity would have outraged the leaders of #OscarsSoWhite and Black Lives Matter: each of the participants was over age 50, each was white, each Scandinavian.
Among them were Per Wästberg, 82, a former editor-in-chief of Sweden’s biggest newspaper; Kjell Espmark, 86, a literary historian and professor at Stockholm University; and Horace Engdahl, 67, a critic and writer who once made waves by calling the U.S. “too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the center of the literary world.”
These were hardly populists, nor were they at the cutting edge of popular culture. But they were exceptionally influential at the heart of the 18-member Swedish Academy, the rarefied body that gets to decide who’ll snag the world’s top award for writing.
Despite their limitations of age and ethnicity, once they had done their work — culling the recommendations of some 600-700 writers and academics; narrowing the list to 15 or 20 names; and further reducing that pool to a final five on whom all 18 Academicians voted — they paved the way for a remarkable choice.
On Oct. 13, the Swedish Academy named Bob Dylan the winner of the Nobel Prize.
* * *
It’s been eleven days since then, and Dylan, 75, hasn’t said a word.
There is, of course, an irony to silence from a master of words, but Dylan’s failure to respond — he hasn’t answered repeated calls from the Nobel Foundation or given a clue as to whether he’ll attend the award ceremony in December — does seem a trifle bad-mannered.
If he doesn’t go, he won’t be the first to stay away. Jean-Paul Sartre famously declined to be there or receive the prize, because, he said: “[A] writer must … refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case.”
Albert Einstein avoided the award ceremony following his selection for the physics honor in 1922. He may have been miffed at being overlooked for too long, or irritated that he was cited for work he valued less than relativity. Perhaps he was just being prudent: his name had surfaced on a recent list of assassination targets. Regardless, he took the money and used it to pay his alimony.
Hitler forbade German scientists to accept their prizes, and Stalin forced Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak to pass up the honor — just as his fellow countryman, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, was compelled to turn it down by his Soviet overlords. (He accepted it many years later.)
There have been no-shows and there have been “No ways!” but, to the best of my knowledge, there’s never been no word from the winner.
A peeved Wästberg, who chaired the winnowing committee, went on television last week to call Dylan’s snub “impolite,” “arrogant” and “unprecedented.” This was hardly a jilted academic used to being treated with kid gloves: a longtime human rights activist, Wästberg was kicked out of South Africa for fighting apartheid. He understands disrespect on a visceral level.
By now he may be having second thoughts. Perhaps he’s begun to wonder whether the Academy should have chosen someone else — either Salman Rushdie or the Syrian poet Adunis, both reportedly among this year’s finalists.
More names keep bobbing up, always bridesmaids, never winners — from Philip Roth to Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood — who, when told that Dylan had won the prize, opened her eyes wide and asked, “For what?”
* * *
If the Academy should choose to rescind Dylan’s award (admittedly, that would be breaking the rules), I have a modest proposal: think of film.
When Alfred Nobel died in 1896, the planet was on the brink of a creative revolution that the inventor of dynamite couldn’t have envisioned. Motion pictures were about to replace the novel as the dominant narrative form of the coming century. Surely, if he had known, he would have included film in the category usually reserved for books, poems and plays.
This man of the 19th century died before the greatest artistic invention of the 20th. That doesn’t mean his foundation should be constricted 120 years later.
It’s been flexible before. When Winston Churchill received the Nobel Prize in 1953, it wasn’t for peace — it was for literature, and as much for his speeches as his voluminous The Second World War. The Nobel Committee cited “his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as [his] brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.
No film artist can rival Churchill in importance. But several are at least as talented as other recent Nobel laureates, who include writers Dario Fo (Accidental Death of an Anarchist), Mario Vargas Llosa (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter) and Doris Lessing (The Grass is Singing).
So who should get the award?
Before naming names, remember this: the recipient must be alive at the time it’s announced. That eliminates many movie masters — from Kubrick to Kurosawa, from Bergman to Bunuel. It squeezes the bubble of talent so tight it almost pops.
The most obvious contender is Steven Spielberg. When I first saw his films, back when his initial endeavors came out, I must admit they seemed more like commercial fodder than true works of art. Today, I look with wonder at a canon that runs the gamut from the past to the present to the future. He has more movies on the Library of Congress’ National Registry than any living filmmaker: Saving Private Ryan, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler’s List, Jaws and E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial.
It would be ironic if Spielberg’s financial success precluded him from artistic consideration (though it did for many years with the Motion Picture Academy), because several of his pictures are rightly considered classics. True, he didn’t reinvent the grammar of film, but few artists have deployed it to quite such dazzling effect.
For those less inclined toward populism, I’d suggest the 85-year-old Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, Pierrot le Fou).
I was thinking of Godard earlier this month after a screening of The French Connection with its director, William Friedkin, who reminisced about the days when American filmmakers would debate whether Godard or Fellini was the more important. That was before box office triumphed over art. Friedkin fell on the side of Godard, and I understand why. Without the French auteur, would we ever have had the jump-cut? Would the basic tools that influenced everything from MTV to The Fast and the Furious even have come into being?
What about some of the great Asian artists? It’s been a while since Zhang Yimou’s best films, but a body of work that includes Raise the Red Lantern and To Live deserves a mighty reckoning. Closer to home, what about Woody Allen (his early efforts, especially)? Or Quentin Tarantino (though one might argue that Pulp Fiction alone reaches a level of greatness)?
Martin Scorsese may have made a few clunkers (Kundun, Shutter Island), but it’s hard to overestimate him, or fail to acknowledge the dark vision behind Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas.
Then there’s Pedro Almodovar. The Spanish maestro’s latest work, Julieta, may not quite equal his masterworks, All About My Mother and Talk to Her, but few filmmakers have his originality and even fewer have intersected with their times as powerfully. This is the man who made LGBT themes central to his material, and who helped propel a nation out of the thick fog wafted its way by General Franco.
Julieta is a movie Dylan would appreciate. Its original title was Silence, which might draw a smile from an artist who never smiles at all.
I have no idea why the songwriter is staying silent. The only clue he’s given, according to The New York Times, came in his Las Vegas concert on the night the Nobel Prize was announced: It ended with Frank Sinatra’s “Why Try To Change Me Now?”
I wouldn’t want to change Dylan at all. But let’s change the rearguard thinking of the Swedish Academy. Film isn’t just the great art form of the 20th century; it’s the most passionate, vital, intellectual and emotional art form of the 21st.
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