February 25, 2010
Certain trends emerge. The win in the costume category always goes to a period piece with gowns if there is one. The editing award more often than not goes to the nominee with the shortest average shot length. Sound editing/mixing goes to the loudest movie. And acting, well, it's quite well-documented that there are basically four types of wins: The Underdog/Cinderella Story/Comeback Actor, The Historical Figure/Biopic, The "So and So Doesn't Have an Oscar Yet? Let's Give Them One," and the Caricature (extreme physical transformation or a particularly histrionic role). If these are truly the people most informed about their craft, wouldn't they be the first to break these patterns and be vocal about the fact that those are not the only ways to excel in that field? Where are the costume designers standing up and saying that it's just as hard and creative to design costumes for The Devil Wears Prada or Milk as it is for Marie Antoinette? Or that in editing, sometimes the art is in having long shots? Cinematographers this year apparently don't even know the definition of cinematography - they nominated Avatar, of which more than half is completely animated and apparently the other half just looks lame (see my boyfriend's analysis of that weak move here).
And actors. Oh, actors. Acting is a very subjective thing to judge, don't get me wrong. But 20% of the Academy is comprised of actors, over 1000 people. And of them, how many have formal training? How many are actually huge movie lovers? How many are just paycheck actors, who discovered that people throw money at them when they grace a screen? The Academy doesn't disclose its full list of members, but from press releases of new members I can glean that their ranks include such names as Seth Rogen, Hugh Jackman, Paul Rudd, Jet Li, Jennifer Aniston, and Dakota Fanning. Now before you scream at me and start listing off great roles by these people, let me state that I find them all quite affable - hell, Paul Rudd is my number one celebrity crush - but they are not Brandos or Streeps. And for that matter, what does Streep know about acting? Not about doing it, which she's obviously very adept at, but judging it in someone else is really a different skill set. It's a similar story with directors - how many actually know what they're doing and can recognize talent in others? From the same press releases, I can see names like DJ Caruso, Peyton Reed, Peter Berg, David Frankel and Mark Waters, who work almost exclusively in the genres of generically lame action or romance movies that are ironically siphoning viewers away from Oscar-nominated fare. What do they know about the craft of directing?
This is my point. I feel that perhaps when people vote on their own kind like this, they're limited to viewing candidates through the prism of their own skills, weaknesses, and experience. Having a talent doesn't automatically make you able to recognize it in others. That's why I often find awards from critics' groups and hell, even the Golden Globes to be more dynamic, varied and well, accurate - because they come from people whose sole job description is to study and critique film. They're also distanced enough from the Hollywood game to not be swayed by its politics - how many people won't vote for James Cameron because they think he's a jerk, or will vote for Sandra Bullock because gosh, she's just such a nice person and she should just win by now? I don't mind the Oscars existing - it's fine to have an awards show voted on by your peers - but it seems strange and unqualified that it became the definitive award.
Also, actors and film people are some of the most absurdly busy people imaginable. They never have time to see all, or even half of the nominated films or performances. So we're asking the group least likely and able to see all these films to vote on them. And finally, having everyone vote for Best Picture? Most of the Academy works on such a small and focused sector of production that they may not be good at judging what makes a good film on the whole. Like, what qualifies a makeup artist to help select the best film of the year over someone in another creative field, like a graphic designer? I understand the mentality that if you get everyone together who is involved in making a movie and have them vote, you'll hear all the voices of production and have a well-rounded outcome. But does it actually work that way, or do you just get a lot of input from people limited to their own expertise? And did you know that PR people and other executives who cannot vote in any other category are allowed to vote for Best Picture? Um, conflict of interest much? Wouldn't they just vote for the films from their own studio so they get more money?
I still watch the Oscars with great interest and will continue to do so. While I don't whine and call the ceremony "just rich people congratulating themselves" as many do, I no longer consider them the last word, the authority in cinema. It's more of a bizarre sociological experiment, and I predict winners on my ballot by way of convoluted psychological explanations. The Academy Awards aren't concrete, they're symbolic. They're given for careers, personalities, or as a sign of the times. And rarely do I get really worked up about any one nominee, but this year that symbolic nature can be used for good in giving Kathryn Bigelow the statue for Best Director. It can kickstart the mountain of reparations that Hollywood owes women, and it couldn't be for a more deserving candidate.
What do you think? Is the Academy qualified enough to vote for itself?
February 20, 2010
So sometimes when film bloggers can't think of something to write about, they post a great movie clip. That's totally fine, but I often find that the clip is either too long, doesn't work out of context or spoils things in movies that are just worth seeing in full. Not wanting to be left out of a lazy but rewarding type of blogging, however, I've devised my own system: post musical numbers that are under five minutes long and can be enjoyed completely out of context. What better way to brighten your day, or take a study or work break? Some of these movies I will have seen, others I'll have just seen the clips. I call them context-free delights. Let's begin!
For the inaugural clip, I've chosen the "Steam Heat" number from The Pajama Game (1957), directed by Stanley Donen and choreographed by the inimitable Bob Fosse. While this is not necessary information, it's fun trivia: the redhead woman in the number is Carol Haney, who was in the original play on Broadway. When she fell ill at one point during the run, her understudy filled in, who happened to be Shirley MacLaine. Hal Wallis was in the audience and gave her a contract on the spot. If you want to see Haney's other talents besides inadvertently launching careers, enjoy the clip below.
February 19, 2010
February 17, 2010
As a kid, I didn't really care about movies - at least no more than other kids. I dug the classic Disney fare and such, but strangely, I was at no point in my childhood or adolescence exposed to the movies considered nostalgic staples of my generation. I'm talking Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, The Goonies, ET. I don't know how this happened. I don't take any personal responsibility (for that time) because those are the films that your parents or peers sit you down to watch. And they just didn't. The closest I came was sort-of watching Back to the Future II at a sleepover while drifting in and out of consciousness.
I think the first step to discovering greatness in cinema is discovering awfulness. I remember starting to think somewhere in the 11 or 12 year old range that some of the goofy comedies I was seeing with groups of friends were objectively bad. I didn't dare voice this out loud, of course.
But the movie that opened my eyes and changed everything was The Royal Tenenbaums.
Before that, it didn't occur to me that movies could have style. Movies were just vehicles for things happening and people doing things. They were a contained dojo where characters went to fight and fall in love. But the idea that some hand of God (the director, I later learned) could guide these proceedings and imbue them with a unique perspective? Revolutionary!
Watching it on DVD alone in the basement of my newly-divorced dad's house, age 15, I was entranced by the bizarre cast of characters with their strange affectations, interspersed with dead-on inserts of objects and people. It was like nothing I had ever seen. And yeah, I understand it's not exactly Eisenstein or Godard, but you gotta start somewhere.
When my dad casually asked what I thought of whatever that movie was that I watched, I literally lacked the vocabulary to describe it. I remember my reply very distinctly, for two reasons: 1) looking back, it was kind of silly and 2) my dad mocked me mercilessly for it (in a mean-spirited way). What I said was: "The cinematography was very...crisp."
Crisp. This was all I could muster to describe what I had witnessed. Sharp, dead-on shots...I mean, I suppose it's not a terrible description from someone who doesn't know any better.
A less influential but still memorable footnote in my cinephile development was when I discovered realism in filmmaking. This happened when I watched Soderbergh's Traffic, which I was forced to watch by my dad so I wouldn't do drugs. (Where the perceived risk was in a straight-A student with straitlaced friends, I don't know.) I remember being struck by the verite style, and delivering this rather poorly stated verdict after viewing: "For the part that was supposed to be rich soccer moms hanging out, it REALLY SEEMED like there were rich soccer moms hanging out." That's actually kind of a big revelation after you get used to the strange rules of the cinematic dojo, where you just accept that every kiss is accompanied by an orchestral swell and everyone is strangely articulate and on-the-nose.
From there my fate was set. I started to seek out indies voraciously. There were four major obstacles to that goal: 1) I lived in the suburbs and the closest remnant of culture was a mall and multiplex a 25-minute drive away 2) I didn't have a car 3) my parents were not remotely interested in any of these films or facilitating me seeing them and 4) neither were my friends. Thank God for DVD. I started watching now-forgotten indies like The Good Girl and Pumpkin, finding out about them from the newspaper. I was almost more open-minded then, because in my desire to devour as many indies as possible I was less snobby about how good they were rumored to be. It was okay as long as they were trying. My father responded to this newfound interest by saying things like "Oh, we'll be in here watching Armageddon, but you'll hate it because it's not artsy." This is a challenge I continue to face for my tastes. Now, however, I at least have a kindred spirit in my boyfriend, who not only is a fellow cinephile but also attributes his love of film to the first time he saw The Royal Tenenbaums. Awww.
So, what's your story? When did you realize / what made you realize the potential of film beyond the formulaic fare at the multiplex?
February 15, 2010
1. Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)
This was the performance that gave me the idea for the post. Seeing Peter Yates' long-lost treasure for the first time, I was stunned at the transformation Mitchum had made. A stock tough guy of 40s and 50s noirs, his trademark was his cool aloofness. He was hardly "method" by any means, and though he was always a magnetic screen presence you could never quite tell if he was playing detached or was just bored. As the title character in Eddie Coyle, however, he transmutes that into a totally naturalistic, world-weary character with a bit of warmth. Instead of playing a cool guy on top, he's now at the bottom being kicked around by life.
2. Shirley Temple in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)
Temple pretty much wrote the book on child stardom, being the top box-office draw for three years in the 30s. She started acting at age 5 and was essentially done at age 21. Most will always remember her as a bouncy little girl, but if you want a glimpse at what could have been if she stuck with Hollywood, check out this screwball comedy. As a lovelorn teenager, Temple demonstrates alarmingly good comedic timing and holds her own opposite Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. But then she simply had to go and help the world or something...lame.
3. Cary Grant in Charade (1963)
Cary Grant never truly stopped being Cary Grant - but there were a few different degrees. Take Classic Grant and subtract about 50% of the roguish flirtatiousness, because he's older now and that would be gross, and you get Older Grant. In earlier drafts of the screenplay, Grant's character was much more aggressive with Audrey Hepburn, so he only agreed to take the role if she was made to be the aggressive one. It worked. Grant still has every ounce of charm, just in a more refined way.
4. Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952)
The transition to sound ruined a lot of careers, but Chaplin's was not among them. He clung to silents well past their general extinction, but when he did give sound a whirl (or rather, dialogue - Modern Times was playing around with sound effects in 1936) with The Great Dictator, he proved to be every bit as effective. TGD still relied heavily on physical comedy, however, so the real surprise was his delicate acting style of the two films mentioned above. Hearing Chaplin speak seems almost blasphemous at first, but once you get used to it he appears to operating in a distinct British comedy style - think Oscar Wilde. In Verdoux he is the title character, a soft-spoken Bluebeard who marries and murders rich women for their money so he can support his "real" family. In Limelight, he goes self-reflexive to play an aging vaudeville star in a downright melodrama. The weariness of years of clowning hangs from his face, and his gives his ballerina protege sweet advice about life. You can't really say you know Chaplin until you've seen his later roles in addition to his manic early ones.
Faced with casting the role of Irene Hoffman, a woman who became infamously wrapped up in a case of "racial pollution" for having alleged relations with a Jew during WWII, someone thought to cast Judy Garland and that someone was brilliant. Known in the 40s for her super-bubbly, virginal roles in musicals, she packs a huge punch to the gut as an old, beaten-down woman who, though not Jewish herself, was another of the Holocaust's many victims. Acting-wise, this was probably much less of a stretch for Garland than her cheerful roles, due to her miserable, drug-addled personal life. Whatever the case, it's a knockout.
6. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Okay, admittedly I haven't seen Swanson in any of the films from her peak years in the silent era. But I don't have to in order to make my point - it's a simple fact that during these years, Swanson almost always played a sexy vamp. The profound inversion of her persona that results in Norma Desmond is one of the more genius moves in the history of cinema. Is she playing herself? Does Gloria Swanson really sit around all day and watch her old movies in a decaying mansion? Maybe! She was astoundingly prolific during the silent era, but struggled for roles afterwards. This movie could be a virtual documentary for all we really know.
7. Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Typical blustering and pathetic Jack Lemmon character + time = more blustering and pathetic. Where he was just kind of a pitiable nerd in The Apartment, by GGR the years added to his persona make him a full-fledged sad sack. Not that that's a bad thing - few do sad sack better than Lemmon. His performance punches your heart in the face.
What are your favorite post-prime performances?